Beyond The White Noise

Mexamérica / dossier / Mayo de 2018

Yuri Herrera

Traducción de: Quentin Pope


Just over a month before the 2016 [US presidential] elections, a man came to sit beside me on the number 88 bus, one of the two lines that I take for my commute to work in New Orleans. He was white, older than 40, perhaps a construction worker. I was reading a book in Spanish, I don’t remember the title. As he was speaking he threw me sidelong looks, only as if to make sure I was still there. “I used to know how to compete for a job,” he said, apropos of nothing, “sometimes there was one going, sometimes there wasn’t, but you knew you’d get a fair shake. If someone got there before you, good for him, you’d get there earlier next time. But it’s not like that anymore. Now you’ll get some Honduran guy” – he gestured in my direction; whereas elsewhere Latin Americans are called Mexicans wherever they may actually come from, in New Orleans the equivalent is Honduran – “who’ll say that for the same pay he can bring along his son and his nephew too. So, what happens? It means it doesn’t matter if you get there early or do your job well, the contractor’s going to hire whoever is cheapest. And it doesn’t matter what you say, the boss is going to ask: Are you OK with getting paid less? No? Well, then the Honduran gets the job.” He paused, and then went on: “That’s not right. They should give the work to the people who speak English. That’s our right, as people who speak the language of this country. The language of this country. But now we’ve got all these guys who can’t even understand the instructions and they’re the ones getting the jobs. It’s not right. It’s not right.” He fell silent. I didn’t say anything. He wasn’t asking me anything. He reached his stop, stood up and got off the bus without looking at me again. At no point did I feel threatened, either by his tone of voice or his body language. He hadn’t come up to insult me, but –perhaps because of the book, or by my appearance– to tell me something that people like me had to hear, something that was plainly obvious to him. Not the fact that there might be people exploited by employers paying an unfairly low wage, but the injustice of a situation in which an outsider’s ability to work for a pittance could trump his rights based on his knowledge of a language. The notion that the United States is and always has been an exclusively English-speaking country is not a fantasy created by workers facing precarious job situations in order to vent their frustration; it’s an idea that has run through the conservative public sphere for years, but has only surfaced explicitly in the last year, in the form of physical attacks on migrants and xenophobic public policies. The same day that the current administration took office, the Spanish-language version of the White House’s official webpage was taken down. This was not an insignificant change, particularly when the President has chosen to use the Internet as a vehicle to fire government officials, implement government decisions or alter his foreign policy. It is a horrific paradox that the words of someone who is functionally illiterate can wield such immense power. Therefore, it is no coincidence that, in February, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Office removed from its mission statement the phrase defining the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” This forms part of the narrative of white nationalism: “this land was destined for us, in practice it’s as though we were always here. The foreigners are the ones who came later.”

Photography by Alejandro Cartagena

Nations have dramatic versions of their past that crystallize into official Histories often regurgitated by citizens as a truth. Despite the many ways of understanding the past, I am referring here to simple, institutionalized or popular narratives that are repeated as a synonym of national identity and that help interpret the present.1 For example: South Africa’s history is not only about segregation but about how resistance and, after the abolition of apartheid, forgiveness, made the country’s reconstruction possible. Russia is an empire that falls apart from time to time, before finding the way to resume its former position: it doesn’t matter how bankrupt it may be, it must be an empire. In Mexico, the official history is told as a series of foreign affronts which have left deep wounds that can only be cured by overcoming our differences, mixing our blood, and accepting that the latest group of rulers are not responsible for the disaster; only then, and at some indeterminate point in the future, things might improve. The United States tells its history as a feat in which this country, “the most extraordinary in the history of mankind” (a politician who chooses not to make this his central tenet is doomed to political failure and even verges on the traitorous), has devoted itself to liberating less fortunate nations, and that is why it has deployed its troops time and time again to subjugate their inhabitants and exploit their natural resources. But recently, a subplot has emerged to complement the liberator narrative: the version where the country has been invaded and needs to liberate itself. This is not an invasion by foreign troops but by millions of people who can be easily identified because they speak a different language, one which, according to this account, was not previously spoken there.

Photography by Alejandro Cartagena

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a story of a man who, after Trump’s victory in the presidential elections, decided to shut himself off from all news. To pull this off, he imposed upon himself a set of rules: he would abstain from reading newspapers or watching news programs, abandon social networks, inform his friends not to talk to him about any current affairs, and listen to white noise in his headphones when sitting in a cafe so that he would not accidentally overhear anything about the state of the nation. The man lives off the income from investments managed by a San Francisco-based financial advisor, precluding the need to interact with anyone in order to make a living; nothing alters his comfortable routine in a small town in Ohio. The man gets bored as a result but claims this is a price worth paying for staying sane. In his world, the US President has not legitimized the neo-Nazis, equated Muslims to terrorists, insisted on building a wall that won’t stop migration but only make it more dangerous, granted a pardon to Joseph Arpaio (the racist sheriff who used to arrest people for looking like undocumented migrants). This man suspected what might happen in the future and decided to create a small island, free of Trump’s xenophobia and coarseness; we are talking here, of course, about a ‘liberal’ and a ‘progressive.’ But his chosen narrative of the world, as a fantasy land in which one only has to buy and occupy a piece of nature, is one that is perfectly adapted to that other one which turns immigrants into the enemy. Because there are millions of people who have not had the privilege of becoming bored. The ones who fear a visit from ICE, or the anti-immigration police, which should be its real name, at their workplace; those afraid of speaking their mother tongue in a restaurant because they worry that they won’t get served, or waiters in restaurants who discover that clients, instead of a tip, have left them insulting messages because they look foreign; people arrested at hospitals or schools for lacking immigration papers; the neighbors of bien-pensant US citizens who pretended not to hear when Trump described millions of Mexicans as rapists and criminals. There have been some journalists who have protested the persecution facing migrants, mayors who have decided to protect undocumented workers living in their cities, and activists who have offered them legal assistance. But the mainstream –the two main parties and the leading news corporations– have kept a complicit silence, or in the best of cases have raised their voices as a token gesture, before turning back up the white noise. We shouldn’t be surprised that silence and voluntary deafness are part of the narrative about the Latin American invasion. Institutional xenophobia is nothing new. Obama deported more migrants than all the preceding administrations put together. Some people argue that this is not xenophobic but a law enforcement issue. Yet a government’s priorities are revealed by the extraordinary effectiveness in how some laws are enforced whereas others are effectively ignored. While millions of undocumented migrants were treated like criminals by Obama’s progressive administration, having been frequently detained in inhumane conditions, transferred in chains, monitored with electronic ankle bracelets, not one, and it bears repeating, not one, of the high-ranking executives who laid waste to the global economy while Obama was campaigning for president has been imprisoned; instead they were allowed to cash in their bonuses funded by the public money. No matter that the cartel of CEOs represents a de facto criminal organization, the others, the impoverished invaders, were the ones posing danger. The hunting down of migrants and the building of walls has made and will continue to make life more dangerous for undocumented workers, encouraging sadistic police officers and terrorists who style themselves as patriots. But these actions will not stop migration or the inflow of drugs which the US population deems its inalienable right. And, without a doubt, it will not reverse the fact, which is clear for anyone who takes off their headphones playing white noise, that the United States has been a Spanish-speaking country for years. In some regions it always has been, even before the country existed as such, but today it’s a broader, more visible, audible and documented reality. (According to the Cervantes Institute’s 2016 report on the state of the Spanish language, to cite just one of many possible examples, only considering native speakers, the United States, with 42.5 million speakers, has the world’s fifth-largest population of Spanish speakers, after Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Argentina. But if the statistics included groups with a limited language competency,2 it would rank second with 57 million speakers, only behind Mexico. By 2060, according to US census figures, the number of Spanish speakers will reach 119 million; in other words, one out of every three US residents will speak Spanish.)

Photography by Alejandro Cartagena

New Orleans has become one of the most culturally dense cities in the world because of migrations, among other causes. After the Spaniards and French, and the forced migration of African slaves, came the Haitians and, to a lesser extent, the Irish, Germans and Hondurans. Although the flow of workers from Mexico increased after [Hurricane] Katrina, Hondurans still constitute the most organized and influential of the Latin American communities. The city has Honduran restaurants, Honduran lawyers, Honduran activists, Honduran drivers, Honduran traders, and several free papers that report on their activities. Radio Tropical Caliente 105.7 provides news about Honduran politics and broadcasts live matches from the Honduran soccer league (in March, the Honduran league champions Real España came to the city for a match against a New Orleans team). And yet it is not a community that isolates itself on the basis of nation of origin. The Congress of Day Laborers, for example, is an organization that gives information to people from across Latin America, offering them legal advice, organizing collections to support families who have been arrested regardless of where they come from. Because the important thing is not the birth certificate, but the shared experience. Recently arrived in New Orleans, it struck me that in a city with such a clearly defined global identity – for its black population, as birthplace of jazz, after the cataclysm of Katrina – no room was left for more ingredients, and the Spanish and English-speaking worlds existed in parallel, and never the twain shall meet. It reminded me of The City and the City, China Miéville’ novel in which two towns occupy the same location, each one with its own rules and customs, with the only common law being the prohibition of the respective citizens to take any notice of the other group. But here, both communities do take notice of the other, albeit sporadically (Real España beat the New Orleans selection 2-0, but the Anglophone press did not report the event, even though the local side had fielded US footballers who play every week in Honduran teams). You only need to pay attention to realize how the soundscape has changed. The music playing on the streets, the conversations overheard about parties and the heat and the violence are all happening in Spanish too. The Congress of Day Laborers, it should be noted, gave its backing to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement and to the young people who managed to remove the statues of the Confederate generals from the city, and members of the Movement have in turn joined the marches organized by the Congress. The Spanish-speaking population does not constitute, as some argue, out of ignorance or innocence, a third country. This migrant experience reveals precisely the opposite: that certain nomenclatures are looking old. Even the case of El Salvador, which calls its diaspora ‘Departmento 15’ (adding to the country’s 14 administrative departments or regions), serves to underline the state’s limitations rather than its expansion. The transformations underway are happening in our collective imaginary before they reach the institutions. I doubt that Spanish-speaking communities will crystallize into an ‘official’ narrative, but instead they are generating multiple ones which reflect the diversity of solutions created by migrants regardless of their countries of origin or destination. I believe that, unlike national narratives, which register who won or who needs to be beaten, feats monumentalizing a place, migrant narratives tell the story of how to leave somewhere, pass through somewhere else, how to arrive at a third country, and how to survive; their most outstanding qualities are unrelated to conquest or homogeneity, but work ethic, solidarity, and a reticence in the face of institutions. It is not about translating the hegemonic narrative, but a new figuration of the same space: a knowledge that does not exist in a single shape or form because it has not been frozen into a nationalist cliché. The United States is a country that is being conceived, organized, suffered, enjoyed by Spanish-speakers who see it less as somewhere to be occupied and more as a transitory space, even when this transit is long-lasting. I do not wish to succumb to gratuitous optimism when describing the survival skills of migrant communities and the strength of their languages in the face of nativist harassment. (The history of the original peoples within Mexico is a history of entire generations that have had to withstand the contempt, racism and ignorance of their own compatriots. The mirror reflects an unpleasant image if we consider how Mexicans have addressed our own linguistic plurality). However, there is something in the despair and awkwardness of those upholding the narrative of the United States as a monolingual nation that makes me think that they themselves have realized that there is no going back to that imaginary world with other sounds and other ideas and that whatever the official history books may say today, sooner or later they will no longer talk about barbarian invasions.

Cover Image: Photography by Alejandro Cartagena.

  1. I am referring here to Hayden White’s The Historical Text as Literary Artifact, in which the author argues that historical and literary representation share the same literary tropes, despite their differing aims and forms of transmission. This theory is not without its critics, but the core idea strikes me as useful to illustrate how certain nationalist narratives are formed. 

  2. “. . . second and third-generation Spanish speakers in bilingual communities, users of mixed bilingual varieties, and foreigners with a mother tongue that is not Spanish living in a Spanish-speaking country.” Instituto Cervantes. El español: una lengua viva. Informe 2016.