Straight from the Unicorn’s Mouth: Centering Central America

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 6:57pm

Overlooking la Septa Avenida (Seventh Avenue) in zone 1 of  Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Overlooking la Septa Avenida (Seventh Avenue) in zone 1 of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala Buy this photo
By Patrick Mullen-Coyoy

 

 

To my fellow Central American unicorns,

As you know, it’s not easy being a Central American in the United States — it’s not easy being Latinx, period. But we all know that being Central American is a little different.

Let’s recap: For most people in the United States, Central America stopped existing somewhere around the mid-90s. Why should we care? It’s not like a CIA-backed coup led to the successful overthrow of Guatemala’s Ten Years of Spring, of course. And why would we even bother looking at El Salvador or Nicaragua, where years of U.S. intervention lead to civil war and even more death? Besides, it’s not like refugees kept coming to the United States after the peace accords were signed! (They did.) With our bloodstained foot out the door of our past, why should any of this matter, anyway?

Now, you might anticipate we would have paid more attention to Central America again in 2014. You would have been hard-pressed to avoid discussing it, what with more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors fleeing conditions of violence and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Three years ago isn’t that long, right?

You would be wrong.

After the all too necessary segments on CNN that summer with a panic about the “crisis on the border,” there was … nothing. No one talked — talks — about these children anymore. Obama said things were fine, so they must be, despite the fact that fiscal year 2016 demonstrated apprehensions of minors nearing those of 2014. “A brief spike” is how these lives were described. 

Knowing this, you might say to yourself that even if the general public doesn’t focus too much attention on Central Americans, they must be centered within Latina/o and Latin American Studies departments and courses. We’re focused on all Latines, including Central Americans. Or so the assumption would go.

Unfortunately, this is far from the norm. In most any Latina/o Studies or Latin American history course (barring California State University Northridge’s specialized program), Central American history, literature, politics, culture and people are generally located somewhere in between the Cuban revolution and NAFTA. One class, mid-way through the syllabus. Perfunctory discussion of how civil war came to pass in Guatemala and El Salvador. Massacres. Refugees. Peace accords. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even read Rigoberta Menchú’s memoir. Then on to Argentina.

A bleak view, to be sure.

Nevertheless, this history of erasure, ignorance and invisibilization is far from the end for our communities. If others do not care about Central America in the ways that we need, then we must do the work. Not for them, but for us — as we did before the civil wars and as we continue to do today. We need place our own testimonials, our own stories, our own narratives of heartbreak and heroism at the center ourselves of the Americas. We must develop a voice for ourselves, not apart from the wider Latinx community, but in harmony with that louder, pan-ethnic melody.

If few outsiders are willing to amplify our lives, dramas, fears, traumas and dreams, then we need to do that for one another. We have to cultivate new solidarities and open ourselves up to messy diasporic identities. “Central American,” “Central American-American” and “U.S. Central American” are far from all-encompassing terms. That said, by allowing for people to voice their own lives and experiences as they will — and in whichever of the countless languages of Central America they prefer — then perhaps we can avoid the totalizing narratives of Central America that have existed for so long.

In large part, this work is already being done. Folks like Dr. Leisy Abrego and “Dichos de un bicho” use the #CentAmStudies tag on social media to develop an archive of useful news, articles and discussions about Central Americans. Central America Contemporary on Tumblr and Central American Art on Twitter document often-overlooked artists and artwork. Tia Chucha Press’s recent anthology The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States brings together poetry and writing from across the isthmus (including the oft-shunted Belize and Panama) for the first time in years. And, of course, academic collections like U.S. Central Americans Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance allow for new voices to re-center conversations around what Central American identity means in the context of the States. These are far from the only people doing this work, but in many ways, they form one of the many epicenters of this new movement shaking up where Central Americans exist in the U.S. consciousness.

For Central Americans — and for those who aren’t — out there looking to learn more, these resources are all great places to start.

In her poem “What It’s Like to Be a Central American Unicorn for Those Who Aren’t,” Maya Chinchilla says that Central Americans are “mythical creatures” — unicorns, even — who exist outside most people’s realm of possibility. Nevertheless, as we continue through a year that already threatens to make coming to or staying in the U.S. more difficult for those in the isthmus and in our communities, it is essential that we stop pushing these countries and people to the sidelines. Whether reading this is the first time you’ve ever centered Central America — and especially if it is — do not let it be your last. We may be the stuff of fairytales, but we’re out here on Twitter too, already starting these conversations, and looking for others to find and support our communities. All you need to do is look.

¿Entendés, vos?

Abrazos,

Patrick Mullen-Coyoy