The Sawyer Seminar, Imagining Latinidades: Articulations of National Belonging, is a project of the University of Iowa’s Latina/o Studies Program, the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Read on to learn about how we frame the Seminar topic and click through to the themes to learn more.

On March 3, 2015, Iowa City, Iowa pastor Max Villatoro was taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in an early morning arrest after helping transport a neighbor to work. Part of a five-day, nationwide “Operation Cross Check” conducted by ICE that targeted people with criminal convictions, Villatoro was one of over 2,000 people arrested in the 2015 sweep. He was deported to Honduras less than three weeks later, ripped from his wife and four children (all U.S. citizens), who remain in Iowa City. Villatoro’s arrest and deportation shocked many Iowa City residents, in part because he had been a pillar of the community for years. But Villatoro’s story is indicative of the broader ways Latina/o/x people are imagined in relationship to the nation—as criminals, as less-than-human foreign matter that is better excised from the body politic than left to transform it. Beginning with Villatoro’s story, the Imagining Latinidades: Articulations of National Belonging Sawyer Seminar is anchored in an immediate and urgent concern for Latina/o/x peoples and the shifting epistemic and ontological terrain of “America.” Intellectually, this is a Seminar rooted in the interdisciplinary (and occasionally anti-disciplinary) space of Latina/o Studies. Theorists Vargas, Mirabal, and La Fountain-Stokes (2017) describe that space as “an amalgamation of multiple disciplines, theories, and methods” that “has generated an expansive, innovative, and ever-evolving framework to understand the experiences of persons of Latin American and Caribbean descent in the United States as well as broader sociohistorical, political, and cultural processes.”

Through this Seminar, we investigate how Latinidad is imagined. Latinidad is a concept that refers, according to Angharad Valdivia (2004), to “the state of being or appearing Latina/o[/x]” and is a heuristic that directs critical and interpretive attention to the processes of articulation through which Latina/o/x-ness is generated. We believe that by consciously connecting the interpretive approaches of the humanities and qualitative social sciences, we can offer new insight into the ways Latina/o/x peoples’ subjectivities are crafted both from within and without Latina/o/x communities, as included and excluded from understandings of the nation. Our subtitle, “Articulations of National Belonging” has multiple meanings for us. First, we’re interested in exploring the ways in which Latina/o/x people disrupt dominant and dominating articulations of nation/nationhood/belonging. Second, we’re interested in how articulations of national belonging (particularly those that exclude Latina/o/x folks) puncture the social fabric in problematic ways. We are particularly interested in the ways different technologies implicate and are implicated in imagining and disrupting Latinidades—that is, how technologies (which might be discursive, electronic, or otherwise material) form new ways of belonging and resisting citizenship, nation, Latinidad, and more. Those promises of technologies are also always haunted by potential threats for the Latina/o/x side: surveillance regimes, border walls and other “border security” technologies, political rhetoric, etc.

Fraga et. al. (2010) begin their book Latino Lives in America with an anecdote about the overwhelming sense of surprise regarding the 2006 nationwide immigration protests. “That is,” they wrote, “almost nothing we ‘know’ about Latinos from the work of social scientists and humanists would have predicted these events.” Indeed, despite the fact that, according to Barreto & Segura (2014) the “rapid growth of the Latino population will change America in profound ways,” the sense of surprise persists because scholars and other U.S. Americans lack basic understandings of Latina/o/x complexity, history, and culture. Such general ignorance finds new life as hate with the rise of white populism and the reinvigoration of anti-Latina/o/x discourses and policies. It’s easy to treat then-candidate Trump’s 2016 disparagement of Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists” as an anomaly—a rhetorical flourish to garner support for his border wall—but he won the election, and those attitudes persist.

This “surprise” fires our interest in this Seminar. How can U.S. Americans look at statistics that portray one picture of Latina/o/x peoples yet sustain a contradictory Latina/o/x imaginary? Despite all of the available data showing that immigrants (documented or undocumented) have lower rates of crime and that the diversity they bring increases social solidarity in the long run, willful ignorance and misinformation continue to inform public policy debates over border security, the repeal of DACA, and more. And it’s not just about immigrants. Rather, as Cacho (2012) expertly shows, all Latina/o/x peoples are made suspect and wrapped up in the experience of social death because of these dominant discourses. Latina/o/x agency (whether in the form of mass protest or self-definition in online counterpublics) remains surprising; but is it also surprising that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes in general are up? Is it surprising that during the last presidential campaign alone, LA Weekly reported, anti-Latino hate crimes soared 69% in Los Angeles County? Is it any more surprising that Latina/o/x folks continue to be underrepresented in mainstream media? On the grander stages of the art world? In literature? This tension between fact and fantasy calls for a combined social scientific and humanities interpretive approach if we want to advance our understanding of the present and future of Latina/o/x people in the United States.