Reflections on Citizenship, Latin American Identities and Decolonization

Over the course of my research project this past year I’ve encountered numerous, engaging and at times difficult discussions on identity, race and decolonization across Latin American community organizing spaces. I hear youth asking, who are we? What do we call ourselves? What does it mean to be Black, Indigenous and Latin American in this place? This place, that is Toronto and settler colonial Canada. This kind of questioning was especially seen in the debates surrounding Bill 28 – An Act to proclaim the month of October as Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) in Ontario – passed last spring of 2015. In my project, I show how the kinds of discourses mobilized around this cultural celebration provide a telling example of how racialized migrant communities can reinforce and disrupt colonial relationships through particular citizenship and identity-building practices.

Sunera Thobani (2007) argues that in the context of a white settler state like Canada, citizenship works to negate Indigenous sovereignty, while denying people of colour membership and exalting whiteness “as embodiment of legitimate and responsible citizenship” (p.75). So, at the same time people of colour are denied full membership in Canadian society, they are implicated in ongoing settler colonialism. This can especially be seen when racialized migrant communities strive for equal status with white settlers using the framework of multiculturalism, which does not account for historical and ongoing power differences between white settlers, people of colour and Indigenous peoples. This can also be seen through the use of self-indigenizing narratives centered around a hard work ethic that merits occupying the land, which is similar to how European settlers asserted their right to the land during early settlement (Phung, 2011).

Yet, can people of colour refuse pursuing this kind of citizenship and work towards decolonization? And by decolonization I mean not only disrupting colonial narratives, but as Tuck & Yang (2012) remind us, the repatriation of land. And how would this even work or look like among racialized migrant communities and diasporic groups who are colonized peoples themselves? This tension is especially apparent in the case of the Latin American diaspora in Toronto.

Latin American Identities and Community Organizing in Toronto

I use the terms ‘Latin American’ or ‘Latin American diaspora’ to refer to peoples that trace their roots to the geographical region of Latin America, which encompasses Mexico, the Caribbean, South and Central America. It is important to highlight that the label Latin American, unlike Hispanic, is not predicated on Spanish language or heritage, despite its dominance across the region. This is because across Latin America there are numerous Indigenous languages and cultures, Black diasporas, Afro-Indigenous communities, and with the influx of migrants from the Middle East and Asia, many people within this region do not identify solely with Spanish ancestry if at all. Furthermore, it is important to note that the term Latin America(n) has also been critiqued because it still a product of colonialism, and people are increasingly taking up the term Abya Yala(n).

Latin American or Latinx identities are also immensely complex as Urrieta (2012) says:

“Latinos inherit painful identity amalgamations from indigenous, European, and African worlds joined into intricate social arrangements,” further complicated by transnational processes and U.S imperialism (p.322).

This points to how the legacy of mestizaje that emerged from Spanish colonialism which privileged whiteness – is still so heavily engrained and continues to influence identity formation and social relationships in countries like Canada.

The Latin American diaspora is relatively new in the history of Canadian settlement and immigration, but has a strong history of community activism starting in the 1970s. However, over the last twenty years due to neoliberal restructuring, many Latin American organizations have shifted from grassroots, social justice organizing to service provision and showcasing culture in line with Canadian multiculturalism. For more information, see Landolt, Goldring & Bernhard (2011) and Veronis (2006).

This shift in politics privileging the promotion of multiculturalism, set the stage for the controversy surrounding Hispanic Heritage Month, where public representatives, community organizations and individuals had vastly different ideas around Bill 28, with many questioning whether to hold this cultural celebration at all.

 

Unpacking Bill 28: The Hispanic Heritage Month Act in Ontario

Bill 28 was introduced with the support of leaders from a number of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking identified non-profit organizations, as well as Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs). The narratives mobilized to justify this Bill by MPPs appear to construct Hispanic-Canadians as business savvy, hard-working, law-abiding and family-oriented subjects, which parallels self-indigenizing narratives European settlers used. Furthermore, Hispanic culture is positioned as up for consumption and only of value to further the ends of the Canadian state. This can be seen in MPP Martow’s statement:

“We’re also blessed to have a variety of delightful events that detail the rich culture of Hispanic people. This summer, the sensual sounds of bachata, merengue and reggaeton, as well as the sizzling scent of churros—I think I’m saying that right; I hope so—will fill Mel Lastman Square and dazzle visitors and tourists alike” (Ontario Legislative Assembly. Record of Proceedings, April 30, 2015, p.3948).

During a community meeting called on July 27th, 2015, people raised concerns around not only the naming of this month, but the purpose. Some expressed that this was a tokenistic gesture that would not address social and economic challenges Latin American migrants faced in Canada. Notions of mestizaje and settler colonialism were also used to justify the use of the Hispanic label and reject suggestions to change the name to ‘Latin American History Month’ to move away from a Eurocentric identity. For example, one public figure stated that the name could not be changed because the term Latin American would include Brazil and Haiti and they are “different from us.” Another attendee stated that because the Spanish “mixed in” with the Indigenous population in Latin America it was not as violent or like here in Canada where the “Indigenous peoples have disappeared.”

 

Imagining and Creating Alternative Citizenship

There was strong opposition to these statements and actions, sparked by a change.org petition launched by Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, an Afro-Latina community activist in late August 2015. Shortly after, the Latin America History Collective (LAHC) was formed by community organizers of the Latin American Education Network (LAEN), MUJER and the Latin American & Caribbean Solidarity Network (LACSN), as well as non-affiliated community members to not only oppose this month but demand greater dialogue, accountability and transparency from non-profit organizations and government.

LAHC’s list of demands shows a series of complex negotiations between the non-profit sector and state structures, as well as a refusal to buy into settler colonialism as good ‘Hispanic-Canadian’ subjects. With demands focusing on the state or non-profit sector alone, it would appear that LAHC is solely attempting to work within these structures. However, efforts are being made to change the politics of this cultural month so that it focuses on principles of social justice, decolonization and Indigenous resistance not only in Latin America, but across the Americas, including Canada. In this way, LAHC tries to circumvent replicating an apolitical cultural celebration that neatly falls into Canadian multiculturalism.

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The Latin-America History Collective’s Day of Truth Rally on October 12th, 2015 in front of Queen’s Park, Toronto, Ontario

LAHC’s rally held on October 12th, further demonstrates how alternative citizenship and identity practices can be imagined and created. Throughout the rally, people spoke of their experiences as Indigenous, Afro-Latinx, migrant and racialized first and second-generation Latin American peoples; as well as the insidiousness of internalized racism and historical amnesia. Participants also spoke of the contradictions of living in Canada as racialized migrants while Canadian policies continue to destroy the livelihoods of their communities in Latin America, and the ways of life of Indigenous people here. This can be seen in the following quotation:

“But it’s not just Latin America that we need to defend or at least we need to ally ourselves with the struggles of Indigenous peoples of this territory that we step on, the Indigenous peoples here suffer, how is it possible that in a first world country there is no clean water for thousands of Indigenous families, how is that possible? I just wanted to bring up this topic so that we can strive to forward struggles of justice, for the reunification of Latin America, the Indigenous communities including ones here and have solidarity with other communities across the world, wherever possible. We are in a country that has opened its doors to us and we have come to work, to study, to open up opportunities, but injustice is everywhere and where we find injustice we need to confront it” (Community member speaking at rally, October 12, 2015, translated from Spanish).

Although it is noted that Latin American migrants come to Canada in search of a better life, this does not excuse them from being complicit in the injustices committed by the state. Therefore, Latin Americans are called on to refuse buying into the ‘benevolent’ settler state, and instead look towards Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization in order to achieve justice both in Latin America and Canada.

In conclusion, the different narratives mobilized by LAHC and rally participants, I consider enactments of alternative citizenship, but are also only starting points for how racialized migrant communities can work towards decolonization. Rally participants still only speak of building alliances and solidarity with Indigenous peoples, this is work that still needs to be done by the collective itself, although some individual members are doing this through other avenues. As Tuck & Yang (2012) state, decolonization is not a metaphor and within the context of settler colonialism, it involves the repatriation of land, not just symbolically but materially. However, I still believe it is moments like this that point us in a decolonial direction.

 

References

Bannerji, H. (2000). The Dark Side of the Nation Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars Press.

Landolt, P., Goldring, L. & Bernhard, J.K. (2011). Agenda setting and immigrant politics: The case of Latin Americans in Toronto. American Behavioral Scientist, 55(9), 1235-1266.

Ontario Legislative Assembly. (2015). Record of proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/bills/bills_detail.do?locale=en&BillID=3054&detailPage=bills_detail_debates

Phung, M. (2011). Are people of colour settlers too? In A. Mathur, J. Dewar, & M. DeGagne (Eds.), Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the lens of diversity (pp. 289-298). Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Thobani, S. (2007). Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1). Retrieved from http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630

Urrieta, L. (2012). Las identidades tambien lloran, identities also cry: exploring the human side of indigenous Latina/o identities. In Comparative Indigeneities of the Américas: Toward a Hemispheric Approach (pp. 53-56). Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press.

Veronis, L. (2006). The Canadian Hispanic Day Parade, or How Latin American Immigrants Practise (Sub)Urban Citizenship in Toronto. Environment and Planning A, 38(9), 1653–1671. http://doi.org/10.1068/a37413

 

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