Chismetime Re: The American Isthmus

Central American Peoples and Cultures, Chicano Studies, University of California Berkeley, California | Fall 2017


 Independence or Whatever | Sept.15.17

196 years of independence from the Spanish crown. That's what today is for Hondurans and the paisan@s in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. But that's hardly true. The isthmus is not independent or yet free of colonial powers. The region is dependent on neocolonial structures, on tourism, remittances, and foreign investors. It's dependent on the labor and passivity of its people in the fields and in the factories; on the extraction of every nutrient from its great depths--from it's honduras. The post-independent isthmus, as is, depends on the impunity of its decision-makers and the rule of violence as the law of the land. 

Watching the film "When the Mountains Tremble," shook me.  It's a film about state-sanctioned genocide of Mayan indigenous  pueblos in Guatemala during the 80's.  It's a history that is so close to me. It's in my father's PTSD and in my mother's posture. It's also very far from me, in fincas, pueblos, and rostros that I'll never know. I remember reading Beatriz Manz's Paradise in Ashes and Sonia Nazaro's Enrique's Journey  at  different moments in my life. These stories are  from different eras but they're from the same places and impact generations of the same people--across borders, through time. I feel a deep level of appreciation for my parent's who journeyed north into the states, for jus soli, and my being born here and not there. This appreciation for my birthright privilege is full of humility, responsibility, and conflict. I am humbled for the opportunities I have. The ones my parents didn't and my siblings don't and will never know. I feel a sense of responsibility to use my privilege to improve conditions for my family on both sides of the border. I'm conflicted as a centroamericana, who didn't become one until recently. This process of learning and unlearning is an engagement of sowing and weeding. That is truly my only right of the soil, my  jus soli. 

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Rigoberta Menchu refused the reduction of her people's future into "ethno-tourism." I believe "eco-tourism" encompasses ethno-tourism because people and culture are part of the environments which are observed/experienced/gazed upon by way of tourism. This is the root of one of my conflicts. Am I engaging in eco/ethno tourism as a privileged centroamericana - or rather Honduran (hyphen) American - when I go to my parents' homeland? My sister, who lives in Honduras, told me not to identify as an Hondureña because I never lived or experienced that identity--because I know no suffering. It pained me to hear that but I understood why she felt that way. I stayed at an AirBnB while I was there, I prioritized my safety over spending time with my sister. I feared her and all our family. I was scared to get kidnapped or set up. I hated myself because she loved my light skin and told me so. She looks like our mother, india, brown y chaparrita. It hurts when I think about her because I try not to. I left Honduras with a newly found appreciation/understanding for the culture, much of which was informed by spaces/experiences designed for tourists and not by spaces/experiences shared with my own sister. I brought back GoPro videos and filled my iCloud library with pictures. I bought souvenirs and cigars. I paid my way and absorbed an edited, packaged version of my mother's Honduras. I can't step into my sister's identity as an Hondureña. That privilege is not my birthright. 

Am I the ecotourist Menchu talked about or some more complex unprecedented version of her--la turista? When I think independence, I think of myself; I'm financially secure and I can move as I please--privileges extended by my birthright citizenship. My sister, on the other hand, is dependent on our mother's remittances, she is tied to a country that extracts all her energy, her labor. She's tied to its depths and confined within its borders. She does not know independence, as I do not know sufrimiento

 FB Post From 12.7.15 | After Visiting Roatan and La Ceiba, Honduras:

After all the gold was stripped and mass agricultural land privatized, the coral reef is the only untouched natural resource left for Hondurans. First-world environmentalists aim to protect the reef by keeping Hondurans from it. The American/Canadian investment in protecting the reef is about tourist consumption. The Honduran resistance, about feeding families and keeping culture.

I'm swimming in this conundrum of conscious environmentalism and neo-earth-friendly-colonialism. 
Me, American/first-world consumer of Honduran/third-world descent. I dove in the reef and came home to California. I met my blood sister, handed her money and left her to fight for the fishes.


Dolla Store Platanos 

I was standing in the checkout line at the 99 Cents Store in Berkeley cradling an arm full of platanos from Guatemala. 2/$1 no way I was passing them up. I had two thoughts at the same time; “I'm having comfort food - platano frito - every morning for the rest of the week” and “how the hell did these platanos end up in this dollar store?" Reading Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World only added another layer of conflict to my love/hate relationship with the dollar store platanos.

Before the proliferation of bananas/platanos in US stores and United Fruit Company's presence throughout Latinoamerica, bananas were exoticized commodities of wealth that gained popularity in World Fairs (Chapman, 45). They signaled wealth because access to them was limited since the technology, infrastructure and political contracts necessary for their abundance had yet to materialize. When all these pieces did materialize, they worked in congruence to reassert a sociopolitical structure rooted in colonialism. Instead of a Spanish king, the throne belonged to a US corporation and like the Spanish crown, it - and all its investors - benefited from the extractive economies of the isthmus. And like life under the Spanish crown, Indigenous and Black people were absorbed and trapped as plantation laborers. There was a two-part strategy to the corporate coop of the post-independent isthmus, 1. The Monroe Doctrine and 2. the land grabs in exchange for infrastructural development.

The former, as Chapman put it, set a "boundary rope around the Americas." It was more of a noose and it strategically positioned the U.S. as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. With the US as the power player in a hemisphere of economically exhausted nation-states, corporate investors were able to lure newly independent nations into neo-colonial dynamics. For example,  Costa Rica gave into foreign investors taking land in exchange for the building of railways (44), the same is true for the so-called banana republics of the northern triangle. Foreign investors were/are strategic in developing only what was/is needed for their industries to flourish long-term and not necessarily for the development of the people or the countries, they operate in, as autonomous nations. Chapman says that the banana commerce was perceived to be a profound triumph over nature (51). This is the relationship with nature that the colonial imaginary holds, the need to tame the natural and to extract wealth from it.

United Fruit Company is a representation of US "exceptionalism" and capital dominance in the Western Hemisphere. With self-aggrandizing game rules like the Monroe Doctrine as well as insidious and extractive investments focused solely on industry efficiency and profit, the company was able to gain a stronghold in the isthmus. United Fruit commodified and made the "exotic" bananas/platanos readily accessible for white American consumption. The proliferation of the company in Latinoamerica and thus of bananas/platanos in the U.S., reduced the once exotic symbol of wealth into just another ordinary fruit. As ordinary as 2/$1 at the 99 Cent Store in Berkeley, California.

Mentiras y Mas Lempiras

I felt a sense of pride when I held a Lempira for the first time. I even started tucking my hair behind my ears when I wore bandanas to evoke a resemblance to the cacique. Truth is, I grew up knowing very little about Honduran history and this was the first symbol I could associate with my culture that didn't have something to do with a monstrous train, natural disasters, or ruthless maras.

After reading Euraque's The Threat of Blackness to the Mestizo Nation...I felt bamboozled. In my illusion, I hoped to be a descendant of El Indio Lempira and in my romanticization, I fell for a state-sponsored myth-building project. This project expands the reach of whiteness while casting a shadow over the lives of millions of Hondurans--indigenous and black. Euraque suggests that the Honduran elite made [El Indio] Lempira (all the Hondurans I know add "El Indio" when referring to the man on the bill) the national symbol of the country in response to 1. labor struggles in the banana industry and 2. to further the post-independent goal of making Honduras an Indo-Hispanic nation (230). Indo-Hispanic can best be understood as a colonized and colonizer identity that merges to maintain colonial systems of the European invasion post-independence. 

The term "Ladino," which Patricia Smith described as the “absence of,” invisibilized indigenous people and culture by creating a colonized category of people who weren't white but who also weren't Indian. On one hand, the recipients - or the non-Indian mixed-race Ladinos - benefited because they moved away from identifying markers of inferiority. And on the other hand, the privileges now afforded to them as "Ladinos" meant they moved closer to whiteness--in terms at least--and they now had a stake in maintaining the colonial system of racial hierarchy, with blacks at the bottom. A Ladino could have more flexibility in occupational labor opportunities and thus, more freedoms than others. The associations with the term "Ladino" created a shadow over people that would otherwise be Indian and most certainly over black Hondurans.

In thinking about the colonial system of racial categorization on a spectrum, with whites on one side and blacks on the opposite, the Indian can very well be placed in the middle. Whiteness was first limited but post-independent Honduras expanded its reach towards the middle to incorporate Indios as Ladinos. Thus, moving them closer to whiteness. This incorporation protects whiteness by expanding freedoms to those who will, in turn, protect it while at the same time constructing the Indo-Hispanic national identity. This dynamic leaves the opposite side of the spectrum, black Hondurans in the margins. It does so actively. That is what El Indio Lempira on a currency note of the post-independent Honduran state means to me now. It is the elites' attempt to reach the middle, to incorporate non-Indian Indios, as a symbol of the merger between colonized and colonizer, without acknowledgment whatsoever to our own blackness.


Next Up:

Caribeñ@s y Costeñ@s in Brick Cities

Stories of First Winters for New Migrants