On Identity and Belonging

Latino USA can fill me with joy or move me to tears, sometimes in the same episode. The folks there tell stories I rarely hear in mainstream media. The nuance and complexity Latino USA adds to portrayals of Latinos allows us (I’m Mexican-American) to be more than caricatures and stereotypes, more than housekeepers and gardeners, hot señoritas and vatos locos. The result is that Latinos emerge as fully-formed characters, rendered human in the eyes of others, foibles and fortitudes included. According to recent research, Latinos face white backlash due to increased immigration and occupy the last rung of the American racial hierarchy. So, the work Latino USA does is more important than ever to overcome an antipathy borne of fear of the unfamiliar (despite the longtime presence of people we now label as Latinos). It bridges isolating social chasms by telling our stories in ways that rearrange imaginations and enable new forms of relating across skin-deep differences.

I recently listened to “Foreigner at Birth.” It’s the story of Antonio Charles, a young man of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic. His parents never registered his birth with Dominican officials which meant he was undocumented in his home country. Because of long-running Dominican antagonism toward Haitians, officials refused to recognize Antonio as a citizen, claiming instead that he had actually been born in Haiti and was falsely claiming Dominican citizenship. His ambiguous legal status left Antonio in limbo, unable to go to school or qualify for employment in the Dominican Republic and unwilling to start over in Haiti, a country he had never visited. His story is crushing.

I was struck by the repeated use of the phrase “Dominican blood” and its role in creating Dominican identity. Under Dominican law, Antonio was technically a citizen by birthright despite his inability to provide documentation. If you’re born within the country, like in the U.S., you’re granted automatic citizenship. But because Antonio lacked legal documents, he was deemed “in transit,” meaning the Dominican government considered him someone passing through the country, not a citizen. Antonio claimed Dominican identity, however, even if Dominicans didn’t claim him. Those wanting to exclude folks like Antonio spoke of Dominicans of Haitian descent as not having “Dominican blood.” To me, this phrase alludes to a debunked history of scientific justifications for racializing others (race) and of rationalizing their oppression (racism). But as we now know, race and racism have no legitimate biological basis. They’re the products, instead, of how we relate to each other socially. This means they retain social significance even when their biological footing has broken off beneath them. “Dominican blood” was operating socially to exclude Antonio from Dominican identity despite the idea’s biological vagueness. Not only was he a “foreigner at birth,” but he was made a perpetual foreigner, an alien presence in the bloodstream of the body politic facing constant rejection by its host.

The contempt bred by nearness (Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island and a border) evoked for me the place of Mexican Americans in the United States, our status as perpetual foreigners, and how this plays out in immigration debates. Despite the long history of Mexicans in the lands now belonging to the United States, Mexican Americans are often viewed as foreigners. Take, for example, judge Gonzalo Curiel.

His parents emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. and eventually became citizens. Judge Curiel was born and raised in Indiana, where he attended college and law school. By birth and upbringing, he’s indisputably American. But when judge Curiel issued rulings then-presidential candidate Donald Trump disliked, he accused Curiel of bias because he was “Mexican,” and Trump averred his toughness on Mexicans. Trump questioned Curiel’s ability to do his job impartially because of his ancestry and demanded that he recuse himself. Curiel had been reduced to a racial or ethnic grouping and was declared unfit for his job as a result. It’s as if, deep in his bones, Curiel would always be essentially Mexican, despite his life story or self-identification. To fevered minds, this illusory marrow was something to suspect, to obstruct, to expel. Like Antonio Charles, the country’s immune system needed to neutralize this foreign organism.

Curiel’s recusal would’ve set a dangerous precedent. Who could possibly preside over a case involving racial discrimination, sexual harassment, or even religious freedom? Who doesn’t possess a race, a gender, or religious/irreligious identification? If the principle is that you can’t be an impartial judge by virtue of membership in a group others have ascribed to you, could anyone qualify to judge in cases involving fundamental disagreements? It’s fair to assume Trump would think so: He’s the one ascribing group identities to others. And his ascriptions are always intended to work to his advantage and to the disadvantage of folks like judge Curiel. But let’s not forget that the case before judge Curiel didn’t involve a basic human disagreement. It was, rather, a case brought against Trump by people who had enrolled in his “university” and now claimed it was a fraud. By demanding judge Curiel’s recusal, Trump was implicitly claiming that no judge of Mexican ancestry could possibly be fair to him on any matter before the court.

For all the breathless criticisms of so-called identity politics, Trump’s actions create and maintain the demeaned identities that groups try to valorize. Against a steady stream of disrespect, these folks organize around belittled identities in order to make life bearable and perhaps have a chance at a good life. Critics of identity politics are willfully blind to the problems that give rise to this form of politics and then interpret it in the worst possible light. As a fellow Mexican-American, judge Curiel’s treatment due to his Mexican ancestry affects me. But when on social media I tried to show why I took offense to the weaponization of anti-Mexican bias and its implications, I was accused of playing identity politics. Somehow I was the one unfairly inserting identity politics where it didn’t belong. It was illegitimate for me to show why ascribing group identities to others in ways that undermined their standing was wrong, and to do so because I was a member of the singled-out group was deemed “identity politics.” It’s the perversely circular logic of people who go around categorizing other people into groups and then accusing those people of creating the categories when they complain about being categorized or when they use the categories to their advantage. If you always serve me scraps, can you blame me for griping about the unfairness or, on the flip side, transforming them into a delicious meal? Am I really the problem? Or is it, rather, that I don’t accept ill treatment submissively?

The stories of Antonio Charles and Gonzalo Curiel are focal points into our immigration debates. At a basic level, there two moral and political issues that underwrite them: sovereignty and belonging. Sovereign nations, one argument goes, ought to be able to choose whom to include and exclude. If they can’t do that, they aren’t sovereign. But who has a say in those decisions is a matter of belonging: Who belongs to the political community, and how do we decide? Sovereignty and belonging are deeply intertwined issues that can be hard to separate in a way that doesn’t just assume from the beginning an answer to the very questions we’re trying to reply to.

Sovereignty is important. Our law and politics recognize and concede this point. But belonging is seldom discussed in any robust way. Debates about DACA, aka Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, can be interpreted, for example, as an attempt to resolve the issue of belonging. At what point can we say that these children are members of our political community? They’ve spent nearly their entire lives here. Gone to school here. Learned the language and culture. Carried on relationships. Attended church with us. Worked and contributed to the common good. They’ve played the part of citizens, done the work of citizenship. When is enough, enough? For folks like Charles and Curiel, in the eyes of some, it’s never enough. They will never belong. They are perpetual foreigners even when they’re lawful, law-abiding citizens, let alone the recipients of DACA. And that’s something we don’t talk much about or wrestle with nearly enough. Who belongs and on what basis need to be debated in detail as a matter of justice, of what we owe to these children because of their relationships to us. It’d be a complicated discussion, but it would get us much further than where we are currently in our heated debates that produce a lot of hot air but little light.

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