- Continental Shifts: Migration, Representation, and the Struggle for Justice in Latin(o) America by John D. “Rio” Riofrio
It’s not often that you read a work of literary criticism and think, “this scholar writes with his fingertips on fire,” but John Riofrio gives that impression. Continental Shifts, which argues for a hemispheric analysis of the discursive treatment of Latinos after 9/11, is critically ambitious, highly readable, and furiously passionate. The book engages with a sweeping collection of materials, threading novels and films with YouTube vlogs, police department websites, popular crime shows, and The Onion. The broad swath of material might seem fractured, but in many ways parallels the shifting, clashing ground that functions as the central metaphor of his book. As he explains it, “Continental Shifts envisions the two hemispheres as sliding toward each other on unseen tectonic plates and folding inward, like an enormous continental origami, such that what was once considered separate and distinct has been forced to mutual acknowledgement. My title is thus meant to invoke a theoretical grounding that sees the two hemispheres as more intimately entwined demographically, culturally, and ideologically” (12). He identifies a number of post-9/11 shifts that have wrought this damaging discursive representation; mainly: the shifting realities of the location of latinidad and the neoliberally-driven idea of deviance coded within latinidad as a personal moral failing. Triangulating himself within the critical work of Arlene Dávila, Juan Poblote, Sophia McClennen, and Henry Giroux, as well as the philosophical work of Habermas, Butler, and Foucault, Riofrio’s project is a fiercely interdisciplinary work of cultural studies crafted with the tools of literary analysis.
He builds his argument with a reading of Jorge Franco’s Paraíso Travel and Alberto Fuguet’s Películas de mi vida in Chapter 1. These novels have a role in conceptualizing Latino experience in the U.S. “because they help break the stranglehold that our obsession with undocumented ‘Mexican’ migration has had on our collective understanding of migration and immigration…. The impetus to see all Latino migration as both undocumented and ‘Mexican’ produces a context in which all Mexicans are poor and undocumented and all Latinos are categorically understood as already criminal” (39). While acknowledging the divergent history of Latino/a Studies and Latin American Studies, he argues that latinidad must be examined in this broader context in order to combat the trend of erasing the complexity of migrant populations by coding them all as destitute and desperate. Riofrio suggests that these novels emulate the ways that “Latino” has come to indicate not a racial, socio-ethnic, or geographic grouping, but rather a grouping of bodies “buffeted by forces connected to the distinct social contexts they try to inhabit” (63)—namely, neoliberalism and U.S. neo-imperialism. “Migration,” he argues, “is a broad social process that does not discriminate, perse, among social classes, race, or gender. It affects everyone. Further, migration moves even those who have [End Page 578] never left home” (62). While this theoretical move has the effect of detaching latinidad from its historical employment, it also detaches the “Latino/a” and “migrant” from metonymy for the victimized, impoverished other.
Riofrio’s next two chapters take on “The Dirty Politics of Representation” (Chapter 2) in the public sphere followed by the way in which “Spectacles of Incarceration” (Chapter 3) serve to reinforce the neoliberal rubric of dehumanization upon which those dirty politics are built. Here, Riofrio makes a subtle shift from focusing on Latino/a as a discursive category to the actual brown and black bodies that overwhelm both the targets of this discourse and the prison system. He points to the way that a teenager’s highly-viewed YouTube vlog, during which he rages about being called Mexican, exemplifies the complexity and altered nature of the public sphere. “What is striking about watching [Chaz] Hernandez talk through the issues of homogenization and labeling (while never addressing them as such) is just how difficult it becomes for him to negotiate the frustration...