Archive for June 2011

Apropos Harvest of Empire.

Apropos Harvest of Empire.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,

The revised edition of Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2011), eleven years after its first publication, is a good pretext for a re-assessment of the undeniable and unstoppable Latinization of the U.S. The past and  present: imperfect. The immediate future, substantially better, if not perfect, as a direct consequence of the upsurge of outcast sectors called “Hispanic” or “Latino” (González uses both terms interchangeably)?

The thesis of this good text by a respectable journalist is the demographic argument: the Latino explosion in the US –since the 1970s– is direct consequence of the interventionist policies of the US in Latin America:

“the US economic and political domination over Latin America has always been –and continues to be—the underlying reason for the massive Latino presence here. Quite simply, our vast Latino population is the unintended harvest of the U.S. empire” (xvii).

Now, if this language sounds occasionally Chomskian enough, not fully mainstream or “polite” in your conventional institutional life and the US media, González does not overload the dice. If “empire” is heavy and accusatory, Harvest of Empire remains largely descriptive and proper –not necessarily light– within euphemistic bounds of English-mostly language desirability and the free market and a final call for renewed multicultural commonality. Gonzalez’s devotion is on the deictic, the “here.” This is the pronominal choice, the “we” and “our nation” (American in the exclusionary sense of the US, with the awareness of Spanish-speaking difference and the historic discrimination). The most poignant pages are the two chapters dealing with Puerto Rico. Gonzalez’s fundamental message: the recognition of Hispanic / Latino communities inside the multiculturalist fabric of Americanness (I insist that America is mostly US in the conventional American English idiom, yet there is awareness of mutations of the US borders, of predations and incorporations, inside a larger hemispheric dimension also called “América”  [con tilde] in our journalist.

The message of greater intergration and renewed commonality sounds fair enough, does n’t it?, sounds bland enough. Look at your dollar coin: e pluribus unum. A general statement the euro does not make. Yet there are tensions in the US –as in Europe—around these unifications / differences by the time I write these pages already in the new century. The US situation is, at least according to Harvest of Empire, one of “empire strikes back,” the calibanes will hit the beaches, or even of blowback, there will be violence hitting back in response to the violence released on other nations. And there will be numerous challenges of self-configuration along the way, exacerbated by the real possibility of imperial decline. Will these transformations feel like something dreadful and unbearable? Will they instead feel like a theology of liberation? How to make them intelligible in current situations of severe institutional under-representation of such Hispanic / Latino sectors? Are departments of Hispanic Studies helping out? Harvest of Empire helps in providing some basic, ground-zero coverage of these big issues, at the street level so to speak. Once with the right information, we will see if we are ready for the emotional, institutional, intellectual consequences of such momentous demographic shift round the corner. Will health in big numbers become the sole hub around which the wheel of good fortune will turn?

This Penguin book is affordable, less-than-$20, street-level, no fancy, no frills, also no thrills, no big-brain advocacy of the outcast group to which Gonzalez belongs. There are three section in Harvest of Empire, conventionally enough called: Roots (Las Raíces), Branches (Las Ramas) and Harvest (La Cosecha), the floral metaphor and the biligual heading are unthreatening. Who does not like big trees in theory? And this is the national tree of the US and Gonzalez wants its strength, which he thinks is going to happen while acknowledging that a few bad behaviors will have to change along the way. Harvest of Empire is fundamentally an abridged history lesson of Latinos with a focus on recent mobilizations and the increasing impact at the level of direct political representatives. There is solidarity with such a group with vignettes of family history in the big city of New York. There is one brief epilogue with some suggestions for national policy that the author, a 64-year-old Puerto-Rico-born, New York-raised author deems essential. So there is nation and narration and ethnic self-promotion –in the good sense of the word—in relation to the biggest minority / diversity group, part and parcel of the history of the US, the nationality of our author. I do not doubt to call it a patriotic book, yet outside the aggressive orthodoxy that flares up often with many flags around. “Roots” is pre-20th century history, “Branches” is 20th century history, and “Harvest” is largely post-1950 situations and 21st century projections. Harvest of Empire remains firmly US-centric, for all the awareness of the Latin American latitude (the European dimension is thin, exclusively Spaniards in colonial times presented in a “neutral” light, Pérez de Villagrá for example, also to be explained soon). “Our” imperial nation, or federal-nation, is the thin red line to walk to reach to the “new story” of “our” country. The newness: the desire “to tear down some walls” (xxiv).

The rewrite emphasizes the marches in the streets and the increasing impact in US electoral politics. There is no consideration of “anti-systemic” musings on the part of one of the co-founder of the 1960s Young Lords. There are more and more Latinos participating, o.k., and where are they going in the bipartisan system? We’ll see. In any case, we will also see and how and if the system holds forth. The salient themes of Harvest of Empire: the genuine recognition of the Latino dimension historically embedded and already drastically changing the US, taking stock of the demographic growth, the language-and-culture issue in the vicinity of minority populations, the desire to terminate the colonial condition of Puerto Rico, etc. The epistemological dimension of these new Americans remains underdeveloped, with or without the predictable inclusion of a few names in tight two pages (the film Copacabana with Carmen Miranda and Groucho Marx is one of them). The language is serviceable with no flights or flourishes or generous “cultural cushion,” occasionally redolent of the ideology of development and of the Third World nomenclature that make the case clear that there are no geographies out there down there with little or nothing around the US other than maquila landscape, NAFTA devastation, and increasing migration to the US. I know it is not the intent of the author, but one wonders if bigger vistas to roads not leading to the US would have made clear that this imperious nationality, or any other, is not the only island of wisdom or maturity in the global-village times in which we live. My literary-criticism education cannot keep quiet about the general-public quality of Harvest of Empire, and perhaps one should always already apologize, or even keep quiet about the occasional thick brustroke of social issues, a bit too elementary and basic, journalistic by the bad name of journalistic, numbers-based, and media documentary in relation to current events and marches in the streets and how they will change US politics soon, o.k., a bit more of bite would have been more convincing. Perhaps a second volume of essays titled “Postimperial Latinizations”? Still, Harvest of Empire is nimble Picasso iconoclastic touch compared with the general desert –Baudrillard’s desert, mind you– of mainstream US media, with the occasional exception of Democracy Now, the independent media outlet, flask in the desert, with which González collaborates as side-kick, oftentimes Robin overtaking Batman, and this affiliation is –surprisingly?– not included in the biogrpahical profile of the book. Isn’t this the third, perhaps most lasting moment of glory, together with New York’s Daily News and the cofoundation of the 1960s Young Lords, underdeveloped features in Harvest of Empire.

The general impetus is healthy: no more “safaris” (xxii) of social mutations out there broadcast exclusively to an Anglo audience by talking heads with no foreign-language skills, no traceable passion, not having lived some of these minority / diversity events from within. The appeal to “lived experience” is obviously closer to identity politics than to Dilthey’s phenomenology. But as mentioned, Gonzalez consistently maintains a nice, measured touch always wanting to draw in the genuine curiosity of the general reader who wants to know what kind of species a Latino is, where do they come from, what is in the misnomer name America, are Latin Americans part of the West, and what harvest of what empire will bring what food to the dinner table during the national holidays. Such measured presentation is not as easy as it first appears. I personally find myself having much less patience in the university luxuriousness of languages, literatures and cultures with Spanish language nearby.

“Ours is not some armed reconquista seeking to throw out Anglo occupiers from sacred lands that were once Latino. It is a search for survival, for inclusion on an equal basis, nothing more. It is a search grounded in the belief that, five hundred years after the experiment began, we are all Americans of the New World, and our most dangerous enemies are not each other but the great wall of ignorance between us” (xxiv).

With some irony about the intellectualist prejudice that believes that ignorance is not sometimes willed: see how nice and moderate our author who bites a bit more occasionally in the already mentioned Democracy Now than he does in Harvest of Empire? A bit history lesson, and a bit more social documentary, another bit costumbrismo and quite a bit of advocacy and defense, with policy –and no politics—suggestions. The text is reader friendly only leaving out those who will never join in. Yet, the language is still significant in that the all- or pan-American inclusion maintains a Latino-and-Anglo divide inside a vast Western-hemisphere latitude of the term “América:” con tilde. It is a pity that there is no more of José Martí in the book than the initial quote. But the hint is there towards a greater, genuine appreciation of the Latino contribution. This gentle manner is commendable and speaks volume of the careful good-nature of the generation of Gonzalez (Richard Rodriguez and Linda Chavez, on the other side of the political spectrum, and the three of them without the tilde). And you will notice how Anglo monolinguals behave as though the tiny diacritic marker were of no importance, and that America in the English language and América in the Spanish language are exactly the same thing, and both misnomers, right?

“Roots” is by far the least interesting section, 60 pages in which four hundred years of history are conveniently packed for a one-hour airplane trip from New York to Cleveland, say. As the joke has it, this is American-appropriate history in the same way that Americans age their wine in the backseat of the car, while driving home from the supermarket. And I must blame the long years of honing my literary and historical sensibility for this obvious lack of respect when respect is due, probably, despite the gross alienation from diachronicity of timespaces that constitutes the average postmodern virtual life of your happy-go-lucky “native” in the US. Still, hold your horses, and keep your scholarly fastidiousness under the tight leash, our Gonzalez, with or without the tilde, is forcing his compatriots to consider five hundred of history. That is not bad at all when you consider that most of Gonzalez compatriots do not have a clue how the toponimic misnomer of America came into being, and how it translates into Spanish, and whether Reddish and Snowy and Arid Zone and Mountain and Flowery (Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and Florida) and the funny name of a fairy land, California, are not dwarves in the children’s literature but Anglicized hispanicisms of states in the most powerful country in the world that for some obscure reason were not changed into comic-book-or-cartoon-character names and there will be good historical reason. So, the gesture of the assimilated-by-force Puertorrican kid in the metropolitan city is –again— healthy and expansive: to look over the fence where his family is coming from and check out parallels and intersections between Anglo and Latin Americans, not typically broadcast intelligently and feelingly in your conventional media outlets.

As mentioned, four hundred years of history fit into fifty-five pages in the first section of the book. These are the roots. The second is 68 and the third is 145. It is not only length but engagement. The roots are a bit thin: a high-school-type summary of expeditions and early Iberian influences and early settlements in what today constitutes the US territory. We get to read a couple of pages on the toll of conquest, high, the role of the church, relevant, the role of race, the greater plasticity and mixture on the Latin side as opposed to the stark black-white system of racial classification (20), which remains registered in the language until this day. Chapter two takes care of US 19th century expansionism, the moment of national boundary formation and of the Monroe Doctrine. There is a section on filibusterism before it meant parliamentary obstructionism, always in this spirit of exploration and expansionism of a new world (35-8). Gonzalez’s tone is calibrated, the citations of old white supremacists speak volumes by themselves (George Caldwell, Josiah C. Nott, and Samuel George Morton, 43 & 208ff) in relation to the “Caucasians, the mixed-breeds and the dark-skinned Spaniards.” Of some interest will be the quick note about the American adoption of the vaquero culture and of the subsequent quintessential US symbol of the cowboy (44ff). Quick references are made to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier. What is made clear is the unstoppable growth of the new nation of the U.S. already with an unmistakable feeling of superiority towards the Latins. “The Spanish borderlands had been brought to their knees. The next century would reveal the price of that conquest” (57). And there will be another conquest: free trade (chapter 13). Again, the gesture is important: the summary provision of diachronic vistas for the greater impact of the immediate demographic shift. Around the emblematic date of 1898, the Caribbean changes hands and Gonzalez is most eloquent, I feel, about the case of Puerto Rico, a colonial schizophrenic condition of being US citizen (chapters 4 & 14). Woodrow Wilson is mentioned in relation to military interventions in Cuba defending Mario García Menocal and in the Dominican republic (65, 70). This is not the Wilson that Princeton neo-wilsonians such as Anne Marie Slaugter and G. John Ikenberry would like to see often strutting its stuff in broad daylight.

The second half, the Branches, is mostly an abridged history of migration into New York City. It includes the family history of Gonzalez, exemplary of the PuertoRican condition (de iure citizens, de facto foreigners, 81).  The branches are the main immigrant groups labeled Hispanic or Latinos: PuertoRicans, Mexicans, “core,” Cubans, “special migration,” Dominicans, and Central Americans “intervention comes home to roost,” and finally Colombians and Panamanians.

To me, the most interesting section by far is the third, Harvest, unintended, or unacknowledged or untapped social richness, covering 1950s until the rewrite of the new edition that just hit the bookstores. It can be called the dawn of Latino power inside American politics as currently constituted. The 64-year-old Gonzalez includes the following serviceable five decades of his immediate national history:

  • The Integration Period (1950-1964)
  • The Radical Nationalist Period (1965-1974)
  • The Voting Rights Period (1975-1984)
  • The Rainbow Period (1985-1994)
  • The Third Force Period (1995-present).

The movement is one of arrival and of increasing formation and importance from the figure of Juan Seguín, fellow fighter of Davy Crockett in the Alamo who fought the Mexicans and later became mayor of San Antonio. Gonzalez makes the connection with Henry Cisneros (there has to be some mixed feelings about this Latino genealogy that fights the foreign Mexican to become politically visible). Still, the “Latino,” a “new hybrid ethnic /racial pole in US politics,” is the third force (189) in between the rigid typology of white and black. There is no exploration of what that means ideologically in relation to the republican-democrat bipartisanship. Highlighting California, New York City and San Antonio, the upsurge is undeniable and one might as well ride the wave. But this is taking a bit at face value in Harvest of Empire. One can easily imagine other social groups resisting such transformation. Gonzalez does not dwell here. He is happy to remain at the representational level: Sotomayor is introduced as representative of the first Hispanic (“Nuyorican”) justice, same generation as Gonzalez (193). The Republican inroads into the Latino vote in the last 2010 election are referenced with the election of Susana Martinez, Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval. Gonzalez lists nine states with more than 40% minority population (Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, New York, Nevada, Mississippi). The rewrite here reads like summary news of the last four years.

Harvest of Empire reads accordingly like a mixture of a journalistic report with unveiled advocacy of the Hispanic / Latino group included. The argumentation: they are Americans and that they are many and they come here in big numbers due in part to US intervention over there and the true fabric of the US is multicultural. True enough. Is it a bit wanting? In other words, isn’t politics the (re-)articulation or (re-)definition of any social feature? Harvest of Empire stops at the representational stage, understandably so since we are at the early stages. Yet there is no intellectual impact of such big numbers. This is clearly seen in relation to the immigration policy dimension. Gonzalez’s emphasis is not subtle and perhaps it cannot be any different. His prose goes for the quantification of mass mobilization and marches (199). He provides tables of protests (202-3). There is no discussion of immigration options or groups. He downplays the difference among Hispanics in comparison to earlier migrations in their willingness and capacity to  assimilate. He has his own life to prove it and assimilation does not have to be a good or a dirty word. But, the modality of total, mono-lingual and anti-foreign-language assimilation with the de facto if not de iure final-solution to anything that may have preceded?, that would be another matter. But obviously there will be migrations and migrations and some are not equal to others. One can imagine the tremendous difficulties of low-wage, barely literate migration hitting the pavement of US social life and running with bare life in another language, the PuertoRican case of Gonzalez himself.  A big transformation is taking place: “[t]he long-held image of the United States as a nation of transplanted Europeans” (206) is being hybridized with other points of reference. I have written elsewhere that we live in decades of increasing de- Europeanization in the US. Latinization is one of the names of this increasingly mitigated Eurocentrism that still manages to find institutional fortresses of inherited privilege. The pro-immigrant stance of our author in the vicinity of lived experience is willing to provide a series of explicit declarations of discriminations against other immigrants (207ff). Anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, etc. Historicizing makes the convincing case of a recurrent anti-immigrant attitude and of progressive enlargements of what it means to be proper American. The year of the Breasted exploration in the middle East, the Wilsonian moment, the   Ku Klux Kan has 6 million members, Jim Crow Laws are enacted, it is the time of lynchings (209). Gonzalez cites explicit anti-Hispanic gestures (Richard Lamm, Alan Simpson, Pat Buchanan, Peter Brimelow, 209-210), against the catastrophic economic crisis in Latin America. The Latino immigration will continue largely filling in the shortage of young workers in the US in the decades to come, particularly unskilled jobs. It is happpening now at the low-wage, unskilled level. And it is hard enough. The real fight will be in the upswing, which is certain to come in one or two generations. It is politics 101 to demonize a demarcated social group and build coalitions against the scapegoat, particularly in moments of uncertainty and crisis.

Chapter twelve with the rather colorful title of “Speak Spanish, You’re in America!: El Huracán over Language and Culture.” It deals with the thorny issue of functional, sustainable bilingualism against the official legacy of enforced assimilation and what I have described as final solution that puts blank slate over American historicity. The chapter is a certain defense of the Spanish language under the multicultural flag and the claim that such is the most dignified history of the US. This certain defense is coming from one member of the same generation of Richard Rodriguez, Linda Chavez, also Sonia Sotomayor, effectively harvest of empire, irrespective of ideological positions vis-à-vis the US society where they have lived their entire lives (two republicans and two democrats, so to speak). Making it into a visible and respectable place in the US effectively means the relativization, if not the repudiation of Latin origins and of the “ossification” of the Spanish language inside which these four individuals were born (I am using clinical, linguistic terminology for a phenomenon that is vast and complex).

Now, the mere raising of the issue of the English-only American condition –with the automatic naturalization of diglossia– summons dark, rainy clouds over the supposed sunny picnic of the intolerant English monolingual condition of the American being. This piece of late Huntingtoniana is commonplace and there are many liberal variations. And it is easy to scratch the egg shell to see the ugly malformed chick that squeaks English-language supremacy. There is no need for the squeaking of the obvious, particularly since the middle of last century. But why the nervousness towards the meaningful cohabitation with the most spoken language in the Western hemisphere and already second-national language in the US? The Spanish-language-and-foreign-culture ghetto in institutions of higher learning is in general terms no point of pride. I have one too many anecdotes of liberal students calling stupid the mere possibility of bilingual discourse in front of a microphone of a college community or in a variety of courses and disciplines, in some cases after having returned from study-away endeavors in which they were helping the downtrodden black and poor in the Caribbean islands or Central American locations. Spanish over there is fine, I suppose, but not over here on theoretical equal terms in the houses of knowledge and coming out of figures of authority. Separate but equal, with a bit of food and music, and some literature and culture, but the vigorous mingling is beyond the pale according to an entrenched monolingualism that is the arrogant, and always  intellectually fragile, language of empire. Spanish is indeed unintended harvest of US empire, domestically.

This double consciousness in the vicinity of language-and-culture may appear a small thing, but it isn’t since many other social things come automatically attached. This is totem-and-taboo, still, in the US, in which the bilingual skill and the graceful, sustained, comparative and well-informed perambulation in a global geography is still seen with suspicion. Why does s/he feel the need to seek knowledge and beauty and books and food and sex and whatever outside the US borders? I call it the provincialism of Empire. So, here we have a grotesque-yet-naturalized frame of mind that asserts the commonality of the English language –anyone doubts that?—and the total, final solution of all other languages on the home front but also epistemologically on the world front in relation to the history of the world. The hostility towards any linguistic diversity is clear. And here we have the partial defense mounted by Gonzalez, who gives us a miniscule window into language learning in the US (228ff) with the particularly egregious situation of Puerto Rico, officially enforcing episodic English-only policies to a majority Spanish-speaking population. The smallness of the institutionality of multilingual humanities in colleges and universities makes perfect sense against the larger climate of hostility and ignorance (willed and unintentional) of American society at large putting itself always already as model to others. The gesture is that of a teenager thoroughly dismissing the lived experience of previous generations. And the truly fascinating issue is that of the functioning of language in postmodernist late capitalism filtered through the rhythms of consumer culture, computer networks, etc.

The language-and-culture chapter is ambivalent potpourri in between Arthur Schlesinger and Edwar Said (Gonzalez leaning on the latter), but without pushing the hot buttons of the general reader in relation to the dignified theme of near-total assimilation with recognition gestures towards multiculturalism (not an ugly word for our author). There is poor representation of Latinos on US television (barely 2%, 236). In film, the common representation is criminal, drug addict, welfare dependent. The chapter begins and closes with the English translation of six lines by Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá –with the appropriate tildes—the chronicler of the “first epic poem in US history,” Historia de la Nueva México (1610) in the Juan de Oñate expedition… I am surprised Gonzalez did not include the conventional beginning of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca exploring the Southwest… There is a reference to Felix Varela, the father of the Catholic press in the United States (238), to music and popular culture, etc.

The chapter closes with three pages titled “[B]ilingualism and the hunger to forget language.” Easy choice, you would think. But there is no verb, subjects or geography. Explicit reference to Richard Rodriguez in relation to a specific generation of Latinos coming of age during the Nixon years in the US? Gonzalez positions himself as “a consistent advocate of bilingual education… of the “transitional” model” (246, 247), and not of the “extreme form, the “maintenance model,” which seeks to maintain Spanish literacy often to the detriment of rapid English acquisition and thus leads to government-subsidized cultural enclaves.” I fail to see the extreme theory of the adjective clause that puts two majority languages necessarily in an antagonistic relationship (as though one leg could best do for the running in the race!). I don’t fail to see the naturalization of diglossia, also in our author, and he has sixty years to prove it, and the phenomenon of the amputation of the Spanish-language skills since early age (fierce US monolingualism comes to me with the image of amputated individuals rejecting the full-bodied limbs of others and the reminder of their amputations, and you only have to witness the American fragility in the encounter with its own historicity and with other varieties of the English language to confirm some of these impressions).

“Young Latinos who are raised in this country are proud of their English and often recoil with greater disgust than white students at the idea of having to study Spanish in high school. In a strange way, those Latino students have internalized the broader society’s scorn of Spanish, as if admitting that speaking a language different from the majority relegates you to a status of less than American” (248).

Gonzalez proposes: “we need a renewed emphasis on Spanish instruction among English-speaking Americans as part of a newfound appreciation for our own country’s multicultural roots.” Fair enough. A little bit, but not too much of it so that it does not reach epistemological levels of radical doubt. And how little is little. And how much is too much.

Harvest of Empire closes down with a depiction of the debacle of NAFTA bringing immiseration to both sides of the US-Mexico border. This “free trade” is the “final conquest of Latin America.” And free trade has to be in quotation marks: strategic deregulation of goods and peoples is implemented when convenient. When not, unacknowledged protectionism takes place. The good public-relations rubric remains “free trade.” And we are all free traders in the free market officially now. Gonzalez lists four stages: Panama and Puerto Rico (1947), Mexico’s border industrialization program (1965), The Caribbean Basin Initiative (1985) and Nafta (1994). This is the cognitive mapping of the Hispanic upsurge in the US (and one alternative title could have been Latinos, US children of late capitalism). These migrants occupy low-wage jobs as long as they exist. It is likely that offshoring and outsourcing will move them completely to non-American, non-Western-Hemisphere geographies. And avatars of Spanish language –following economic and sociological, and non-philological, non-cultural-studies, non-intellectual criteria—are obviously attached to the gravitational pull of 550-odd million inhabitants in Latin America already intersecting with the 288 million in the US, data as of 2005, 219). Gonzalez surveys the first experiments in Puerto Rico, labeled the richest colony in American history, and Panama, the rise of maquilas, the nightmare of the border, the caribbean backyard, and the reorderings of NAFTA. The account closes with the Latin American revolt against “free trade” and the pursuit of great Latin interdependence and non-American ties. In case you forgot, Gonzalez provides a table of ten presidents in “post-colonial” Latin America elected with left-wing coalitions (the other side, “post-imperial” Europe, electing conservative governments by the time I write these pages).

Gonzalez’s poignancy with the Puerto Rican situation speaks of psychological scars, psychology of dependence among subordinated communities and of schizophrenia. It is not a pretty picture. Moynihan spoke of same characterictics not hesitating to extrapolate them to American society at large at least during the Nixon years. Gonzalez takes however the Moynihan label of permanent “culture of poverty” and places the colonial condition of the island in the bull’s eye (287-92). There are biographical insinuations at work here, poignantly in a section titled “Have we ever amounted to anything?,” that echoes the previous chapter on language and culture. The Daily News journalist does not hesitate to advocate the non-colonial, separate-nation, also separate-state?, status for the island. But will David ever walk the talk –and do so bilingually– of wanting to break free from Goliath? Imagined community? Nation without a separate state? State within the federal-imperial nation? The theme is big and the two chapters in Harvest of Empire devoted to Puerto Rico are not enough. Gonzalez: “the obvious, that Puerto Rico is a distinct nation from the United States,” with half its original population in the big metropolis and half in the island, both sides in a dual condition of foreign-like citizen of second category with the feather on the cap of the Spanish language that Gonzalez defends (295ff). Vieques is here historic campaign (1999-2003) towards such goal of nationhood.

The brief epilogue compares the US and other nations (Chinese and Spanish). The Chinese “spent almost two thousand years perfecting their Great Wall.” The Spanish “endured eight centuries of foreign occupation before finally expelling the Moors.”And “the dazzling civilization of Teotihuacán flourished for seven centuries before suddenly disappearing, so the mere two centuries that have elapsed since the Americas broke free from European colonialism barely amount to a crawling stage on the road to nationhood” (307). The message for the US: no walls will do in relation to imperial / colonial legacies that put the Latin dimension firmly in the history of the United States. There is, if I may put it that way, a 1960s feel to this desire for nationhood (he included the periodization of the “Radical Nationalist Period (1965-1974)”), in relation to the US, and also in relation to Puerto Rico (one nation?, two nations?, one big nation with one sub-nation?, but the two dimensions are not truly comparable in size and impact). The Spanish distinct from the Moors is thoughtless sentence of a hasty pen that does not comply with the reading of Spain of Américo Castro still projected by academics such as Rosa Menocal (related to the Menocal defended by Wilson previously mentioned?). In hindsight, a funny first name of the noted historian! I have the strong feeling of some anachronistic back and forth of the category of “nation” in our Democracy Now journalist. I doubt that most Nuyoricans will go as far as to push for the separate nation-state (and philo-Huntingtonians will be horrified at their shameless display in the magnificent parade of 5th Avenue in New York every year!). Yet, the point is clear: the desirability of national amalgamation to do two things: to be true to the national roots so that the branches grow stronger and the harvest is plentiful. Does the agricultural metaphor work for our virtual times? The general reader will find it understandable enough.

Gonzalez would love to see “a policy of embracing the Latin American masses with whom U.S. history has always been so intertwined” (308). This is the good message of Harvest of Empire that finally reads much less Chomskian after all and more convivial and multicultural-tolerant. Following persuasive argumentation, Empire finally comes down the high horse and makes the cause of the hungry, tired and poor his cause. Likely? Let us note in the meantime the theoretical downsizing to the “policy” level of social relations. Gonzalez’s desire is desire for greater integration and this is imagined in ways that does not disrupt the big picture, or at least he does not develop a major disruption in these pages. Spanish, yes, a little bit without dreams of challenging English supremacy. The Latino impact, yes, yet always within the existing bipartisan political structure. In Baudrillarian language: America will remain being America with or without the Hispanic cannibalizing of the American spare parts of the car. Is it running? Harvest of Empire does not develop a radical critique along these lines. Critique of geopolitical imperatives, yes, particularly in the journalistic platform of Democracy Now previously mentioned, but this is an elite issue –elites run the political show so to speak– that does not quite connect firmly, at least notyet, with the Latinization of the US. We’ll have to wait and see how the cookie crumbles. And nobody’s perfect. In the meantime, the safest bet is to get close to numbers: Latinos are now 1 out of 10 Americans. They will be 1 out of 4 by 2050 and 1 out of 2 by 2100 (308). Will institutions enthusiastically follow suit accordingly? Science fiction films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, to name but one, give us the nightmare of an entrenched white society surrounded by oceans of brown bodies?

There are no guarantees of either direction. This is Gonzalez: “Profound change in our country’s ethnic make-up need not undermine its deepest-held beliefs.” Undeniable. I feel the journalist is biting his tongue a bit. Keeping it polite until the end. Still, the epilogue closes down with five essential changes to national policy, unlikely to be implemented, in his own words,  in our conservative times:

  1. End the predatory dual labor market in cheap Mexican labor.
  2. End the colonial status of Puerto Rico
  3. Recognize the rights of language minorities and promote the widespread study of Spanish
  4. Reinvest in US cities and public schools
  5. End US militarism in Latin America
  6. End the economic blockade of Cuba

Larger themes: labor, Puerto Rico, the Spanish language issue, urban and education re-investment, militarism self-control and the Cuba case. In other words, fair labor conditions, independence day for Puerto Rico, normalization of English / Spanish relations, urban reconstruction and public-education care, termination of US military interventions, only in Latin America, and incorporation of Cuba to “free trade.” Will the Hispanic upsurge push this cart of policy suggestions?

Gonzalez’s final words in Harvest of Empire:

“Only by taming the Market [thus the euphemism with capital letter, my note] can the people of the Americas, north and south, move beyond our ethnic, racial and linguistic divisions. Only then can we grasp our common humanity, realize our common dreams. America, after all, never did end at the Rio [no tilde] Grande” (311).

I do not wish in the slightest to mock the commonality of such “dream.” Not even the pulp-less American idiom of bridging social transcendence in the big trans-national or hemispheric dimension that however keeps the euphemisms in place. The “economic” adjective of the division is missing, while the taming refers to the overwhelming force in capital letters. It is –doubts anyone?– a humanistic desire for greater inclusion in the commons –don’t think Hardt and Negri here—that necessitates “policy” measures. The “us versus them” of politics only conveyed sparingly in Harvest of Empire and I have no doubts that Gonzalez understands American politics better than you and me. Will the making of a greater “Hispanic America,” or Latinization, merely move the posts of the old frames of intelligibility ever so slightly, or truly foster momentous transformations along these five suggestions and many others (post-Eurocentrism, or post-Occidentalism, post-imperialism, even post-capitalism)? Now, these are big “posts,” truly for any ehtnic/racial configuration in any one location, virtual or otherwise. But calls to this or that ethnic or racial group need big, international frames, otherwise what’s the point? The critical solidarity with Hispanic / Latino sectors is not in doubt in the vicinity of this general-public or reader-friendly account of the good journalist Gonzalez (how many American journalists write comparable books?). Perhaps he is a bit too patient, a bit too gentle?  The epistemological and intellectual, the political direction of such upsurge remains to be seen vigorously out there. I am impatient. And you?

Any comments, questions, issues for FGH? Get in touch,

Futility, light and heavy: Boris Mikhailov’s Case History & Francis Alÿs’s A Story of Deception.

Futility, light and heavy: Boris Mikhailov’s Case History & Francis Alÿs’s A Story of Deception.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,

You should not hesitate to give yourself some good art at the beginning of this summer season: Mikhailov and Alÿs. The former inhabits a ferocious photographic world of indecent human exposure; the second’s is a multi-form conceptualism with themes such as ephemerality and futility for example, with no dominant feeling of angst or anger, which is perhaps surprising. I would not hesitate to call his artistic intelligence light and playful, both adjectives in the good sense of the term, even with such “serious” themes. Yet, deception? By contrast, there is unavoidable heaviness in subject matter, and also heart, in Mikhailov, despite an attitude of nonchalance and no-surrender in the homeless figures captured by him. The Ukranian photographer stays off camera magnifying an ambiguous voyeurism, to say the least. Must faithful viewers abandon all hope with Case History? And do you wish to remain faithful to such devastation with no clear indications of authorial intent? On the other hand, Alÿs is performer in some of his pieces in the exhibition in semi-comedic situations. There is often some kind of frame, preparatory sketches, occasional off-voice narration and multi-media formats around performances that take place in several Latin American localities. The ace in the exhibition is the initial piece: Paradox and Praxis (sometimes doing something leads to nothing). I will call Alÿs neither hopeful nor hopeless with or without the quote by Samuel Beckett included prominently in conjunction with this initial piece. Accordingly, there is no easy interaction between these two very different artists, twenty-years apart, reaching us in the big city from Mexico City and from Post-Soviet Ukraine. Never mind: the elevators in the MOMA building will easily take you from the 3rd floor to the 6th in whatever order of preference. Fancy light first and heavy later? But you should do both.

Alÿs’s exhibition is the most solid of the two and Paradox and Praxis (sometimes doing something leads to nothing) is an engaging video recording of the artist pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City. There is no voice over. Only street background noise. Alÿs does not engage with spectators while pushing the block of ice with the whole body strength at first, and kicking it gently with the foot at the end until it vanishes in the dirty urban pavement. The quote by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better,” appears too somber in this context. The artist is seen at one point kicking the melting ice piece holding a cigarette in one of his hands.

There is a variation of the same situation: walking at good pace but with an open gun in one hand. The hand-held camera follows up from behind the male with the gun capturing the pedestrians’ facial expressions, whether they notice the weapon or not. There is a timer supposedly capturing how long it takes to stop the action. In real time, less than ten minutes: the video ends with a police car stopping and pressing the artist against the car and handcuffing him. BusterKeatonesque? The “ice piece” lasts approximately twenty minutes. There is no timer and no real time. Viewers see different moments of the disappearance of the iceblock until it is a pebble-size football for the artist to kick it in the pavement. How long must have taken for the something to lead to this nothing: half a day? A non-stop, solitary endeavor? The point, the exploration of nothingness? A gun. A block of ice. The suspension of cause-effect. Carrying an object around an urban space, one supposedly benign, the other, potentially lethal. Kicking it around to what purpose? Your imagination will kick around the possibilities.

Cuentos patrióticos is a third video with sheep circling around the mast in the main central square in Mexico city, the Zócalo. There is a reference to 1968 and how the bureaucrats were told to march in support of the government supposedly against their will and how some among them deliberately assumed the role of sheep, bleating included. There is a man following the sheep, a shepherd?, who circle and circle. The video is occasionally cut with the numbers of sheep dwindling… Mimicking of the sheep, hence act of rebelliousness or the opposite? Buñuelesque incapacity to break free? Calibanesque performativity that gains a modicum of symbolic space? Alÿs’s authorial intention is not forthcoming.

Rehearsal I (El ensayo I), 1999-2001, a “complete and recurrent farce” (farsa completa y cíclica) is probably the most elaborate of the pieces included in the exhibition. With a voice-over, we see what looks like a cabaret space during rehearsal time. On the small stage, there is a piano and two singers, a man and a woman, the man occasionally playing music in a standing piano from time to time while the woman signs classical music. Sharing the stage with these two figures, there is a third, an Asian woman, by herself, rehearsing a striptease. As the video progresses, she goes from fully dressed to complete nudity. She is talking in English to someone in the audience seat area, a manager?, an artistic director?, about how to best perform the striptease around a chair. The whole video lasts about thirty minutes in real time. The singers or musicians talk to each other and remain oblivious, or indifferent, to the third party on the stage. The three are apparently rehearsing for a show, the same show?, we will never know.  There is a matter-of-fact quality to this video as though there were cooking food in a kitchen away from the eyes of intruders. Candid camera, accordingly? Taping what is not supposed to be taped? The artist is not present and the voice over, I am assuming it is someone called Rafael Ortega included in the final credits. Ortega is the one who makes all sorts of connections between the poetics of rehearsal, the theoretical notion of political and social development included by Truman’s inaugural address of 1949, the structure of work vis-à-vis the temporality of music and the movements of the stripper. The voice-over is the one who makes the connection between the manipulation of the moment of culmination, the truth of the excitement and the desire for copulation and the horizon of modernity for a Latin America that once thought the ideal to follow was the one of development and catch-up with other more advanced societies.

Modernity is conceived in pornographic terms, accordingly, as a kind of visualization of what turns to be a permanent postponement (one may establish a connection with the famous scene in the famous novel Native Son by Richard Wright). Is the stripper the one practicing the art of deception as suggested in the title of the exhibition? Is this allegorical figure of Alÿs’s conceptual art? Ortega does not use the word allegory, but what is this generic stripper if not female abstraction and impersonation of historical forces being suspended in the formulation of the theory of development, now 40 years later after its original formulation? Again, it is not easy to see the artist’s intent: is he mocking the old trappings of the once venerable ideology of development? Is he developing instead a larger statement about art, his art, which appears a kind of performativity of the perpetual betrayal of culmination, among these possibilities, the spectators’ desire for clarification of what’s at stake?

It is difficult to pin down a dominant emotion in Alÿs’s work along the way. Do we emphatize, sympathize, calibrate intellectually the combinatory-game options? The voice-over makes a reference to “canción para lupita.” What song is this? Is the stripper a conventional Lupita? A conventional Lolita abusing the underdeveloped lust of the spectators in the real show? Is the striptease the real show? I could not identify any song with such title. Surely it will not be the Lunnis’s! Rehearsal I is also not Molotov’s Lupita song. The art of the 52-yearold Belgian residing in Mexico creates performance pieces around “unpleasant” concepts such as mass docility, devastation of former ideological holds, mockery of the culmination or futility and incongruity without ever going to the other side of indecency. There is discretion and beauty in the stripper who will remain nude for a sweet little time in the video making provocative gestures to no one in particular. “Natural” would be the wrong adjective to use in relation to this gentle kind of artistic conceptualism that firmly remains experimental, placing “culmination” in between quotation marks as mystery of another time and place. There is nothing apparent following the rehearsal. Accordingly, there is lightness of being artistic that is not unbearable, unlike Kundera’s famous novel. Does Alÿs ever go under the skin? Does this art ever want to? There is playfulness: combinatory games with the theoretical juxtaposition of words and images caught in between the volatility of cause and effect with no unequivocal identification with the subjects participating in the performances. Another Sysyphian, repetitious piece: the famous “vocho,” the green-and-white Volkswagen Mexican beetle taxi, going up a little hill in a semi-urban area of outskirt dirt, to the hardware-festive sound of a marching band only to stop near the top, while the music stops too. The car and the music, where are the musicians? The car slides down the hill, only to repeat the operation of futility up and down again, up and down again. The legend connects the pinnacle with progress and modernization. Ever elusive? Ever deceptive? Who is the driver? The car, the Latin American dimension? Baudrillard spoke of Hispanics cannibalizing the spare parts of the American car: ever so thoroughly to the point that America is not America? Whole-heart festivity is here out of the question. It is more Cantinflanesque. Yet, the lightness of touch, particularly in the music and the clumsy car maneuvers in the dirt of the hill, conveys as though at least some healthy critical distance had been achieved from former ideological entrapments. The feeling is one of: No more of this deception! Let us go to the next one!

It is easier to go from the work of the 52-yearold Belgian to the work of the 73-year-old Ukranian, I find, introduced as one of the leading photographers from the Soviet Union, than the other way around, which is not what I originally did. The Mikhailov exhibition includes 19 ever-so-disturbing images of bomzhes (homeless) from the city of Kharkov. There is some theatricality in the poses of the subjects, one is holding an axe in military jacket with no shirt, another a dangling fish, another is offering a cup, others are holding a shirtless young man looking dazed, Mikhailov is holding these photographs to the viewers us and the incongruity of the gestures is thus doubled. What is it that they want? There is paucity of language in the original work but also in the exhibition. There is no apparent point of reference or frame. There is mention of bare post-Soviet living condition, which surely the ignorance of conventional America will come to expect. But this photography is closer to inhuman or subhuman dimensions holding on and forth. I do not see Mikhailov photographing political ideology. These are not allegorical figures. They appear to signify nothing more nor less than a damaged life, bare living. What they are holding in the hands for you to see is bare living. This is what Mikhailov wants you to see. And it is far from pretty.

Sometimes there is a funny gesture as if the subjects behind the camera –sub-subjects?—were in the joke with the invisible photographer: women displaying their sagging breasts and raising their shirts to show pubic hair, men holding and pinching the erogenous areas of these old women, a reclining woman naked in the bed, another puffing away from a cigarette with the face badly beat-up and the skull bandaged lying on a colorful blanket as though in a picnic in the wild forest. The interiors are dreary. The exteriors are desolate. The shots are medium range. The degradation of the aged human figure is the theme of Case History with no distractions. This is no picnic, the discreet black humor must be fuel for survival. And in the name of what in such devastation? Tautology: survival for survival’s sake. Utopia, destitute bodies huddling for warmth (Jameson’s arresting definition). There is some: two women, close-range, half-size, looking at each in the eye at breath’s distance with the deadpan expression, or mockery feel of a film romance?, heads covered in bandanas, one of them in a white bra, swollen stomach and a long scar or a cut… Another character displaying the rash in the buttocks. Want more? Yes, abjection. Mikhailov inappropriately displays the pars pudenda of the bomzhes to the artistic appreciation of you and me. Is this too foreign? Do you want to keep looking?

Mikhailov’s photography beckons the attentive viewer beyond easy shock in ways that are not easy to handle and in this regard I fully share the respect granted to him by Ken Johnson. I did not feel that the exhibition did justice to the work and the artist. There were 19 –odd number—big, poster-size, basketball-player-size, reproductions of the photography included in the massive volume titled Case History. The gesture is deliberate in its monumentality. I wonder if it is the right thing to do. I would think a more average book size per photograph and a greater selection of photographs in discreet frames might have been more successful. Here, to monumentalize what exactly: the photographer, the subject matter, the shock effect? The curatorial effort is discreet despite the first-time presentation of Mikhailov’s seminal 1997-8 work in an American museum. One of the leading photographers from the Soviet Union got one gallery room on the 3rd floor. The writing, genuinely unilluminating:


“The mannered posing of Mikhailov’s subjects exposes the constructed nature of the pictures challenging the objectivity and authenticity implied by documentary photography. With these images, Mikhailov implicates himself –and viewers—in the voyeuristic act of looking.”

Construction qua doubts about the the assumption of objectivity and authenticity of documentary photography in the early 21st century: duh!, and you may raise your hand if you endorse the naive banality! I don’t know if mannered is here the best adjective. The curatorial prose is what is mannered, a bit like the sun shines at noon and the moon at midnight, and yes, there is something contrived and calibrated in ways that send object and subject of visual knowledge to the evaluative or axiological vacuum of the act of voyeurism that includes you and me. Such lines say accordingly nothing not in a beautiful, engaging manner in relation to a harsh, harrowing photography that takes away all sandbags from all corners of a devastating imagination of social relations that cannot be circumscribed to the foreign city of Kharkov in Ukraine (by contrast, Johnson goes for some transcendental sandbag in his good article review). I insist that it is not easy to see –and say—what the pursuit of such exposure is. And yes, there is some staging that I –for one– do not quite know how to pin down either. There is theatricality in body gesture, in-the-joke look at the camera lens on the part of some of these subjects (or sub-subjects), there is deadpan look, there is impassivity. Self-mockery? These sub-subjects do not want your empathy or your sympathy. They have nothing to lose they have not already lost. Case History is all about a loss that appears near total and yet there is photographic affirmation of this holding on to this loss.

The post-Soviet frame of reference, while accurate, is not developed, which is a pity. My feeling is that the Ukrainian photographer is not interested in making an overt political statement. And I recall how he had to smuggle his photography not to the delight of the authorities under Communist rule. There is something of a human-nature statement that repudiates humanitarianism and humanism. There is no depravation. But there is no nursing of the wounds of the sick and demented either. The emaciated, aged, tattooed, inebriated, beat-up subject displays weird gestures, in-your-face “what’s up?,” rash, scars, sagging breasts, pubic hair, etc. This is an obscene display to be sure, and one wonders if it would be appropriate to repeat back the same gesture of nonchalance.

Does Mikhailov want to scandalize those oh-so firm in their proper (artistic) behavior? I don’t think this is the issue either and I remain receptive to being corrected in relation to any of these previous perceptions. My acquaintance with this uncompromising photography is six or seven years old. I even purchased the expensive book item of Case History, which remains in its totality a truly harsh and brutal adventure, and Salt Lake [Deluxe Edition, Harcover], which remains my favorite. There were none of these photos in this exhibition and the day these are exhibited they will be a big hit. I still remember fondly these bathers in polluting waters, sunbathing amid debris and derelict factories (imagine grotesque variations side by side Cartier-Bresson famous and more genteel picnicking bathers!). There is indelible irony in the international manufacture of these expensive photographic books dealing with states of social, mental and physical degradation now officially magnified at MOMA for the discomfort of art-lovers and tourists. Human horror show in postmodernist late-capitalism now in open crisis?

The mind will search for the apparent point in the Case History selections here since there is no easy point in the complete work either. No apparent denunciation in this visual enunciation with no great concern for range, frame or composition. The winter snow of human degradation? The devastation of human endeavors –bodies scarred, bruised, of fixed and absent gaze, rashes, swellings, bent out of shape, deformed– with no redeeming features. There is no shadow of an insinuation of a possibility of salvation here. No utopia of a shelter. No tenderness in the camera, but perhaps rarely in the gaze of the subjects (or better sub-subjects) not with the viewers, but with each other. Perhaps, there is complicity among these bomzhes with the photographer, another bomzhe?, passing as one?, who is never in the shot. There is an outside viewpoint accordingly that engages the bomzhes fundamentally at their level. There is a gesture of proximity in Mikhailov’s photography. He appears to be saying:  “I am not that far away from you, in your sickness, your vulgarity, your fragility, your resilience…” I fail to see an imaginary place to rest. These “sub-subjects” left all loftier considerations a long time ago. Did they ever have any? Does Mikhailov have any? Are we supposed to join them there?

I find myself wanting company and I find it in the good article by Ken Johnson, “Behold the Anonymous Downtrodden” (New York Times, June 3, 2011).

“To feel ambivalent about all this is part of the deal. There is a troubling asymmetry between the photographer and his subjects and between the abjection the photographs reveal and the comfortable situation in which we view them as works of art. Mr. Mikhailov is not your usual hit-and-run photojournalist out for the hot image, but his photographs nevertheless objectify their subjects and make them seem, if not less than human, then at least not like us. Yet he restores to them a certain vital agency that life has denied them.”

If not like us, at least he is bringing such abjection to us. The maintenance of this emotional and intellectual ambivalence is, I find, crucial, to this deeply unnerving work in and about abjection not for every collective occasion. Mikhailov lingers there in its vitality, also in the very denial of a way out of it. This photography interpellates us accordingly:

“What does it mean to present images like these as art in a museum? In one respect, they carry on a tradition of picturing the downtrodden exemplified in photographs by countless artists from Walker Evans to Andrés Serrano… Mr. Mikhailov’s photographs are not so ennobling…. They elicit sympathy, revulsion or amazement, but not admiration or empathy.”

I agree. There is no patronizing fellowship with these outcasts. They are too damaged and we lack intellectual frame of cognition or intelligibility –the victims of Soviet experimentation? The new victims of fierce capitalism? Our sentimental education lacks the agility, the grit, the nerve, to deal genuinely with the subject matter. But what would genuinely mean here, aesthetically?

I disagree however with Ken Johnson’s allegorical characterization of these actors. I find ifar-fetched that “by invoking this [underground] background, Mr. Mikhailov implicitly, perhaps unconsciously, makes himself into a kind of modern Christ figure wielding photography as a scourge for the powerful and a tool of salvation of the powerless.”

I think Johnson’s photographic imagination wants a way out. My imagination is not necessarily stronger and it is perhaps my failure not to see such transcendentalism –I might want to see something like that undoubtedly in non-aesthetic situations, in moments of existential vertigo and genuine vital disorientation. But in good faith, this is not Mikhailov’s vision. At the end of Johnson article, this is:

“Yet I can’t deny the dramatic ferocity of the images, the aliveness of the people in them and the righteous indignation of the artist. I am reminded of Lars von Trier’s cinematic outrages. I am torn by ambivalence, and that, I think, is a good thing.”

I agree. There is indignation, torn ambivalence, the gesture almost punk of I don’t care, certainly in the faces of most of the sub-subjects, and perhaps even in the photographer, and the good, desirable thing at least aesthetically is the raw, outrageous photography display at being alive incongruously no matter what.

Francis Alÿs’s A Story of Deception is superficial in the good, intellectual sense of superficial, that is of being concerned with surfaces, and conceptual interplay and with multimedia platforms; hence, this art is lighter, more detached, never visceral, not really deceptive and certainly healthier than Boris Mikhailov’s Case History, even in relation to this modest exhibition with pusillanimous curatorial touch, perhaps preamble to something bigger to come to town soon. Mikhailov’s photographic output is by marked contrast much more limited in format, theme and narrow in focus and certainly heavy on the unpleasant side, harrowing and surely cuts deeper in the bone and flesh of the visual imagination.