- "Hermano Entrepreneurs!" Constructing a Latino Diaspora across the Digital Divide
On a balmy September morning in 2003, I arrived at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to attend the launching of an innovative development initiative. This invitation-only event was advertised as a novel effort to promote "the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals through mobilizing the technological, entrepreneurial, and professional expertise and resources of Diaspora networks" (UNICT, "Digital Bridge"). Based on the successful experience of an Indian initiative in 2000, followed by a project for Africa commencing in 2002, this newest so-called Digital Diaspora project had its sights set on Latin America and the Caribbean. In an effort to bridge the technology gap—referred to here as the "digital divide"—between North and South, the program aspired to increase the direct flow of knowledge and resources between US-based Latino entrepreneurs and community development projects in Latin America. The kickoff event was to be attended by a diverse array of business executives, diplomats, consultants, representatives of non-governmental organizations, information-technology experts, and a handful of academics who had an interest in building this initiative from the ground up.
I came to the meeting with the dual interest of beginning research on the proposed development plan and encountering the pan-Latino diaspora through which the project was to be enacted. As a blonde, blue-eyed Mexican-American from California, I was more than familiar with the complexity of Latino identity politics and, thus, should not have been surprised by the lack of "physical evidence" of such a Latino community at the event. Nonetheless, I was taken aback when less than half the attendees appeared to be Latinos; abundant instead were non-Latino representatives from Microsoft, Verizon, Intel, and various other technology and communications companies. My puzzlement grew when program organizers confirmed my demographic assessment of the Latino absence. Where was the Latino diaspora? [End Page 253] I wondered. More importantly still, what did the absence of Latinos at this inaugural event imply about the presumed identities and relationships upon which the UN's new project was founded?
This essay analyzes the Digital Diaspora for Latin America project with a focus on the contemporary development context out of which it emerged and the transnational identity politics on which it was premised. Through an ethnographic analysis of the inaugural event, I explore the basic development assumptions that underwrote this initiative. I identify these assumptions as "neoliberal" because of the way they promoted development through market-based rationalities that privileged individual responsibility, social enterprise, and post-national economic and technological integration. These assumptions oriented the initiative's efforts to harness elite, expatriate knowledge and capital for regional development—a task whose ultimate goal was to continue the transfer of development responsibility from Latin American states to private individuals. Rather than seeing this shift as evidence of a "retreat" of the state from development, however, I use the inaugural experience to illustrate the continued importance of the Latin American state in shaping transnational development practices.
The significance of this neoliberal shift is not limited to an analysis of development policy or of its potential economic impact. Indeed, what is most interesting about this project is the way it used the notion of a Latino diaspora to recruit Latino elites to such a transnational development strategy. My analysis of the inaugural event thus attempts to illuminate how the project conjured the notion of a Latino diaspora tied to a post-national Latin American homeland as the basis for a transfer of development responsibility. I show how organizers drew on assumed transnational filial obligations and the emancipatory potential of market expansion to highlight moral links among diasporic subjects. This approach elided the production of "Latino" as a product of US cultural politics and effaced the ongoing importance of class and national identities within Latino identity politics.
In what follows, I provide a brief background on the Digital Diaspora phenomenon to reveal its philosophical and institutional underpinnings. I highlight the constitutive role of overlapping networks of expert knowledge, neoliberal rationalities, and diasporic identities in constructing transnational technology-based development initiatives. Through an ethnographic analysis of the Digital Diaspora for Latin America...