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  • Of Hammers, Hurricanes, and History: Oscar Casares’s Brownsville, Postracial Affect, and the Latina/o Studies Field-Imaginary
  • Alberto Varon (bio)

[T]here still stands a large red barn, old and abandoned, its windows boarded and its roof unshingled. Like all inutile inanimates, it gives no hint that it, too, has a past.

José Antonio Villarreal, Pocho

In a 2010 essay for the Houston Chronicle, author Oscar Casares tries to explain to the newspaper’s general audience why Cinco de Mayo is so widely celebrated. He jokes that, as opposed to el Dieciséis de Septiembre, “if you happen to not speak Spanish, Cinco de Mayo is much easier to pronounce, no matter how many margaritas are involved.” Quickly, however, he shifts to a more serious tone, and Casares points out how:

Every year we [Americans] prefer to celebrate Mexico’s history on our terms, whether that history is accurate or only convenient. But then again, isn’t the United States’ relationship with Mexico all about convenience?

We want the cheap labor of undocumented workers . . . [but] don’t actually want these same people in our country. We want the benefits they provide, but we don’t want to have to think about the cost of those benefits. We want their labor, but we don’t want to have to think about them as anything other than [End Page 207] labor. To do so would be to acknowledge them as people, acknowledge that they come with a history worth honoring, and maybe, even acknowledge that we are part of the reason they are now here in this country.

Thus, the origins of Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US are rooted in two related ideas: the economic imperatives of transnational capital that require cheap, mobile labor and the imbricated national histories of the two countries. The US and Mexico share a long, complicated, and interconnected hemispheric history extending back to the colonial projects that precede each nation’s founding. These histories came to a head in 1846, when the US’ expansionist push westward collided with existing (if tenuous claims to) Mexican national territory and remapped North America into what we know today.1 Such a long view is neither particularly common nor politically popular, at least outside academic circles, yet the historical conditions that created the realities of labor (what I take to be Casares’s metonym for our contemporary understanding of immigration, the topic to which he tacitly refers and which I address below) are frequently neglected in popular media and political discourse.

History and historical labor practices converge to structure his story, “RG,” and, more broadly, the contemporary and still developing field of Latina/o studies.2 Here I address the confluence of labor and immigration through a reading of the material histories in “RG,” drawn from Casares’s collection, Brownsville (2003), to argue for the affective relationship between race and history in latinidad. Published at the turn of the twenty-first century, the collection helps illuminate a shift in the development of Latinx culture in the US, perhaps most observable in the popular imaginary following the 2000 census when Latinxs emerged as the nation’s largest ethnic group.3 Just a few years before “RG”’s publication, Latinxs in the US were newly understood as a force with which the nation must reckon for political, economic, demographic, and generational reasons. The marked growth of Latinxs as a percentage of the population created a surge in both media and political attention to the relationship between Latinxs and US culture and society, revealing what Arlene Dávila has called the “Latino market” and challenging, as Clara E. Rodríguez explains, mainstream understandings of race and ethnicity.4

Consequently, prior Latinx cultural history and contributions to public life are routinely forgotten, replaced by predictions concerning Latinxs’ future place in the country. The material history in Casares’s short story reframes those discourses of emergence by attempting to capture competing historical forces within a story that [End Page 208] is about both the past and the future. At the same time, the objects depicted in Casares’s stories serve as textual and material artifacts that communicate both historical antagonisms that continue to...


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pp. 207-228
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