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Speakers challenge concept
of single identity for Latino communities
(April 12, 1999)

Does a common language mean a common identity? Do people who come from similar geographical backgrounds belong together? Can there be unity in diversity? These were some of the questions addressed in the opening symposium of Latino Awareness Month, held at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center April 1.

The symposium also recognized the 30th anniversary of Latino studies at the University.

The symposium,"Sources of Unity and Disunity Among Latinos: Class, Race, Nationality, Immigration," brought together three scholars of comparative Latino studies to explore the theme of the month, "Understanding Our Future, Reflecting on Our Past."

In a presentation titled "Puerto-Rican and (Other) Latinos: Life Off the Hyphen," Juan Flores challenged the concept of a single "Latino"/"Hispanic" identity. He said that such definitions mask differences in the historical, political, economic and social histories of people who are grouped together.

For example, the presence of Puerto Ricans in the United States is a result of a history of conquest and domination. The meaning of a "hyphenated" identity is not the same to them as to immigrants who come from other backgrounds and circumstances, he said.

Flores, a professor of black and Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College, and of sociology at the City

University of New York Graduate School, said that it is important to foster unity among "Latino" peoples. But "in order to have unity, you need to first understand the divisions" created by class position, cultural capital, relationship to race and racism, and historical relationship to the United States, he said.

Leticia Garza-Falcon, director of the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies and assistant professor of English at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, discussed issues of identity in terms of what she called "a rhetoric of dominance."

She said that mainstream historians have constructed a history of the Southwest that has obliterated the struggles and aspirations of subjugated peoples such as Mexicans. Such narratives have encouraged us to deny our own identities, she added.

Garza-Falcon said that it is important to examine alternative narratives by Texan-Mexican writers, especially women writers whose voices have until now been silenced, in order to understand "who we are, how we got to be here, and what our struggles are all about."

Born "with one foot on each side of the political border between Mexico and the United States," Carlos Velez-Ibanez told the audience that "the border crossed us and we crossed the border."

He said that although there were periodic creations of an "official" border between Mexico and the United States in the mid-19th century, the movement of peoples and ideas north from Meso America has a long history that goes back to about 300 A.D.

Velez-Ibanez, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, said that questions of identity need to be understood in terms of the cultural dynamics of Mexican migration to the southwestern United States.

The social networks and relations established in "transborder" households create identities that are much more complex than the stereotypical images portrayed in society, he said.

Velez-Ibanez added that we need to challenge the "commodification" of identity, whereby people who are different are "appropriated to become the same."

The symposium was cosponsored by the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Institute, the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center, and the Office of the Chancellor and Provost.

Sonali Arseculeratne