Latinx America and an Anthropology of Dissent

Instead of proclaiming and declaring anthropology’s importance, we should step back and ask: What is the matter with anthropology?
Our Annual Meeting theme has a problem. “Anthropology Matters!” both asserts the discipline’s relevance and considers anthropology’s subjects of study, but as an anthropologist of color, I question the wisdom in upholding this at face value. If we do, it runs the risk of masking what anthropology inherited from colonialism, hiding its racial legacies. Instead of proclaiming and declaring anthropology’s importance, we should step back and ask: What is the matter with anthropology?

The matter indicates a “problem with”—the blind spot so often the cause of many of the discipline’s vulnerabilities and calamities. And one crucial step in engaging with this polemic is acknowledging intellectual communities and traditions—or marginalized matter—perennially overlooked by the discipline. In other words, considering the matter with requires us to engage with the insights of parallel intellectual traditions that have called anthropology into question—ethnic studies and ethnic minority anthropologists, in particular. This consideration is crucial to anthropology’s survival given the present political contexts both globally and domestically.

“Calling for the end to surveillance, deportations, and criminalization of undocumented peoples.” Molly Adams/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

I won’t rehearse the aftermath we find ourselves in under the Trump administration—details are abundantly available everywhere else—suffice to say that many of the administration’s initiatives are adversely impacting Latinx communities, as well as many others. And although the press has heralded the formation of a seemingly new resistance politics in response to intensified policies and pronouncements, anthropologists focused on Latinx issues know that resistance and activism run deep in these communities. With this in mind, the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists’ (ALLA) Executive Session “Dissent in the Post-Truth Era: Latinx Communities Organize and Resist” presents diverse ethnographic and geographic foci that attend themes of dispossession, refusal, organized struggles for social justice, and the complexities of citizenship. We consider contemporary iterations of these processes and contexts, while acknowledging their historical antecedents. So we ask, what can we learn from long-term activism in relation to the present intensified targeting of Latinx communities? And how do ethnographic approaches help us understand how activists and others continue to pivot and reshape their enduring resistance strategies?

Our discussion grows out of panelists’ work on movements for reproductive justice and sanctuary for undocumented students; the impact of anti-immigrant discourses and policies; the role Latinx artists play in intersectional activism with movements like Black Lives Matter; and how vulnerable subjects—such as trans Latinxs—resist immigration enforcement on behalf of queer rights. This innovative and theoretically robust research reflects what is potentially “new” about the present moment, while also extending a long historical view that accounts for what makes these multiple and contemporary political movements possible.

Members of the South Central Farm attending the immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles California on May Day, 2006. The banner, in Spanish, reads ‘No human being is illegal.’” Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5

Indeed, grassroots Latinx battles for social justice are happening all around us and on our campuses. As allies, my students ask how they can help. What role do they play? As an educator, a citizen (broadly conceived), and a friend, I encountered these ethical questions in the classroom, my research, and daily life—each with its own anthropological context. ALLA President Gina Perez’s own activism at Oberlin College, for instance, stands as a shining example of how anthropology can yield insights that reveal a discipline that sees itself “as standing for equality, human rights, social justice, respect for diversity, and indeed even fighting for the underdog,” as Virginia Dominguez and Emily Metzner recently put it. Perez has been deeply involved in the #SanctuaryCampus movement at Oberlin, which is the result of years of creative and responsive immigrant youth organizing nationwide that has transformed how universities engage with undocumented students with respect to both legal services and educational resources. Bearing in mind the importance of this type of activist engagement—which is at the core of ALLA’s intellectual mission—I turn to Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla’s recent comments concerning opposition movements, the state of our national politics, and what we must learn from both:

The framing of Trump as an exception to rather than an indictment of liberal democracy leads us to approach this as a moment of recuperation rather than reimagination. What alternative political and economic orders are possible, indeed necessary? What populations and communities have, out of necessity, long since been imagining and enacting these alternatives, and how might we take our cue from them?

Inspired by Rosa and Bonilla, Gina Perez asks how we—as anthropologists—can “use our tools, collective knowledge and commitments to ensure inclusion, protect undocumented migrants and all immigrants, and critique, challenge and offer liberatory alternatives to surveillance, mass incarceration, militarism, and xenophobia?” This is a call to ensure that anthropological research and practice remain grounded in an enduring commitment to community engagement and social justice so that we may herald in a more just world. In short, making anthropology matter necessitates, among other things, that it follow the lead of disciplines like ethnic studies and draw upon and credit their efforts and insights.

This enterprise is equally about confronting anthropology’s fraught engagement with issues of race, coloniality, and diversity, not only intellectually, but also within its ranks and in the classroom. Engaging what’s the matter with anthropology—its inherent problems, which have been critiqued by vibrant and parallel intellectual communities—is as much a pedagogical endeavor as it is a scholarly one. And for our Latinx students to find anthropology meaningful (for it to matter to them) it must privilege the contexts of struggle and resistance that these students have inherited as part of their own experiences and cultural legacies within the United States.

“Calling for the end to surveillance, deportations, and criminalization of undocumented peoples.” Molly Adams/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

This engagement is central to how anthropology both represents and participates in diverse communities in and outside academia. Having said this, I recognize (as do many educators) that I have learned far more from my students than they could ever learn from me. In truth, I have come to understand the very matters of and with anthropology through them, and for this and other reasons my students never cease to surprise and inspire me.

In May 2017, a group of graduating seniors at the University of Notre Dame, where I teach, organized a walk out during commencement to protest invited speaker Vice President Mike Pence. Their dissent sent shockwaves throughout the country, sparking both ire and admiration. Student organizer Xitlaly Estrada declared to the press: “The participation and degree-conferring of VP Pence stand as an endorsement of policies and actions which directly contradict Catholic social teachings and values.” The day after, I wrote a few words to Xitlaly and other former students of mine whose faces I recognized in the national coverage. I let them know I was proud of them, but most of all, I thanked them for the time we shared in the classroom: “Your courage reaffirms my own life path,” I wrote. Instances such as this one lay bare how anthropology is personal for many US anthropologists of color. Indeed, damaging forms of knowledge about our communities retain deep legacies that both our scholarship and very presence in the classroom labor to overturn.

This is precisely what makes ours an anthropology of dissent—an intersectional and unapologetic anthropology that has long worked outside the borders of the discipline in order to confront the logics of power and violence at the core of colonial and racial institutions (including anthropology) that continue to shape our lives and our place in the United States. We engage in this anthropology of dissent through teaching, writing, activism, and, of course, research. So I end with the words of my esteemed colleague Aimee Villarreal—Chicana, feminist, anthropologist—who perhaps puts it best: “Our abiding solidarity in difference means that our ethnographic fieldwork is homework.”

Alex E. Chávez is assistant professor of anthropology and faculty fellow of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He works in the areas of linguistic anthropology, Latina/o studies, and ethnomusicology. He is the author of Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño (winter 2017, Duke University Press).

Cite as: Chávez, Alex E. 2017. “Latinx America and an Anthropology of Dissent.” Anthropology News website. November 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.660

Comments

Thank you, Dr. Alex Chávez.

It can’t surprise any of us that the person who wrote these words– “This is precisely what makes ours an anthropology of dissent—an intersectional and unapologetic anthropology that has long worked outside the borders of the discipline in order to confront the logics of power and violence at the core of colonial and racial institutions (including anthropology) that continue to shape our lives and our place in the United States”– is shaping students whose courage inspires us in a time of moral confusion.

Thank you for writing this important and critical contribution. The October issue of Open Anthropology, Open Anthropology Matters includes the Rosa and Bonilla piece cited above. Although the issue is mostly celebratory of an “Anthropology Matters” perspective, it is also attempting to include pieces that ask “what is the matter with anthropology?”

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