When Participants Anticipate Violence

The strengths of anthropology as a discipline are its ability to amplify disenfranchised voices and capture the fine-grained, daily, lived experiences of its participants. The gap between policy actions and their human costs is widening in our current political climate. The rescinding of DACA and local law enforcement cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, force migrants into spaces of risk that can sometimes have fatal consequences. It is imperative that we consider how Latinx community members alter their daily lives, movements, and behaviors in anticipation of being targeted.

These young Latinx learners are facing a particular kind of systemic violence that often flies under the radar. It does not raise a rifle or a voice. It inscribes a sense of despondency and wields it like a weapon.
Much has been written about the challenges young Latinx learners face, including language brokering, the school to prison pipeline, and obstacles to completion of higher education. Insidious, and more difficult to document, is how the anticipation of impending malicious policies affects the informal learning practices of Latinx students. My research with Mexican-origin families in southeastern Pennsylvania took place from 2008–2014. For most of that time, I lived in the New Latino Diaspora town and conducted ethnographic fieldwork with a group of Mexican-origin middle school boys as they engaged in self-directed digital literacy practices in a community center. Five years ago, the boys were eager to learn computer programming languages on their own time and spoke enthusiastically about higher education trajectories and of imagined futures as programmers, architects, and business owners.

Entelequia—The Realization of Potential, by Carlos Rosas, 1976. Public mural in south El Paso. Carlos Martínez-Cano

 

However, in more recent conversations with the boys, I have observed how young Latinx learners are intimidated by the simple “on the table” placement of policies that adhere to white supremacist ideologies. The boys have disenfranchised themselves as a mode of self-preservation in anticipation of the harmful impacts of such policies. I contend that Latinx youth, documented and undocumented alike, are choosing what they consider more pragmatic and constricted imagined futures. Instead of envisioning technology-related jobs, they talk about how their non-Latinx classmates taunt them, telling them to pack their bags because they are likely to be deported soon. They speak of teachers crushing their college aspirations by telling them that there’s no point in trying because they won’t be able to attend college anyway.

Though it’s difficult to account for all of the factors that lead to dreams deferred, the shift in their attitudes and aspirations coincides with the racist tone of others around them in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election. Once self-efficacious and eager learners speak in tones of consolation about working construction and landscaping jobs with family members. It is understandable that their family members would be concerned about their safety, but it is a marked shift from a perspective of opportunity, to one of survival. To study these shifts, professional educators and educational statisticians can analyze changes in the performance of Latinx students in formal educational settings. However, anthropologists are uniquely suited to document how the informal learning practices that Latinx youth choose to undertake for their own enjoyment and personal development are affected.

Based on my long-term engagement with students in various educational settings, Latinx youth often internalize the way their communities are framed within polarizing national political discourses. The question then becomes, how do researchers and activists who work with Latinx youth and their families approach the harmful impacts that racist rhetoric and policies have on them? What tools and methods can we use to connect multi-scalar politics to the utterances, dashed hopes, and altered imagined futures of Latinx youth? How do anthropologists document this process in order to mitigate or reverse the damage done? It appears to require work at multiple levels. My position here is to refocus the effort, not at the national or community level, and not in institutional settings, but in the dispositions and practices related to learning and imagined futures that Latinx youth are undertaking in their own time, and of their own accord.

These young Latinx learners are facing a particular kind of systemic violence that often flies under the radar. It does not raise a rifle or a voice. It inscribes a sense of despondency and wields it like a weapon. Though undocumented students are deeply affected by this violence documented students are affected as well. Its reach extends beyond the classroom and the playground, though its effects are also felt there. In the most liminal of spaces, the transition from youth to adulthood, this violence imposes limits. It tells this vulnerable generation who they can and cannot become. As a consequence, it limits the educational opportunities and possibilities for wealth accumulation and socio-economic mobility of future Latinx communities.

For the past several months, I have been living in my hometown of El Paso, Texas and writing my dissertation in the local community college library. I have the privilege of being surrounded by predominantly brown faces—kids who come from working-class backgrounds like myself. I am privy to their conversations about rising early for morning classes and working multiple jobs in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends. I swell with pride when I witness their eagerness for learning and tenacity at working low-wage jobs to pay their tuition. But like any critical anthropologist, I question what I am not seeing. How many of their peers have the same tenacity, the same thirst for learning, but feel such hostility from the current political climate that they have allowed themselves to believe in the deficit-perspective and xenophobic narratives within which they are portrayed? How many other anthropologists are witnessing how Latinx communities are adjusting their aspirations to meet low expectations? Have they recognized the compromised hopes and dreams that mothers now have for their children? How do we interrogate the psychological violence of white supremacist politics as it filters into our living rooms on the evening news? I urge anthropologists working with Latinx youth to attend to these shifts in tone and perspective.

Carlos Martínez-Cano is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

If you would like to contribute to ALLA Section News, please contact either of the contributing editors: Aimee Villarreal ([email protected]) or Almita Miranda ([email protected])

Cite as: Martínez-Cano, Carlos. 2018. “When Participants Anticipate Violence.” Anthropology News website, February 12, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.757

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