Their America, Our América and Our Responsibility as Latina/o Scholars

Posted by NILP
By Arturo Madrid (November 18, 2012)

Note: This is the Keynote Address delivered on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of The Biennial Conference of the Puerto Rican Studies Association, University of Albany, Albany, NY. October 25, 2012

In 1967, at the height of the debate over the war against Vietnam, the renowned linguist and MIT Professor, Noam Chomsky, took the apologists for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia to task in an essay titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” In his compelling essay Chomsky echoed and cited Dwight McDonald, a public intellectual of an earlier generation, who in 1944 published an equally powerful critique of U.S. policy in the Second World War, titled The Responsibility of Peoples: An Essay on War Guilt.

“The responsibilities of intellectuals,” Chomsky wrote in 1967, “are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the ‘responsibility of people,’ given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.” “It is the responsibility of intellectuals,” he stated in his essay, “to speak the truth and to expose lies.” McDonald and Chomsky were concerned with the issue of responsibility vis-a-vis the policies and practices of waging war.

The issues facing Latino academic and public intellectuals today, although perhaps less compelling and world-shaking than those of McDonald and Chomsky, are no less fundamental or significant. They include the question of our place in this society; of how we are imagined within it; andof the role we students of the historical experience and current circumstances of our various communities might play in the evolution of American society. These matters have major implications for the United States, and by extension for our hemisphere and larger world.

We find ourselves, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, deeply engaged in a battle over whose vision of society will prevail: a society defined by exclusivity or one that advocates inclusivity; a society that privileges individuality or one that values community; a society that protects advantage or one that promotes opportunity; a society marked by intolerance or one characterized by tolerance; a society that continues to judge people by the color of their skin, their cultural background, their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or one that prizes them for their character.

The referent of “their America” in the title of this essay are those persons and groups who seek to maintain their historical hegemony, who believe they have the authority to define “American” values, who believe that “their American” interests trump all others, who pretend to determine who belongs and who does not, and who will go to extraordinary lengths to exclude those so deemed from being part of “their America” in the name of those supposed values or characteristics.

The various Latino communities are at the center of this struggle over who belongs, and not simply because of our growing numbers but also because of the complexity of our biological, cultural, economic, political and social makeup. We do not fit the neatly into those racial or religious or relational categories that have historically facilitated exclusion. Notwithstanding our diverse national and cultural origins, we have been constructed as a homogeneous population. Despite our different histories we are characterized as recent arrivals and undocumented immigrants. In spite of evidence to the contrary we are imagined as monolingual in Spanish and resistant to learning English; incapable of and antagonistic to learning; unambitious and dependent on the public weal; debased and inclined to criminality.

We find ourselves at a defining moment in the evolution of this society. The U.S. is experiencing a cultural, economic, and political tectonic shift, a shift driven by demography and technology and advantage. The first shocks have already occurred. More will follow.

The economy of the United States may stabilize over the course of the next few years, but it is not going to return to what it was at any time in the past. Most of what we used to manufacture has been shipped offshore. What manufacturing is left is increasingly produced technologically and by a smaller percentage of the population, specifically by those who possess economic and educational advantage. Over the past three decades the income of the population that identifies as middle-class has shrunk; the wages of those persons classified as blue-collar workers have diminished; and the security of employment of white-collar employees has disappeared. Moreover the U.S. may still have the largest economy on the globe, but it operates on the credit extended by Chinese bankers, and it is only a matter of time until they call in their notes.

This society has prided itself on being classless, has denied the centrality of privilege, has advanced a master narrative that individuals and not society create opportunity and that education and ambition trump advantage when it comes to socio-economic mobility. Yet even Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, who a decade ago declared us as intellectually deficient, is telling us these days that we are now a highly classist society. He calls it a cultural divide rather than a class divide, but Murray does not shrink away from the fact that the divide is the result of advantage, particularly educational advantage. Neither race nor ethnicity nor gender, Murray argues, but rather cultural values and the advantage those values provide drive the great societal divide, separate the 1% from the 99%, or the 53% from the 47%.

The United States is in political retreat globally. The feckless policies of the neo-conservatives enmeshed us in the longest and most expensive wars in our history, and these policies have ironically fomented a protectionist society, a new iteration of “Fortress America.” The nation that called on the Soviet Union to tear down the walls that encased it is itself feverishly constructing literal and virtual walls. They may be designed to keep people out rather than in, to be sure, but they are walls nonetheless.

This protectionism is manifesting itself domestically in the criminalization of immigrants; in the incarceration of minority youth and young adults; in the disenfranchisement of citizens of color; in the denial of the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution; in the privatization of opportunity; and in a hyper-nationalism marked by racial, religious and cultural resentment.

The Portents for Latinos

What are then the portents for our diverse and extended Latino communities? What are the indications or signals or markers of what is to come? The ones cited above are self-evident (de cajón, as we say). Less evident, but no less significant portents are the following, contradictory as some may seem:
continuing cultural integration, if of a nefarious kind; and
increased electoral participation, but not truly representative of our interests or proportional to our numbers;
Not as evident to all, yet truly troubling in the long run are
aggressive de-legitimization of our standing, of our interests, of our needs, and of our concerns; and
denial of our historical relationship to this society and nation.
At the center of any discussion of the portents for our community are, of course, its demographics. We are a youthful and growing populationand that has major implications forAmerican society. Young people can do something that old people can’t: reproduce themselves. Our numbers will continue to grow even as “their” numbers will diminish and, as the majority population grows older it will more and more require our services and support.

Our youthfulness, however, is double-edged. Youth does have its drawbacks. A young population has not had time to accumulate either intellectual or material capital. A significant number of the young can’t vote, either because of their age or their civic status. Others are not inclined to vote. Further, a young and therefore inexperienced population is susceptible to the siren calls of hyper-patriotism, self-indulgence, and selfish individualism.

If this society wishes to be stable and prosperous, it will have to educate and integrate the population that constitutes its future wellbeing. Not only are the stakes considerably higher than in the past, but in addition the circumstances have changed. Since labor-intensive production has been shipped off-shore the only production that can replace it requires higher level intellectual skills, greater technological aptness, and constant learning. And this nation has fallen behind in that regard. Our 25-45 age population has less educational attainment than their 45-65 old counterparts. Only the education of the 15-25 old population can turn that around, and we have reasons to be concerned about that matter.

In prior moments in this society social and economic integration was fundamentally achieved by subjecting new members of the society to an educational process shared by all: public education. Our public educational system, however, is under attack. Social conservatives are openly antagonistic to public education and would replace it with instructional programs that are values-based, ideologically-driven, and antagonistic to inquiry. Economic conservatives blame teachers and their unions for all that is wrong with our educational system and would substitute for it privately-run, profit-making educational programs that have workplace preparation and socialization as their primary goal. In both cases they call for delivery systems that are de-centralized and un-regulated. These two thrusts inevitably reinforce the divisions that are manifesting themselves in our society, are increasing the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, are fueling antagonism towards the 47%; are fomenting cultural, economic and social apartheid.

Following World War II, post-secondary education contributed not only towards greater social integration but also as a driver of social mobility, and thus a public good. By the end of the 20th Century post-secondary education, however, had become conceptualized as a private good, and thus increasingly commoditized by both private not-for-profit and public colleges and universities, subsequently monetized by the private for-profit sector, and ultimately marketed as requisite to upward economic mobility by all sectors.

When pre-collegiate education ceases to be understood as being in the public interest and post-secondary education is defined as a private good, the persons who will profit most will be those with the greatest advantage. They will be able to choose the schools to which they will send their children, will be able to assure that they receive a high-quality education, which will in turn provide their off-spring access to the elite higher education, which of course they can afford. The rest of the population will have to make do with what options they will have as a result of the defunding of education, whether pre-secondary, secondary, or post-secondary. The future portends more of such. Want an education but can’t afford it? Win a scholarship! Get a job! Secure a loan! Borrow the money from your parents!!!

In 2009 I participated in a panel discussion on the status and future of Latinos in American society held at the Fourth Annual Conference of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education. In closing the session, the moderator, Henry Cisneros, asked the participants: If you had opportunity to address the American public, what would you say? My answer was: “We are your neighbors, we are your fellow workers, we are members of your churches, we are or will soon be your in-laws, we fight your wars, and we are your future.”

In retrospect, my statement may have overreached. To be sure, there is considerable social integration occurring in the workforce, but it is principally at the lower levels of the economy. Most Latinos, however, work alongside other Latinos in low-income occupations. Few work with more than one peer in professional or in mid-level managerial environments. And Latinos remain one and onlys at the upper levels of the professional, managerial or director classes.

Latinos do constitute a large and growing percentage of church membership, in large measure because of the fall-off in church membership in the general population. But not unlike what is the case in the areas of education, employment, and housing, Latino church membership is highly segregated.

Induction into the military resulted in considerable social integration of Latinos during much of the 20th Century. We do currently constitute a percentage of the military that is somewhat disproportionate to our population size. However the elimination of the draft system and the creation of a “volunteer” military have diminished that process, notwithstanding reports that the military may be the most highly integrated sector of American society.

A very clear potent of the future and an area in which I probably didn’t overreach, however, is the cultural integration of the younger generations. There is considerable intermingling and not-inconsiderable intermarriage. It is an integration that is driven by the media, probably the principal social integrative mode at this point in our history. As historically been the case, the young take on the cultural expression of the majority society.

The media’s role, however, is double-edged. As it eliminates some boundaries, it reinforces others. Unlike the case in previous generations, young Latinos do see themselves sometimes reflected in the mainstream media’s representation of larger society, and to some extent in entertainment realm. Moreover the growth and evolution of Spanish language media, which has reinforced the cultural expression of their elders, has also provided venues for Spanish language artists whose audience, though youthful, has deep roots in regional or national expression. But it is a shallow and mindless cultural integration, driven as it is by consumerism. And worse, informed by a false consciousness: on the one hand, that one can belong if only one subscribes to the values and expression of the reigning hegemony; or on the other, that one can exist separate from and independent of the core culture, if marginal to it.

The portents for our economic status are of course tied to those of the larger society. Those among us with privilege will join the 1%; those of us who are able to secure some advantage will become part of the 52%. Those who cannot heroically supersede the defunding of the public good will inevitably be consigned to making do on the margins, or depending on a leaner, meaner private (no longer public) weal, or wasting away in a penal institution.

Meanwhile the two primary political parties of this nation are vying to determine which can alienate Latinos the most, whether by dismissing, marginalizing, de-enfranchising, criminalizing, incarcerating, or deporting members of our community. Republicans believe that the worthy among us share their values; Democrats believe they are the default mode for the rest of us. In both cases our presence in those parties is still 0more symbolic than substantive.

While our demographic primacy may be inevitable, our political ascendency is not. We have not been able to develop common interests or common goals and we lack strategies for developing such and for engaging our communities in pursuing them. Our increased electoral numbers and participation will be of little or no consequence unless we develop common purpose.

Challenges, Goals, and Possibilities

Given the circumstances and the portents described above, how should we respond? What might be our objectives? What must we do? What might we do? What can we do?

Most of challenges to our wellbeing posed by our status and circumstances are different in degree but not in kind from those of other American populations. To be sure other populations share our experience of social segregation, cultural denigration, civic alienation and political marginality. What makes our situation different from that of other population sectors are our numbers and the multiple complexities that inform those numbers. Our demographic make-up will increasingly define this society. Our already considerable numbers and the youth of our population will have considerable impact on its institutions.

Unlike any other American population, we represent a significant threat to a hegemony that was initiated almost four hundred years ago on the eastern seaboard of this nation and that for the past two centuries has extended through the hemisphere. The question before us is what kind of society and nation we will have: theirs or ours; an exclusive one or an inclusive one; a society informed by justice and opportunity or one marked indelibly by privilege?The challenge before us is to offer a different vision from the reigning one and to realize that vision.

We are not, however, a homogeneous population and that heterogeneity carries with it major socio-cultural complications and has major political implications. How do we battle against exclusion and for inclusion if we are scattered and divided? How do we exert the necessary political influence if we are fragmented? Our fundamental challenge, our foremost objective, is to find the commonalities we have as Latinos.

There is much that makes us different, and there are powerful forces at work to divide us. Thus the necessity to identify the interests we have, the concerns we share, the aspirations we hold, the realities we experience so that we can begin to develop common goals, common purposes, and common objectives. Bringing us together must become a central and driving objective.

What must we do?

First and foremost, we must continue to affirm our place in this nation.

Second, we must continue to carve out larger and more significant spaces for ourselves in this society and its institutions. Third, we must revitalize the ideals of this nation.

We have a profound claim on this nation, one that goes back to the pre-Columbian history of the Americas. Our ancestors—whether of African, Asian, European, or indigenous origin—occupied it, settled it, developed it, and enriched it. The consolidation of the nation was realized by a war against Mexico and its imperial reach by the war against Spain. Those wars incorporated us into the nation if not into its society. The 20th Century was marked by our fight against de jure exclusion from its institutions. At the beginning of the 21st Century, despite signal victories in that struggle, de facto exclusion continues and de jure exclusion looms once again.

The nation’s economic needs may blunt both types of exclusion, but societal anxieties and fear of the other will continue to drive its political dynamics. Economic protectionism may no longer be possible, but political, social and cultural protectionism is manifesting itself aggressively. It has served the nation’s purposes historically to imagine us as the poor, uneducated, illiterate, debased other in order to justify exclusion and exploitation. It currently serves the purposes of sectors of this society to imagine us as being “illegal,” as having no documents or questionable documents, of having no legitimate claim to membership in the society.

Thus the importance of affirming our rights as members of this society, of assuring that its protections extend to us, of staking claim to its benefits, of marking our historical presence in the establishment of this nation and our centrality to its future; and of taking ownership of its institutions. It is our responsibility as the educated and the educators to do so on behalf of our entire community, but in particular for those who are most vulnerable to attack.

Although it behooves us to continue to lay claim to the larger societal and institutional spaces, let us not be fooled by the bones we have been tossed or the lip service to which we are subjected. A canapé at a reception does not a banquet make; a patch of scrub oak does not a forest constitute; an occasional award does not confer worth, value or respect. We need to become constituent components of this society and its institutions, not marginal appendages. We need the public acknowledgement that our accomplishments merit, rather than token recognition given grudgingly.

We have, over the course of our history in this society and nation, found it necessary to create our own institutions and organizations because we were denied the benefits, the advantages, and the protections of “theirs.” In so doing we preserved and promoted our artistic and cultural expression, affirmed the legitimacy of our needs and concerns, and developed the intellectual wherewithal to defend and advance our interests. These entities continue to be as essential in the present as they have been in the past, and it behooves us to nurture and strengthen them.

It is in our interests to advocate for and seek to revitalize the ideals of this society: liberty, justice, and freedom. Liberty, in the sense of opportunity for all. Justice, in the sense of equal protection under the law for all and not just for the few. Freedom, to which much lip service but little substance is given: freedom with respect to movement, to speech, to religious worship, to artistic and cultural expression; freedom of expression and of assembly; and freedom from want, from fear, from exclusion, from incarceration, and from deportation.

To do so we will have to continue to seek ways of defining ourselves as an integral community, as a population with shared goals and points of agreement. Our diversity, whether cultural or social or political or economic, makes that integrative process a challenging one. Notwithstanding, constituting ourselves as such is still central and essential to our future. Not doing so will make it difficult to secure our rights, to advance our interests, to empower our population, and to provide a desirable future for our children and grandchildren. Unless we do so the most advantaged among us will simply end up becoming part of the 1% or of the 52%, whether as collaborators, accomodationists or oppositionists. If we do not act the bulk of our population will run the risk of forever being characterized and dismissed as a client population, as dependent as opposed to contributing members of the society, as takers rather than givers.

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Finally, what can we, as academics and intellectuals, do? We must take up our responsibilities as persons with the stature and armature required to challenge entrenched power, and the modes and money that support it: that is, as a community of scholars who are able to analyze the basis of power; who have the authority to expose its contradictions and weaknesses; who can identify and respond to conceptualizations and discourses that delimit, dismiss, or denigrate us; who have the standing to speak truth to power as well as the venues from where to do so; and who can identify our commonalities and develop ways and means to address them.

Addressing that challenge and meeting that objective are difficult undertakings, but is it not complexity that drives us as intellectuals? Is it not our métier as academics to seek out the complexities that inform apparently simple matters? Are we not scholars trained to address complexity? Is it not our intellectual purpose to seek out the answer, the solution, the key to complex problems? Is it not our charge when faced with complexity to break it down into its constituent parts and give it clarity?

The poet Julio Marzán, one of our numbers, has a poem titled “The Pure Preposition,” in which he describes the awesome responsibility of that modest grammatical particle: “Their absence or much too presence re/Minding us that our labor is a product of small parts:/ With, by, for, in, on, against.” Like the lowly preposition we academics, scholars, intellectuals, says the distinguished Puerto Rican scholar, Roberto Márquez, “must do the heavy lifting.”

We who have benefitted from prior struggles, who have not succumbed to denigration, who have superseded the structural barriers placed before us, who have not been daunted by exclusionary discourse or requirements, who have standing in a central institution of the society, have the responsibility to take up these challenges. And in the process lay the foundation for our América, an inclusive and vital América, an América whose spirit and values extend beyond its political borders.

Dr. Arturo Madrid is the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University and the recipient of the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities in 1996, awarded by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Prior to joining the faculty of Trinity University in 1993, Madrid served as the founding president of the Tomás Rivera Center, the nation’s first institute for policy studies on Latino issues, a position he held from 1984 to 1993. In addition to having held academic and administrative appointments at Dartmouth College, The University of California, San Diego, and the University of Minnesota, he has also served as Director of the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) as well as National Director of the Ford Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship Program for Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans. He can be reached at

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