Disposable Strangers: Tracing Mexican American Citizenship and Latinx Belonging Into the 21st Century

In 1977, the Office of Management and Budget created five racial/ethnic categories, one of which was “Hispanic.” A few years later, the grassroots alternative, “Latino”/”Latina” began to be heard, particularly in big cities, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The five racial/ethnic labels have since contributed to redefine the meaning of citizenship and belonging in the United States. But ethnic labels, like any name, have a life of their own beyond the intent of their creators. Focusing on Latinxs, I will examine the historical and current impact of these labels on their lived experience of rights and of belonging in the United States today. 

My talk is framed by the political and cultural instabilities created by globalization’s relentless destruction of community. But it is also motivated by the uncertainties and growing viciousness of the attacks against an amorphous group defined as “Mexicans” –a category that seems increasingly to have become a barometer of the contemporary perceptions about, and experience of all US Latinxs. I argue that the changes in Latinxs’ experiences of rights and belonging in US society today can best be understood through the historical and contemporary experiences of Mexican Americans, the largest and oldest Latinx group of US citizens. Thus, I trace the changing social location of Mexican Americans in US polity and society, from conquered historical minorities in the mid 19th century through to the contemporary societal ambivalence toward all “Mexicans,” as disposable strangers today.

Suzanne Oboler
Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College of the City University of New York and is Founding Editor of the academic journal, Latino Studies (2002-2012)