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Creating the Latin American “other” in the US

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Headshot of SIS Student Bill Kakenmaster

If there were a heat index for ethnic tensions in the US, 2015 might have been one of the hottest years on record. The amount of prejudice towards Latin Americans in US political discourse seemingly boiled over with the remarks of Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who claimed that Mexico intentionally exports drug peddlers, criminals, and rapists to the US.

As the Republican frontrunner, Trump’s stance on Latin Americans in the US characterizes and, in part, represents the Republican Party’s policy discourse on the issue, and the party itself has gained a reputation for caustic rhetoric on ethnic and racial issues in contemporary US politics. However, this perception of Latin Americans as “illegals” permeates more broadly into US political discourse as well. In August of last year, Boston police arrested two men guilty of assaulting a homeless Hispanic man and urinating on his face. As justification, one of the two said, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”

If this implicit connection between US-Latin Americans and illegality—whether regarding immigration or criminal activity following such immigration—is blatant in popular and official discourses, how are Latin American identities constructed by other layers of society that impact US political debate?

Through the generosity of Professor Sherry Mueller and an SIS Summer Scholars Research Fellowship in recognition of Professor Gary Weaver’s work on cross-cultural communications, I travelled to Spain this summer to observe othering discourses in Spanish print media sources, and applied that observation to US print media. Othering theory entails the conscious or unconscious manipulation of discourse to legitimize a particular cultural, ethnic, racial, or social group’s beliefs, values, and practices, thereby constituting an identified out-group as intrinsically different to one’s own in-group. Furthermore, because discursive identity construction involves the manipulation of discourse at multiple layers of society—including policy, popular, media, and other layers—my research sought to clarify one such layer and investigate the implicitly and explicitly assumed meanings media sources fix to Latin Americans in the US.

Ultimately, the research returned quite interesting results. In conducting word association research, I discovered that associations between Latin Americans and the words “hard work,” “success,” and “education” represented approximately two-thirds of the total share of word associations when compared to the words “drugs,” “assault,” and “theft.” Coding these references as either positive or negative revealed a similar finding: media sources represented Latin Americans positively nearly twice as often as they did negatively. Overwhelmingly, then, the dominant media narrative of Latin Americans in the US seems pretty favorable.

However, surface-level positive associations obscured themes of tokenism, paternalism, and victimization that otherwise threatened Latin Americans’ independence as discursive agents. These implicit claims, for instance that Cuban immigrants “were like kid[s] in a candy shop” when they first encountered an iPhone, might avoid disparaging Latin Americans, but they represent superficially positive representations of their identities. Perhaps more importantly, even if these associations carry genuinely positive intentions, they nonetheless other Latin American immigrants and assume them to be intrinsically different from American assumptions, such that they necessitate a formal education in cultural literacy.

My research does not seek to provide a final answer to the debate on Latin American immigration, othering strategies in media discourses, or discourse theory more broadly. However, it does advance the claim that potentially well-intentioned efforts either to cover the struggles of Latin American immigrants in adapting to US culture or to combat prejudice in policy discourses in the name of honest journalism may do more to exclude, rather than include, Latin Americans from US culture.