- The Child and the Latina ImmigrantReimagining the Southern California Imaginary in Héctor Tobar's The Barbarian Nurseries
In 2011, when Héctor Tobar's second novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, was published, the United States was in the thick of debates over the reintroduced DREAM act.1 Those opposed to the bill, then and now, have referred to its intended beneficiaries with dehumanizing terms like "removable aliens" and described them as resource thieves stealing state benefits and educational opportunities from "true American" children (Yuhas, Chavez). In the summer of 2014, a few months before I wrote the first draft of this article, anti-immigration protestors in the small southern California town of Murrieta chanted "Not our kids, not our problem!" as buses full of migrant children and their parents rolled into their town for detention and processing (Hansen; "The Rachel Maddow Show"). And in the fall of 2018, as I sit revising this article for publication, the embers are still burning from the firestorm that erupted over the summer in response to the decision of President Donald Trump's administration to separate undocumented parents from their children at the border. Echoing the Murrieta protestors, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade argued in defense of the brutal treatment of many of these children: "Like it or not, these aren't our kids" (Nashrulla). In each case, a media frenzy ensued that took up the focus on children on both sides, recalling Lee Edelman's scathing account of "the Child" as a rhetorical trump card in US political discourse, an invocation against which there can be no argument. To protect "our kids," any measures, against anyone, including other children, are justifiable.
In his 2004 No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman [End Page 469] describes how this "figural Child embodies the citizen as an ideal, entitled to claim full rights to its future share in the nation's good" (11). But what precisely does that figural Child look like? It seems clear that in the immigration discourse of the twenty-first-century United States, some children are considered more worthy of protection than others, and that worthiness is tied to race, social class, and geographical origin. Who, precisely, are "our kids"? That is, who is "the Child," and how does his rhetorical invocation shape the lived realities of those constructed fundamentally as both threatening to and supportive of his survival? If, as Alicia Schmidt Camacho claims, ethnic Latinos/as (particularly Mexicans) are marked "in opposition to the ideal citizen-subject of the U.S. nation" (7), what can we then infer about the relationship between the Child and the Latino/a immigrant? How do these nationalized constructs translate in a regional imaginary like that of Southern California? What possibilities exist for reimagining these imaginaries?
The Barbarian Nurseries, set among the same affluent Southern California landscape to which the town of Murrieta belongs, suggests some answers to these questions. In the novel, eleven-yearold Brandon Torres-Thompson and his younger brother are left alone with Mexican housekeeper Araceli when the boys' parents separately but simultaneously flee the house in the wake of explosive domestic trouble. Their mother takes their infant sister with her, but when the parents return their boys are gone: Araceli, with no idea where her employers have gone or when they will return, has taken it upon herself to guide the boys through the channels of Los Angeles in hopes of depositing them at their grandfather's house. When news of the boys' disappearance breaks nationally it becomes an overnight sensation. Though the boys are descendants of a Mexican immigrant grandfather, this aspect of their background is willfully ignored and their status as "white" children is exploited to produce mass outrage over their supposed endangerment, even as assumptions about Araceli's legal status are connected to her presumed guilt as a kidnapper.
This essay conducts a close reading of the ways in which the various characters of The Barbarian Nurseries move in relation to one another among a Southern California landscape that provides [End Page 470] the vivid scenery on top of which the social imaginary is projected. In the first section, I connect theories...