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date: 23 April 2018

Decoloniality and Identity in Central American Latina and Latino Literature

Summary and Keywords

The presence of coloniality is critical for the explication, and reflection, on racialized and subalternized relations of dominance/subordination. The Spanish invasion in 1492 was the first marker and constitutive element of modernity. In 1992 Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano introduced the category of coloniality of power, further developed by Walter Mignolo. This epistemic change not only constituted a pattern of continual production of racialized identities and an unequal hierarchy whereby European identities and knowledge were considered superior to all others in what amounted to a caste system but also generated mechanisms of social domination that preserved this social classification into the present. Coloniality is not limited to the colonial period, which ended for most of Latin America in the first quarter of the 19th century. Despite political independence from Spain or Portugal, the pattern elaborated by Quijano continues to our day, structuring processes of racialization, subalternization, and knowledge production. This is the reason Mignolo labels it a “matrix of power.”

Central American–American literature represents the nature of colonialized violence suffered by U.S. Central Americans and constitutes racialized and subalternized migrants as a form of interpellating agency deployed in the name of the excluded subjects. Novelist Mario Bencastro’s Odyssey to the North, Sandra Benítez’s Bitter Grounds, Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband, and the EpiCentro poets mobilize in different fashions and directions the inner contradictions of identitary and decolonial issues in reaction to colonialized perceptions of textual subjectivities—or their traces—manifested in their respective discursive practices. These phenomena cannot be understood outside of the historical flux generated by the coloniality of power.

Keywords: coloniality, Global South, diasporas, Central American–American, racism, Eurocentrism, extractive colonialism, immigrants, affect, violence


In general terms, Spain’s Eurocentric colonialism created in Central America what Xinka-Pipil scholar Egla Martínez Salazar, presently living in Canada, labels “heteropatriarchies.”1 This is one of the many possible outcomes of Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano’s concept of the coloniality of power. The category names racial, political, and social hierarchical orders that disenfranchised and subalternized colonized peoples of the Americas during three centuries of colonization, resulting in a caste system. Spaniards were ranked at the top and those they had conquered at the bottom due to different phenotypic traits and a culture presumed to be inferior. In Quijano’s understanding, this legacy continues to this day. That is what he has defined as coloniality. This category implies the continuity of social discrimination that outlived formal colonialism and became integrated in contemporary social orders due to cultural systems that revolve around a Eurocentric hierarchy and that enforce Eurocentric economic, knowledge, and symbolic production systems.

This category entered the lexicon of Latin American theorists in 1992 through Aníbal Quijano’s seminal article “Colonialidad y modernidad/racionalidad” (Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality), published in Perú Indígena. In the United States, Argentine scholar Walter Mignolo from Duke University formulated these issues, while recognizing Quijano’s contribution, in his book The Darker Side of the Renaissance (1995) to move thinking beyond Western and Eurocentric conceptualizations.2 Together with his following text, Local Histories/Global Designs (2000), Mignolo provided a new way of framing the issues of cultural production and agency.3 The foundational perspective opened by Quijano and Mignolo, within which Martínez Salazar placed her scholarship, opened up new ways of understanding the colonial past, the colonialized present in most countries of the global South, the underlining racism against Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas and present-day migratory patterns to the United States and the Industrial North as a whole.

In the logic stated in the previous paragraph, decoloniality may be said to stand, simplistically enough, for the opposite of coloniality. That is, decoloniality is a struggle that does not limit itself to political freedom from colonial powers, as happened in the 1800s when most Latin American nations freed themselves from their colonial masters—Spain or Portugal. It is, in its stead, an ongoing effort to fight the legacy of coloniality, that is, of the form of thinking introduced in the Americas by these colonial powers in the 1500s, whereby European identities and knowledges came to be considered superior to all others in what amounted to a caste system but also generated mechanisms of social domination that preserved this racialized social classification into the present. All present-day Latin American nations, despite their claim that they have been allegedly free from their colonial masters for nearly two hundred years, still suffer from coloniality. That is, their citizens still think that European knowledge is superior to all other knowledges, that white people are superior to people of color, that European art is superior to all other forms of art, that European languages are “real” languages whereas non-European languages are merely more primitive forms of speaking and writing, etc. The same thing happens, by extension, to migrants from those nations who moved to the United States. Most Latin Americans and Latina/os ignore to this day that Mayas had the most advanced mathematics and astronomical knowledge in the world until the 16th century, or that 4,000 years ago there was an Andean world with a geometric system of measurements, based on the concept of π‎ or pi. Most Latin Americans and Latina/os now share the European notion that Indigenous peoples are inferior, closer to animals than to humans, as are Africans.

This entire logic points in the direction of decoloniality as the only means to oppose thinking and behaving in the ways signaled in the example of the previous paragraph, in which colonialism still infects the way the world is viewed. Whether speaking truth to power or engaging in a myriad of other activities (giving greater value to Indigenous and Afro-descendant cultures and arts or recognizing their languages as the equal of European ones, for example), decolonial processes can only be implemented from the perspective of subalternized knowledges, because these are the only repositories from which a transformation of Western-centric ways of being can be challenged to generate more inclusive understandings of knowledge and thus the importance of better comprehending what subalternized knowledges are. Subalternized knowledges should become the loci of enunciation for people to grasp what non-Eurocentric forms of knowledge have been and may become again.

Central American–American Literary Production

Facile racist explanations have been often used by uninformed people to construe why nation-building, a phenomenon that presupposed economic modernization, cultural modernism, and democratization, failed in Latin America, unlike the United States or Canada. The coloniality of power, and newer theories that spun out of it, enable us to understand them and their nadir in the late 1980s, when massive migration from Central America to the United States began in earnest because of the region’s civil wars, which were in turn the product of coloniality: national elites considered peasants ignorant, residual, and inferior—in short, non-subjects. By the end of the 1980s most academics agreed that the macro-narratives of the 1960s were no longer adequate for explaining the fast changes introduced in the hemisphere by emergent globalization. One of its consequences was the notion that literature and all forms of “high culture” had lost their position as the cornerstones of national cultures, that traditional public intellectuals had in turn lost their ground as letrados guiding national communities. Central American migrants began around this time to chronicle their lived events in the United States alongside narratives, poetry, and multiple other discursive forms produced by analogous migrant communities. In her 2009 text Dividing the Isthmus, Ana Patricia Rodríguez listed what she labeled “a growing corpus of U.S. Central American-themed and authored literature” that included, among other texts, Desde el epicentro (2007); Francisco Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), The Ordinary Seaman (1997), and The Divine Husband (2004); Mario Escobar’s Gritos Interiores (2005); Mario Bencastro’s Odyssey to the North (1999) and Viaje a la tierra del abuelo (2004); Quique Avilés’s The Immigrant Museum (2003); Leticia Hernández-Linares’s Razor Edges of My Tongue (2002); Roberto Quesada’s The Big Banana (1999) and Never Through Miami (2002); Tanya María Barrientos’s Frontera Street (2002) and Family Resemblance (2003); Marcos McPeek Villatoro’s A Fire in the Earth (1996), HomeKillings: A Romilia Chacón Mystery (2001), Minos (2003), and A Venom Beneath the Skin (2005); Hector Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier (2000); and Sandra Benítez’s Bitter Grounds (1997) and The Weight of Things (2000).4

There is already a broad enough sample to verify the processes of disenfranchisement, identicide, residual trauma, victimization, migrancy, and dislocation suffered by Central American migrants to the United States. As Argentinian scholar Horacio Legrás states, literature can bring to the coloniality/decoloniality problematic “a theory of the subject of decolonization that is by and large lacking in decolonial authors.”5 By “decolonial authors” Legrás means here, of course, decolonial theorists, such as Mignolo. Moving along these analytical capabilities of heterogeneous spaces with impure discourses, this article explores how Central American–American literature represents the nature of colonialized violence suffered by U.S. Central Americans and constitutes racialized and subalternized migrants as a form of interpellating agency deployed in the name of the excluded subjects. For the latter, the examples of novelist Mario Bencastro’s Odyssey to the North, Sandra Benítez’s Bitter Grounds, Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband, and the EpiCentro poets will be exemplary.6 These texts mobilize in different fashions and directions the inner contradictions of identity and decolonial issues in reaction to colonialized perceptions of textual subjectivities—or their traces—manifested in their respective discursive practices. They are texts written by representative Central American–American authors, recognized since this category was originally conceptualized as American citizens writing in English and haunted by the violent experiences of their family’s home country, which shapes the relationship they develop with them and the ensuing subjectivities they construct as fractured beings living in the United States, but whose hearts or souls are in Central America.7 Bencastro and Benítez are of Salvadoran origin. Goldman is of Guatemalan descent. Bencastro (b. 1949) was originally born in Ahuachapán. He has spent the bulk of his life in the United States. Benítez (b. 1941) was born in Washington D.C., and spent ten years of her childhood in El Salvador before returning to the United States. Goldman (1954), was born in Boston, MA. He traveled regularly to Guatemala as a child to visit his mother’s relatives and as a journalist has continued to cover events in this country for U.S. media. The EpiCentro poets are a newer generation of self-defined Central American–American poets of mixed origins, who celebrate their identitary fusion. They all have mixed Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran roots as well as Mexican, white American, and other variable identitary traits, yet they emphasize their Indigenous and Afro-descendant ancestry. By dwelling on critical issues such as the Salvadoran population fleeing from their civil war to the United States in the 1980s (Bencastro), rethinking El Salvador’s matanza (genocide) of 1932 from a 1990s perspective (Benítez), the historical role played by the late 19th-century Guatemalan community in New York City that became a part of Cuban patriot José Martí’s entourage (Goldman), and EpiCentro poets deploying their radical rhetorics to enunciate contradictory subjectivities opposing Eurocentric modernity, these texts begin to disrupt, transgress, and traverse Western thinking to advances alternative notions of interculturality and decoloniality, even if this happens by means of haphazard, accidental, or hidden contradictions.

Central American Migrations to the United States

Mignolo’s strong critique of Eurocentrism confronted the issue of Western epistemological dominance. From the moment decoloniality was defined, this field became concerned with the existence of subalternized and racialized subjects and communities. Their goal was to further value, explore, and give full recognition to subalternized and racialized viewpoints and knowledge brutally marked by the legacy of Anglo-centric settler colonialism in the Global North—or by Spanish and Portuguese extractive colonialism in the Latin American case. As James Belich states in Replenishing the Earth, between 1780 and 1930 the number of English-speakers rocketed from 12 million in 1780 to 200 million, and their wealth and power grew to match, due to the power of settler colonialism.8

Spanish extractive colonialism was a different phenomenon. The Spanish crown implemented a model where Indigenous subjects were at first enslaved to work in mines. “Until the eighteenth century, its core business was the mining of silver and the transport of as much as possible of it to Spain,” states Belich.9 Indigenous populations were exploited for these purposes. They remained subalternized and racialized by Spaniards for a little over three hundred years as a result. This, along with the importation of African slaves, reduced Spain’s need for European settlers. Regarding language, Spanish colonialism did not envision the acquisition of Spanish by colonized, subalternized, and racialized majorities. On the contrary, this was perceived as a threat. By the end of the 18th century, only a small minority of Indigenous peoples spoke Spanish. Nineteenth-century independence from Spain did not change these policies. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that racialized and subalternized minorities in Latin America became relatively fluent in Spanish, and only by the 1970s did a sector of them begin to write in this language.

As has been endlessly documented, the massive flow of Central American immigrants to the United States was a direct result of the brutality of the Central American civil wars of the 1980s and of the toll they extracted on peasant communities. As armies advanced, destroying village after village and massacring its occupants, thousands of refugees, primarily from El Salvador and Guatemala, fled to Mexico. Some remained there in UN-sponsored refugee camps. Many more continued on to the United States and Canada. Anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans also fled from their country, flying primarily to Miami and the Florida area.

The earliest U.S. Central American migrations can be traced to the mid-1850s California gold rush. By the early 1910s and 1920s, there were increasing numbers of Central Americans migrating to and establishing communities in places like San Francisco and New Orleans, headquarters of the infamous United Fruit Company that treated the entire region as an enclave economy. But the great migration of Central Americans occurred during the last three decades of the 20th century.

Ostensibly, after the civil wars of the 1980s, a process of social reconciliation, reconstruction, and development was to take hold. Yet the reality of the post-war period was one of little economic growth, massive unemployment (officially recorded at 50 percent in both Guatemala and El Salvador, but most likely higher in both countries), and the gradual emergence of a non-regulated parallel power to the state consisting of criminal gangs and drug cartels. The gangs gained muscle, wealth, and prestige as unemployed youngsters and immigrants were deported from the United States, most of them members of either Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street Gang (Mara 18), gangs originally formed in the streets of Los Angeles by young, alienated youth of Central American origin.10

These post-war results were not an accident. The promised international aid never materialized in sufficient quantity, and the epochal shift of globalization revolutionized transnational or supranational social and economic structures that canceled out the importance of peripheral nation-states. William I. Robinson has argued how this transnational economic model was implemented in the Central American region in the 1990s, undermining the role of the nation-state as an agent of social change.11 He delineates the rearticulation of the region to the world economy and describes it as shifting away from the traditional development pattern of agro-exports. Robinson sees instead new economic activities linked to the global economy generating a centrifugal impact for workers. By this he means the non-employment of rural and urban workers in their home countries, thus forcing them to immigrate to the United States to survive. A result of the globalized changes of the 1990s was that these new processes, and their diasporic movements, constituted a systemic and intrinsic segment of broader relations ensnared in what Latino scholar José David Saldívar has labeled “the global division of labor, racial and ethnic hierarchy, identity formation, and Eurocentric epistemologies.” This is why Saldivar speaks of a “globalized coloniality.”12

Violence is not random; all types of violence, national and corporate as well as intra-ethnic, configure the distinctiveness of the Americas as modern nation-states. It produces, in consequence, a logic of repression that often remains unstated but is always traumatic for those who suffer it—often subalternized and racialized subjects, given how from the start coloniality race became the determining mental construct to deploy colonial domination. We can include in this genealogy of violence a very long list of episodes, from the best-known ones, such as slavery and the Native American genocide in the United States, to the smaller ones, such as the incarceration of males of color for minute infractions that would not be punished in similar fashion were they white males or the killing of African Americans by the police. Violence—whether legal or illegal, as in the case of the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacy, to name just the best-known entities in the United States—is both a category of analysis and an intensive declaration of difference. In most Latin American nations, even so-called legal violence transcends what would be illegal in the United States, as we saw in the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s, the Central American wars of the 1980s, or the drug cartel wars from the 1990s to the present. Legal or illegal, violence generates traumatic events that more often than not affect those subjects located at the intersections of race, sex, gender, and class.

Odyssey to the North

We see this phenomenon in the representations depicted by Mario Bencastro in Odyssey to the North. At the beginning of the novel, readers learn that the Salvadoran protagonist Calixto was “stunned, terrified, and livid, unable to say a word about the tragedy” when they asked him about his working companion, whose rope broke while they were washing windows on the eighth floor of an Adams-Morgan building in Washington, D.C., and fell to his death. The triple past participle connoted the triple degrees of fear that Calixto felt: shock at the death of his companion, fear of the police because he was illegal, and anger, a by-product of war trauma that haunted his relations with authority. He not only feared the police, because “they would blame him for the death and he would end up in jail, if not deported for being undocumented” like many other paperless immigrants to the United States, but because he had been unjustly persecuted in his homeland:

  • When several men arrived at the family's room looking for Calixto . . . a neighbor came running to tell them.
  • “They’re looking for Don Calixto to arrest him!”
  • “Arrest him for what?” asked Lina, in startled disbelief.
  • “They say he’s an enemy of the government!” . . .
  • “They're looking for you!” she said, her cry muffled by distress and exhaustion . . .
  • “It can’t be! I’m not involved in politics, you know that!”
  • “You have to get out of here and hide, before they find you!” . . .
  • “It doesn’t matter; you’ve been reported!”
  • “Yes, but . . .”13

The third instance of Calixto’s dilemma was summarized in the phrase “Yes, but . . .” This phrase described his positioning during the civil war period and informed the third degree of fear that silenced him. The third degree of fear translated then into a self-imposed impotence. The lack of an explanation for his persecution stood in the way of his responding to anyone who positioned him in a Central American identitary category. The impossibility to name victimhood became problematic for migrants escaping war who came to the United States in the late 1980s and 1990s. Their war trauma was an indicator of why the “odyssey” of Central America’s immigrants to “the North” was, at this time, not the same as the conflicts other immigrants faced, a factor recognized by another one of the characters of Bencastro’s novel: “ ‘Maybe he’s from Central America,’ said a woman, clutching her purse to her chest. ‘A lot of them live in this neighborhood. . . . You know, they come here fleeing the wars in their countries. . . .’”14

The “Yes, but. . .” phrase acquires now—at a greater distance from the imminence of the civil wars—a new meaning as colonialized subjects who went through a serial dislocation from their own markers, a process that stripped them of all spatial or temporal references to their original subjectivities. The displacement of peoples across the North/South divide (Central America to Mexico to multiple sites within the United States) resulted in transformative moments where their bodies were inscribed with new identities that changed both the way they were perceived and their place in the world. We can trace their journeys from the moment when they were first inscribed as refugees in Bencastro’s text. It is a process leading to ruptures, historical erasures, silences, dislocations, and constant creations and re-creations of subjectivities.

Bitter Grounds

Sandra Benítez revisits Salvadoran violence in Bitter Grounds (1997). The novel begins with the Matanza of 1932, when the dictatorship of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez murdered approximately 30,000 peasants of Nahua ancestry, a horror depicted as well in Salvadoran writer Claribel Alegría’s Ashes of Izalco (1989) and Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton’s account Miguel Mármol (1987).15 The text crafts a violent genealogy leading up to the civil war of the 1980s, juxtaposing three generations of peasant and urban bourgeois women. For El Salvador, the Matanza represents the “originary terror” in the sense of Lyotard, another one overdetermined by racialized nationalist paradigms.16 The Matanza, like analogous experiences in the Americas since the Spanish invasion, was contingent on the subalternization and racialization of Indigenous subjects. As Kelli Lyon-Johnson noted, after the killings are over, a member of El Salvador’s National Guard tells Mercedes Prieto’s husband, “you indios have forgotten your place.”17 Indeed, this infernal existence in the colonial, or colonialized, world implies a racialization of subalternized subjects, and gendered inferences. Lyon-Johnson adds:

In her rendering of la matanza, Benítez portrays the guardia as unthinking machines of violence. Although their initial task after the matanza had been to dispose of dead bodies, the guardia eventually began to participate in the violence themselves. Class, racial, and cultural hatred motivated the resulting ethnocide, and this ethnocide prefigured the overlapping ethnic and socioeconomic contestations of space that continued into the 1990s.18

In consequence, it is inevitable that Salvadorans, and then Salvadoran-Americans, must return to these shared histories to make sense of the traces and practices of this violence, which constitutes the locus of their investigations into the past. Thus resignification and re-configuring the meaning and pervasiveness of violence itself as a mode of power emerges as a marker for the construction of new subjectivities.

The situation analyzed in the previous paragraph is represented in the case of Mercedes’s granddaughter María Mercedes in Bitter Grounds, who, having learned violence’s historical lesson, chooses to join the FMLN, the revolutionaries fighting the Salvadoran government after understanding political violence in a Fanonian sense, the result of a forcefully imposed a violent history of invasions, confinement, and punishment in all its human and economic variables as a form of domination and political control. María Mercedes’s decision, as Lyon-Johnson also signaled, in the end was determined by her memory of dead bodies. After the memory of having “stepped gingerly over the corpses at El Playón, something inside her began to change. After El Playón, the image of corpses sprung up in her head by day and filled her dreams at night.”19 Backed up against the wall of a semi-death, and lacking any hope for the future, these damné peasant women responded viscerally as they pushed beyond their bare lives towards assertive self-consciousness. That is, they responded with violence to counteract a sense of powerlessness in an existence perceived as sordid, unjust, and hopeless. In a Fanonian sense, the racialized subject needs to provoke violence through her assertion of alterity. Only then will María Mercedes be free of her masters, be able to exercise agency through her choice to join the guerrillas and the actions this act presupposes, and develop some degree of autonomy and fulfillment.

The Divine Husband

Francisco Goldman’s 2004 novel The Divine Husband would appear to be the exact opposite of Bitter Grounds. It seems a 19th-century melodrama at first. María de las Nieves Moran is an intelligent Guatemalan woman born in the mountains to a Maya Mam mother named Sarita Coyoy and an American settler of Irish extraction, Timothy Moran. He dies when she is very young. Paquita (Francisca) Aparicio’s father, Juan Aparicio, a member of Guatemala’s ruling oligarchy, finds her at the age of 6. He brings María to the city, where she grows up with Paquita, in the Aparicio household, and silently initiates an affair with Coyoy. When an older man, Justo Rufino Barrios, nicknamed El Anticristo by the girls, begins to court Paquita, then only 13, both girls are sent to a very conservative convent. María later enrolls in a writing class taught by the Cuban poet and national hero Jose Martí. She falls under his spell. After Barrios leads a revolution and becomes Liberal dictator of his country, María de las Nieves flees for New York, where Martí has also relocated and where their friendship will resume. The nonlinear narrative concentrates on María and her relationships with many men, as critic Ariana Vigil has stated.20 For example, Chapter 1 ends with 13-year-old María in a convent cell for sneezing too much. The nuns think that doing so gives pleasure to the entire body, an issue worthy of punishment. Chapter 2 starts with the grown-up Paquita and María sailing for New York with their young children, and it is their conversation that informs readers of what happened during the intervening years. The text configures an understanding of a female subject’s social and historical process in a late 19th-century migratory process from Guatemala to New York City. According to Vigil,

In her construction as a woman, lover and mother, María subverts the links between motherhood and nationalism, situating motherhood in a transnational space. By un-mooring María from any particular national context and drawing her through several different ones, thus highlighting the national, ethnic and religious heterogeneity of Latina/o communities, the novel calls on readers to rethink commonly accepted cultural and racial boundaries of Latinidades.21

The study of colonialities implies, as we know, the challenge of thinking across many conceptual spaces to surmise the overall impact of power in multiple spheres of beingness and knowledge. Vigil underlies some of these issues, in what she labels a “transamerican imaginary.” She adds that “the novel . . . suggests that a hemispheric perspective may be ‘an other’ perspective all together, one that is concerned . . . more with the poor, the powerless, the nation-less and the relationships between them” and that “inhabitants of the Americas have always already been ‘transnational.’”22

While I agree with most of Vigil’s premises—especially her claim that María “places herself outside the bounds of heteronormativity, nationalism, patriarchy and patrilinearity,” an issue of critical importance—I see, despite the narrator privileging female storytelling (if only because he relies on documents and stories given to him by Mathilde, María’s daughter), the narrative voice hitting a wall when depicting María’s Maya Mam mother Sarita Coyoy and her black Garífuna helper Lucy Turner.23 This becomes the telltale absence through which we see coloniality at work. The racialized narrative is one the text does not decenter, even if these women are granted a cameo appearance. Subjectivity, agency, and discourse skips Sarita Coyoy, María’s Indigenous mother, and Lucy, her Garífuna friend and María’s nurse, the only subalternized and racialized subjects represented in the text. Logic would also dictate that they were the closest emotional figures to María.

The story of these women is told by the narrative voice from the Criollo perspective of Juan Aparicio. He had heard in Quetzaltenango “that far away in the mountains two women and a little girl with ‘golden hair’ were living on their own deep in the forest” and “spoke an unintelligible demon language.”24 The Indigenous subject’s pre-Modern ignorance is thus underlined in the description of their language. Don Juan’s noblesse oblige when he hired a “Mam Indian” to lead him to the females without textual explanation implies in this lacuna a concern for a white girl in the hands of demonic women of color—a potential kidnapping. Thus, he is willing to hike for over a day through rough, mountainous terrain, until they “found a little girl standing alone in the dirt yard.”25 The narrative voice informs readers that Aparicio found out the “demonic” language the girl spoke was English. Readers never know how the adult women entered the scene, or what they thought of Aparicio’s presence when they encountered him. The narrative voice simply states that after Moran died of a mule kick to the stomach, he left them stranded there. “All three females . . . smoked those hand-rolled cigars, their teeth stained dark with the juice. They . . . were . . . dependent on the frugal, bartering generosity of their Indian neighbors. They dressed in the rustically woven fabrics and clothing of the Indians of the mountain forests . . . .”26 Thus, the subalternization and pre-Modern trait of the cigarette smoking by a 6-year-old girl are also highlighted. Aparicio was led to believe that Coyoy was a Yukateko Maya. She had allegedly married Moran “when he was managing a henequen plantation.”27 They fled due to the Caste War, an interethnic war that took place during the entire second half of the 19th century, fueled by a much entangled story of resistance and racialized resentment of the other. It also was undoubtedly the first major decolonial struggle in the Americas after Spanish independence, emblematic of Mexico’s failure as a national project. In the text, however, readers are simply told that the trio fled Yucatán because “of the murderous Indian uprising against foreigners and whites there.”28 This perception is, once more, very much a Criollo oligarchic heterosexist one, as are all narrative interventions when depicting Aparicio. As readers, we are only privy to Aparicio’s worldview, one amazed that María speaks Spanish, English, and Mam and fast to assign Coyoy a bedroom next to the stables where he enjoyed her company for many years. The text declares:

Lucy Turner was soon the Aparicio household’s head inside servant, although Sarita Coyoy’s position as an inside servant with few chores was even more privileged: she was given two rooms of her own next to the stables, where she lived with her daughter, who was otherwise treated by the Aparicio’s as nearly a family member.29

The Construction of Difference

The story told Aparicio was an invention. Later readers discover that Moran met Coyoy in Amatitlán when, as a girl, she was hired to pluck bugs in the cochineal farm he was managing at the height of the cochineal boom. Aparicio learned this in New York City from Turner, whom he took there while on business as his servant, allegedly because she spoke English. Turner confided that Moran had been married when he was captivated by Coyoy: “Having abandoned her for the India in the most public way, he was spied going about everywhere with his pretty little aborigine, who was soon pregnant.”30 The bombastic rhetoric of the descriptive tone is that of the narrative voice, not Turner’s. Again, the regulation of narrative information by way of a transposed speech conjures the Criollo perspective, conveying Aparicio’s oligarchic positionality. We should not forget that the “pretty little aborigine” was now his when learning this part of the story and had been his for some years. Turner tells Aparicio that Moran fled with María after his wife killed herself and the well-respected business sector of Amatitlán wanted to lynch him for abandoning her for an India. Moran took Turner, his maid, because he needed someone to take care of the baby. Needless to say, the unnamed narrator, located in the last half of the 20th century working for a very old Mathilde, has himself been unable to “unlearn prejudice” as a way to delink from relationships of power that perpetuate racial inequality. Nevertheless, the silences and traces of the allegedly dead subjects, Coyoy and Turner’s “restless ghosts,” manage to share their presences to continually disrupt the signifiers that attempt to eliminate their humanity and personhood by the narrative instance’s continual transposing of, and collusion with, Aparicio’s point of view.

While traveling together to New York, María asked Paquita once why her mother had been thrown out from the Aparicio home, something readers ignored at this point. By way of indirect discourse once more, yet this time evoking Paquita’s utterances, readers learn that Coyoy had been Aparicio’s lover, and apparently he had promised to take her to New York. However, Paquita’s mother knew of the affair, and prevented this from happening. She forbade Coyoy’s trip and insisted that Aparicio take Turner instead. At the end of this section, though, the directing function of the narrative voice claims that Paquita decided not to share this information with María and just told her that “she’d taken up with that sheep farmer,” an affair of which María indeed knew.31 The narrative voice is never neutral and evidences how racial utterances operate in mobile discursive fields. The unknown late 20th-century narrator ignores his own deployment and perpetuation of colonial racial violence and fails to recognize his mimicking Aparicio’s patriarchal, heterosexist positionality.

Later, in New York, María conversed about “Indios” with the Cuban poet José Martí in the presence of her own Maya maid, María Chon. Martí insisted that “only the Indio can save us. Only the Indios can save America.” María Chon, who overheard the conversation, said later that she pitied the little Cuban for believing the lies they had told him.32 When, previously in Guatemala, Martí conversed with María de las Nieves and praised Indigenous cultures, she told him that her mother had been “a Maya from Yucatán,” but only to impress—and then kiss—him.33 In the text, she never conveyed any sense of affection or feelings of intimacy for her. Indeed, that brief mention was the last we heard of both Sarita Coyoy and Lucy Turner in the text, one meant to generate feelings in María’s desired man, not to convey filial ties of affection.

The construction of difference appears as a signifier of exclusion and difference in this context. The narrative voice manifests itself as a form of racialized social intervention, yet one that does not stage any site of resistance to it either. Coyoy and Turner are emblematic of the colonial difference, of what is left unspoken. The narrative voice limits their enunciations in opposition to the omnipresent oligarchic violence of Aparicio and his business partners in New York, whether English or even Guatemalan Mestizo. The recognition, representation, and acknowledgment of Coyoy and Turner is clearly missing textually.

To name the colonized and decolonized subject is to begin to understand the sources and traces of power. Yet the text perpetuates and constructs the binary of the subject of difference being acted upon. There is in it clear evidence of unconscious assumptions about race displayed in the narrative indirect voice, as stated. The imposition of the reasoned judgments of the male characters is tinged by an ironic touch, thus introducing a vague element of distrust in their certitudes. But María de las Nieves’s affect remains missing in action. This is a surprise in a text leaning toward the melodramatic, yet lacking the female main character’s mother’s voice, expression, and point of view. Indeed, it is only by disappearing from the text that the Maya (Coyoy) and the Garífuna (Turner) subjects establish their “credentials” for personhood within the text. The only textual redress could have come from María de las Nieves’s affective evocation of their social and intimate life to recuperate their subjectivity. Yet this never happens, though at age 6, she lost this affective support. Coyoy never triggered in her affective dispositions, she was never imbued with subliminal affective intensities. No depths of affective meaning are ever stated in María’s voice on behalf of her mother, no plurality of emotional layers are ever displayed, perhaps because the narrative voice never needed to condition the reader’s response to Coyoy or Turner by means of empathy. We could then blame the deceitful narrator, unwilling to set the affective criteria for constituting a sense of these women’s subjectivity, for conceiving their bodies as those of inherently existing, thinking, feeling beings. And yet, the narrator did just fine with all the other women in this tale. This epistemic violence goes further than the narrator’s culpability. It is the heritage of Eurocentric rationality what cannot impinge upon cultures that deliberately have been excluded from the basic tenets of Westernness. Thus, Coyoy and Turner remain “illegible” not only to the narrator but to all other characters in the text, including Martí, who celebrates Indianness but cannot imagine their subjective interests. Denied the singularity of their own voice, they remain but traces of the colonial difference, the nonmeanings that are inevitably brought to mind along with the meanings of María, Paquita, Mathilde, et al., pointing out further the absence of their presence. Coyoy and Turner are the evidence of the crime perpetrated on all subalternized and racialized communities, marking the need for scholars to recognize it and critique it.


Perhaps to find some evidence of challenging coloniality as a starting point, we have to turn to the EpiCentro poets. Unlike more mainstream Central American–American writers such as Mario Bencastro, Héctor Tobar, Sandra Benítez, or Francisco Goldman, writing novels in a traditional and/or conventional form and publishing since the early 1990s, the EpiCentro poets read, represent, and publish the bulk of their work in public performances or in blogs. This relatively little-known group of writers and artists was the first to consciously define itself as “Central American–American” and to deploy phrases such as “hija of the Americas,” or “nacida en aztlan. criada por el barrio, trying to give a glimpse of la nueva generacion de urban third world womanhood.” Their Central American–American identity challenged our traditional understanding of Latino communities and our comprehension of nationalistic diasporas competing for visibility in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles, presently renamed “Little Central America.”34

The name EpiCentro is itself emblematic of the sui generis imaginary that this group tried to convey. The word stands for “epicenter,” a geological term designating the spot where an earthquake originates. The “Centro” part, however, is capitalized and thus points to a region known for its active chain of volcanoes. Indeed the metaphor of erupting volcanoes has been regularly used to connote political explosiveness, but it is also a specular image of the region’s underlying identitary matrix.35 Central America is indeed a territory marked by constant political strife, and it was the site of the last of many revolutionary eruptions that generated the 1980s diaspora. Some twenty years later, a second generation of “Central American–Americans” whose sutures evidenced the remains of these wars, appeared as a by-product of the aforementioned phenomenon.

Unlike what was traditionally understood as Latina/o culture, Central Americanness emerges under alternative parameters. This may also explain the particular positionalities and interplay of identity issues allowing for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points, adopted by many Central American–American cultural producers. This general behavior became horizontal and trans-species connections and outright, outrageous inventions of subjectivities on the part of the EpiCentro poets, who saw themselves more as a “globalized coloniality.”36 Central American–Americans were already pointing in the direction of a coloniality of diaspora, one where racial and historical traits do not just bind people to a colonizing past. It is also one where discontinuities continue to mark the way subjects identify themselves, place themselves within a diasporic environment, and are left grappling with variable structures of power, many exercised by other minorities themselves, with them, within them, or as a function of them.

An analysis of EpiCentro constitutes a first step in addressing some of those issues subsumed within the cultural dynamic of Central American–Americanness in relation to coloniality. As already stated, its members were known primarily for their performance poetry, a form in which lyrics, poetry, or stories are spoken, thus placing a dual emphasis on writing and performance. Unlike mainstream poetry, EpiCentro artists also utilized body language and voice tone to convey meaning, much like spoken language poetry or hip-hop. Spoken words may be poetic in nature, but they are also the domain of what surrounds the written sign. Thus, normally it does not suffice to analyze their written signifiers; rather, we would have to contemplate their entire performance. Their poetry is an integral performance, challenging the disciplinary compartmentalization of written poetry. It includes sound, speech, narrative, objects, and an interaction with their audience, focusing more on bodily behaviors.37 Thus, EpiCentro offers a counterweight to text-centered literary production, broadening the epistemological, political, and democratic possibilities of interrogating culture as a result, especially as representatives of, and performers for, a social group known for its low literacy rate.38

EpiCentro was founded in 2000 by Raquel Gutierrez and Marlon Morales. Originally, they performed as a collective, because of “our vital passion for doing creative work, the need to hear each other's voices and the desire to inspire new voices,” as Maya Chinchilla argued. These poets then published a written anthology titled Desde el EpiCentro (2007), edited by Karina Oliva-Alvarado and Maya Chinchilla, before splitting up as a group.

What these writers have in common, besides having belonged to the group in question, are those elements of fusion and flux that underlie their chosen and/or manufactured identities. In the closing page of the anthology, titled “About the Artists,” this fluidity defined their self-description. For example, Alma Chapina described herself as “a fusion of the multiple immigrant experiences” that surrounded her, an open-ended allusion that transcends the specificity of Central America and all its variants. Tavo says he was raised in “LosT Angeles” and describes his son as “a budding ‘chapicano’ artist,” alluding to a chapín (Guatemalan) and Mexicano fusion. Raquel Gutiérrez thought of herself as an “indigenous Angeleno,” naming not only a symbolic identity for Central Americans (they are all descendants of indigenous peoples) but also the migratory/diasporic nature of Los Angeles and, by extension, all of the United States. She also claimed to be a member of “Butchlalis de Panochtitlan,” a group described as “an edgy brown butch performance ensemble.” “GuaNica High Femme” Dalila Paola Méndez, born in Los Angeles, claimed to be “indígena mujer from central america,” last in a “long line of womyn warriors.” Her name, indicating a mixed Guatemalan/Nicaraguan identity, teased out a sexual identity (“femme,” “womyn”) implicitly associated with lesbianism/queerness, without renouncing an indigenous root. Melissa Nicole Piña sees herself as a “SalvaMex,” a Salvadoran/Mexican fusion.

Interstitial Subjectivities

The identifying list at the end of the previous section are all interstitial subjectivities. This does not mean that decolonialized Central American–American identities are all interstitial. It means, simply, that the EpiCentro poets’ self-chosen emphasis on the interstitial element enables them to critique traditional Latina/o identifying definitions, to then emphasize their own Indigenous and Afro-descendant roots, which question the Eurocentric nature of those traditional definitions, because they are more the heritage of Enlightenment notions of nationalism. Thus, the EpiCentro poets emphasize interstitial positionalities, those that fall between, rather than within, the familiar boundaries of previously accepted Latino identitary definitions, still situated within nationalist patterns. These fluid, fused constructions occupy spaces “between” multiple competing cultural traditions and historical periods, using Central America more as a point of departure, a metaphorical diving board from which they plunge into embracing a multiplicity of experiences, whether pan-geographical, pan-ethnic, or pan-sexual. At the same time, these also are liminal spaces that do not separate but rather mediate their mutual exchange and relative or emblematic meanings. All self-definitions contain traces of too many signifiers, twisted contradictions that deliberately prevent any possible identifying synthesis. They all engage in a continual interchange that produces a poetic construction, and a mutual and mutable recognition, of Central American–Americanness. For example, the poem “Hybridities,” already a telltale title, by Gustavo Guerra Vásquez:

  • Kukulcán
  • Quetzalcoatl
  • hybrid names for a hybrid god
  • Our next millennium
  • brings in its basket of goodies
  • more hybrid names
  • for bridges
  • people of hope:
  • GuateMayAngelino
  • GuanaMex
  • Guanachapín
  • GuanaChapíleña
  • GuanaChapiMex
  • ChapiCano
  • GuanaGatraChapicana
  • GuaNiCatraChapicano
  • TicoGuanaCatraChapicanAngelina
  • and the list continues. . .
  • as does our struggle
  • and our hope.39

National identities lose all possibilities of meaning and origin in this paratactic list. The various nominal combinations—derived from the evocation of the Maya-K’iche’ (Kukulkán) and Nahuatl (Quetzalcoatl) names of the Plumed Serpent, a Mesoamerican deity during its apogee 1,500 years ago emblematic of the entire Mesoamerican region—fuse them to a mythical point of pre-Hispanic foundational Indigenous origin as an identitary horizon. The latter becomes a symbolic point of departure for the acquisition of agency and for the deployment of power, as the poem traces an arc from Kukulkán/Quetzalcoatl, already defined as hybrid, to contemporary hybrid denominations. The point of departure anchors identity, enabling contemporary identities to empower themselves in turn. The redisposition of these names evoke the hybrid cultural matrix of the Mexico Central Valley/Mesoamerican area, a grid in which the peoples of both regions developed conceptions of self and other and saw each other as complementary of each other.40 The strategic placement of the deities’ names at the beginning of the poem also denotes the ambivalence of identifying with any variation of a U.S. identity, mainstream or not—even if this is an impossible aspiration. “Kukulcán, Quetzalcoatl,” indeed one deity where one name is in Maya K’iche’ (Kuk’ulk’an denoting the glottal “k” sound in most Maya languages, more commonly Ququmatz in the late Quichean period) and the other in Nahuatl (Quetzalcoatl), are here defined as if they were a fusion of two figures: “hybrid names for a hybrid god.” This representation most likely signals not a hybridization of deities per se, but rather a hybridization of identitary notions—a fusion of symbolic codes from the Central Valley of Mexico and those of the Mayab’ to depict the symbolic roots of a contemporary hybrid Mexican/Central American–American identity, one configured in present-day southern California.41 Still, this identity is in turn de-centered by a longer list of “more hybrid names” that act as “bridges” for “hope.” What kind of hope? Certainly hope of an erasure of a linkage between identitary traits and modern nationalities. To circumvent the latter, the poem deploys nicknames of those nationalities, incorporating affect in the process. “Guana” stands for “Guanacos,” a fraternal nickname for Salvadorans; “Catra” for “Catrachos,” which plays the same role for Honduras; and “Chapi” for “Chapines,” as Guatemalans are popularly known. “Tico” is the Costa Rican’s nickname, “Mex” is short for Mexican, and “Angelino” refers to residents of Los Angeles. Affect implies signs of feeling or emotion that initiate a process of cultural redefinition and social realignment. The list of fraternal nicknames is an affective engagement appealing to imaginary seductions, accounting for the plurinational and intercultural nature of Central American post-colonial societies. It is an alternative recovery of Central Americans’ cultural memory by disguising surreptitiously their national imaginaries. The use of nicknames becomes an elemental affective state invoking subjectivities in transition. The poem dissolves itself into emotions constructing attitudes that try to situate the reader, presumably also a Central American–American, within newer possibilities for recycling their cultural memory. The list effectively nullifies the original pre-Hispanic stance. It establishes a notation sensitive to the fluctuating conditions of identity. It becomes a paratactic list that brings practice and daily life closer together. The list keeps all these possibilities safely uncontaminated. Its humor also connotes preconstituted emotional states of being sensitive to the chaotic process of immigration and diaspora. Nonetheless, the choices of nicknames, however affectionate, carry with them the risk of inventing national identities and nationalism. The poem attempts to deploy location as part of a mechanism of agency. Still, the affections invoke lead to an “emotional memory,” a phenomenon that is a process of social imagination, a reconstitution of memory and desire, and a multidirectional way to articulate a reflexive response that ultimately leads back to the construction of an alternative nationalist ethos. In this sense, whereas the poem is an attempt to re-imagine who Central American–Americans may be, or want to be as subjects, it fails to overcome its nationalist markers and signifiers. However, the text succeeds not only in in fusing them in such a mixture that the result can no longer be strictly read as nationalist in the traditional sense of the term. The poem is emblematic of how EpiCentro poets challenge Latinidad to displace itself to a more situational positionality.

The transitional status of most identity markers pinpoints Central American–Americanness as a different and alternative configuration in the migrant experience, despite the fact that their utterances are also interwoven with the daily affiliations and negotiations of Latinoness. Karina Oliva-Alvarado’s poem “Because I Am” states that

  • Because I was born in El Salvador
  • because I was raised in LA
  • grew up with Mexicans, Mexican Americans,
  • and Americans of Mexican descent
  • does not make me a border agent
  • or only a Central American American42

Here the implication is that all subjects are always something more than their mere desire for a collective or national identity. Yet, at the same time, the rhetorical use of “because,” a parallelism virtually transforming the entire poem into a chiastic structure, redefines Central American–Americanness while simultaneously indicating the poet’s inability to transcend the ethnic national labeling (“because I was born in El Salvador, because I was raised in LA”) that continues to disenfranchise her, creating a pull between what she wants and how she is seen/perceived. By opening and closing the work with the main purpose of her request, the author uses parallelism to reinforce her objective, while at the same time drawing the entire work into a complete and concise whole.

In “Centroamérica Is,” Marlon Morales claims that the region is “fiction . . . pieced together like a quilt in thought.” Or, else, “It’s an autopsy/Rotting flesh sewn back together/with sutures that will never heal.”43 He will also state in “Culture Can’t Protect You Like Honesty Can” that

  • The cross over, baby
  • The Salvi cross over
  • Looms over Mexican/Chicano/RiordanMahoney
  • /LA44

In these formulations, the exilic, liminal space that the phrase “fiction . . . pieced together like a quilt in thought” represents, while engaging the material conditions of illegals and immigrants, creates a virtual home in the textual, in the discursive space itself, which fills the void of recognition that slaps the lives of most Central American–Americans. It also codifies a link to queerness via the reference to “quilt,” an allusion to the Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. This “fiction” is a different form of qualification than the one represented in the abject connotation of the phrase “rotting flesh sewn back together/with sutures that will never heal.” Anxiety resides in the zone of fluctuation between both phrases, one contiguous to a reality punctuated by the qualifiers “salvi” and “cross over” alluding to a Salvadoran, i.e., a Central American–American subjectivity crossing over, but not to Anglo America: crossing over to “Mexican/Chicano/RiordanMahony/LA.” The last line conflates Mexican-American identity and roots with the city administered by two Anglo figures, Richard Riordan, mayor of Los Angeles from 1993 to 2001, and Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles from 1985 to 2011. The conflation establishes Mexican-American identity at the center of Anglo city power and implies that a “salvi,” i.e., a Central American–American, has to “cross over” to a Mexican-American identity to become a recognizable subject in the city’s power structure. In the poem, these two types of identitary spaces align the current conflict, one “whose sutures will never heal,” a phrase still smoldering from the residues of the anger at non-beingness.

As we can see, metaphor, translation, and code-switching enable these poets to invent genealogies. Their words stress the ambivalence of imagined constructions built with the shards of fragmented identities located at present between mainstream America and Latinidad. However, as Ana Patricia Rodríguez indicates, these fragmented identities are themselves transitioning out of an enclosed or self-contained Latinidad composition to a broader “Third World” imaginary matrix that fuses Central American–American identities with other racialized African or Asian transatlantic and transpacific configurations.45

Maya Chinchilla’s poem “Solidarity Baby” implies a different mode of dealing with modernity. She suggests that modern thought is not an indispensable condition for oppressed social sectors to enter the public sphere, explicit:

  • . . . A product of an international relation.
  • Imaginary Guatemalan, porque Guate no existe
  • Mistaken identity: undercover gring-achapina-alemana-mestiza. . .
  • . . . I’m just looking for my place
  • Am I a CENTRAL American?
  • Si pues, soy del epicentro.46

We see here some performative mimicry of old-fashioned national identities (“an international relation”) as a starting point for a reconsideration of the identitary links to the phenomenon of guatemalidad, understood here as a dislocation from a territorial imaginary. This enables Chinchilla to deconstruct any possible notion of a geographical homeland outside of an articulated mode of satisfaction elaborated through the displacement of the meanings elicited from her signifiers. The line in question alludes to a specific referent so as to trace a vision of an imaginary community’s desire, structured by the phantasmatic nostalgia for a fatherland as an authenticating mechanism, even while the coupling phrase in Spanish (“porque Guate no existe”; because Guate does not exist) mobilizes an authenticating language, Spanish, to articulate a network of affective meaning alluding to a traumatic past, a displaced tongue, and a disjointed body, that transcends the signified (“Guatemalan, Guate”) in a Derridean double game of duplicity. It is a profoundly incommensurable perspective on identity that is nonetheless necessary if she is to structure a reflexive identity in a given space, however transitory or provisional this may be. The previous notion, “Guatemalan, Guate,” in any case, is qualified by “does not exist,” a phrase veiled in the chosen language of expression, Spanish, so that only bilingual readers can grasp the erasure of the privileged component of identity, a separation of identity and a separation in time. In this reading, subjectivities are configured in marginal, “haunting,” “unhomely” spaces located in the interstices of conflictive social formations (“mistaken identity: undercover gring-achapina-alemana-mestiza”), those liminal locations of symbolic interaction (“I’m just looking for my place”) that become the connective tissue manufacturing difference between peoples of contending and contradictory origins in a globalized world (“Am I a CENTRAL American?”).

Last Thoughts

To conclude, Vigil’s claim that “inhabitants of the Americas have always already been ‘transnational’ ” transmutes to the present-day confluences of Central American–American children of migrants with other Latinos in the U.S. landscape. The contemporary compounding of identities now signals the merger of Central American–American grandchildren with African and/or Asian subjectivities. All possible identities, perhaps originally transnational, cannot be understood outside of the historical flux generated by the coloniality of power. The local histories of Latin American peoples, and their diasporic movements, are intrinsic to the broader relations of the Global South, all marked by coloniality. As Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano pointed out, we cannot conceive of Latin Americanity without the definitional framework of a concept that informs the position of non-European colonial migrants in the United States and elsewhere, while simultaneously problematizing subjective formations grounded on the social classification of the world’s population around the idea of race and/or caste and the memories of violence that these invoke when they articulate their discursive production.47

Ultimately, coloniality reminds us that we need to seek alternative epistemologies to global knowledge that encompass newer approaches to our understanding of the flux of global diasporas to/within the United States. This intricate mode of thinking, feeling, and acting slides beyond Latinidad to other identitary directions whose shared connectivity is the coloniality of power. The tension between them reconfigures identitary knowledge in a more fluid fashion, one that no longer links the many disparate voices to the common claim of that illusionary trope, “Latinidad.” This includes not just Central Americans but also Colombians, Ecuadorians, Afrodescendant Brazilians, and, for that matter, Mayas, Nahuas, Garífunas, those other subalternized groups within Latin America who do not cherish the evocation of modern national origins but prefer to deploy their radical rhetorical displays of non-Latin languages to enunciate contradictory subjectivities opposing Eurocentric modernity and may today be living in the United States and marrying Ethiopians, Sudanese, Indonesians, or Vietnamese.

Discussion of the Literature

In general terms, the research collective originally linked to Walter Mignolo and Arturo Escobar brought together scholars interested in pursuing further reflexions on decoloniality to examine the coloniality/modernity paradigm. In the original collective, the only Latino scholar who participated was Mexican-American scholar José Saldívar, whose contributions on this topic were Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico (2012) and Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination (2016), co-edited with Jennifer Harford Vargas and Monica Hanna. No Central American–American scholar was associated to the original collective. This group dissolved toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Roughly before that time, I became the first Central American–American scholar to start working from a decolonial perspective, introducing the topic in Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America (2007). This reflection signified a shift from Subaltern Studies, with an emphasis on testimonio literature, to a greater emphasis on Indigenous and Afro-descendant literatures and cultures, as these subjects were undoubtedly the greatest victims of the Spanish invasion, the ensuing colonization, and its Eurocentric heritage framed under the concept of coloniality. After all, as Quijano has noted, coloniality incorporated domination and racialization to the known factor of colonialism as a critical dimension of modernity. Quijano’s idea speaks to how colonized peoples were subalternized during the centuries of colonization. A caste system was implemented: Spaniards were originally ranked at the top and those they had conquered at the bottom due to different phenotypic traits and a culture presumed to be inferior. But that was not all. After their first genocide in the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) left them literally with no field hands in their agricultural enterprises, they introduced African slavery to substitute for the massacred Indigenous subjects’ labor.

My turn toward decoloniality was followed by Claudia Milian. She published an outstanding book, Latining America: Black-Brown Passages and the Coloring of Latina/o Studies. In this book, Dr. Milian questions the simplicity of labeling African Americans as “blacks” and Latinas/os as “brown.” Dr. Milian’s approach serves as an invigorating building block for the study of Central American–Americanness and its paradoxical dependency and exemption from Latino/a Studies. Her theoretical endeavor moves toward new formulations of Latinaness and Latinoness that do not depend on a “racialized” color or national origin. By emphasizing a multiplicity of geographic and epistemological possibilities, she offers a broader understanding of the types of “Latinities” existing within Latinoness. “As of this writing,” she proposes, “there have been no other U.S. ethnoracial models in Ethnic Studies, American Studies, Latin American Studies, and Latino/a Studies that accentuate reiterative modes of American-American excess to underscore a triumvirate U.S. (American), regional (Central and Latin American), and panethnic (U.S. Latino and Latina) disenfranchisement.” Central American–American, as a “nascent diagram,” proffers “a vital hermeneutic opening that interrogates the presumed stability of Latinoness.” In the context of this emergence, Milian points out: “Central American-Americanness serves as an impetus for activating Central American-American epistemological thought that contributes to––and rearranges the order of––Latino/a Studies and perspectives as we ‘know’ them.” Her book was the subject of a panel at the 2014 Convention of the Modern Language Association in Chicago and was also a finalist for the 2016 MLA Latino Book Award.

Milian has also made important contributions through articles, such as “Central American-Americanness, Latino/a Studies, and the Global South.” Here, she explores the emergence of a new conception of “border” in Enrique Dussel’s sense of “Eurocentric modernity.” For Milian, this positionality inaugurated a new epistemic category—the “south”—conceived by the European north as a necessary antithesis for understanding Europe and the West within the framework of Eurocentrism. Her article proposes that the European south is intimately tied to a Global South and is inseparable from it: they are both the “state of exception” defining by antithesis the spirit and identity of Europe.

Younger scholars have begun to move in this direction. For example, Oriel Maria Siu’s 2012 dissertation at UCLA was titled “Diasporic Central American Novelistic Production and the Coloniality of Power.” Professor Siu analyzed how Central American narrative production is conceived in relation to globalizing neoliberal trends, capitalism, and modernity. Understanding that Latin American identities cannot be understood outside of the historical flux generated by coloniality, she explored those masculinist subjectivities represented in Central American diasporic texts by looking at how they were grounded on the social classification deployed around the idea of race and on the memories of violence, as they were grounded in their new diasporic environment. Professor Siu saw coloniality as shaping these masculinities and explored their constitutive role in the making of the modern Central American world.

Another recent example is the work of Professor Jennifer Gómez Menjívar, who has a special focus on Afro-descendant literatures. She has published articles such as “Straight Outta Livingston: Black Indigeneity, Wordsmithing and Code-Switching in Wingston González’ Poetry” and “Passing into Fictions: Blackness, Writing and Power in the Captaincy General of Guatemala.”48 As her titles show, her research focuses on racial discourses and ethno-linguistic borders, examined from a decolonial perspective. She has a forthcoming book, Black in Print: Afro-Central American Identity and Cultural Formation of the Isthmus. This trend will grow as present-day graduate students complete their degrees and enter the profession.

Further Reading

Arias, Arturo. Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Arias, Arturo. “Violence and Coloniality in Latin America: An Alternative Reading of Subalternization, Racialization and Viscerality.” In Eurocentrism, Racism and Knowledge: Debates on History and Power in Europe and the Americas. Edited by Marta Araújo and Silvia R. Maeso, 47–64. New York: Palgrave, 2015.Find this resource:

Arias, Arturo. “New Indigenous Literatures in the Making: A Contribution to Decoloniality.” In Decolonial Approaches to Latin American Literatures and Cultures. Edited by Juan G. Ramos and Tara Daly, 77–95. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

Arias, Arturo, and Claudia Milian. “US Central Americans: Representations, Agency and Communities.” Latino Studies 11, no. 2 (2013): 131–149.Find this resource:

Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. “Central Americans in the City: Goldman, Tobar, and the Question of Panethnicity.” Literature Interpretation Theory 20, no. 3 (2009): 173–195.Find this resource:

Gómez Menjívar, Jennifer. “Passing into Fictions: Blackness, Writing and Power in the Captaincy General of Guatemala.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinaomericana 45, no. 1 (2016): 103–115.Find this resource:

Gómez Menjívar, Jenniferó. “Straight Outta Livingston: Black Indigeneity, Wordsmithing and Code-Switching in Wingston González’ Poetry.” Transmodernity 7, no. 1 (2017): 124–145.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Nora, and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla. Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Nora, and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla. “Identity Formation Among Central American-Americans.” USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, November 2013.Find this resource:

Jonas, Susanne, and Nestor Rodríguez. Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Legrás, Horacio. “The Rule of Impurity: Decolonial Theory and the Question of Literature.” In Decolonial Approaches to Latin American Literatures and Cultures. Edited by Juan G. Ramos and Tara Daly, 19–36. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

Loucky, James, and Marilyn M. Moors. The Maya Diaspora: Guatemalan Roots, New American Lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Lyon-Johnson, Kelli. “Acts of War, Acts of Memory: ‘Dead-Body Politics’ in US Latina Novels of the Salvadoran Civil War.” Latino Studies 3, no. 2 (2005): 205–225.Find this resource:

Martínez Salazar, Egla. Global Coloniality of Power in Guatemala: Racism, Genocide, Citizenship. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012.Find this resource:

Menjívar, Cecilia. “Living in Two Worlds? Guatemalan-Origin Children in the United States and Emerging Transnationalism.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 28 (2002): 531–552.Find this resource:

Milian, Claudia. “Central American-Americanness, Latino/a Studies, and the Global South.” The Global South 5, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 137–152.Find this resource:

Milian, Claudia. Latining America: Black-Brown Passages and the Coloring of Latino/a Studies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Milian, Claudia. “Reconceptualizing Mestizaje Through Afro-Latinidad.” The Cambridge Companionto Latina/o Literature. Edited by John M. González, 195–212. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Robinson, William I. Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change. London: Verso, 2003.Find this resource:

Saldívar, José David. “Unsettling Race, Coloniality and Caste: Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/LaFrontera, Martinez’s Parrot in the Oven, and Roy’s The God of Small Things.” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March–May 2007): 339–367.Find this resource:

Vigil, Ariana. “The Divine Husband and the Creation of a Transamericana Subject.” Latino Studies 11, no. 2 (July 2013): 190–207.Find this resource:

Wellmeier, Nancy J. “Santa Eulalia’s people in exile: Maya religion, culture, and identity in Los Angeles.” In Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. Edited by R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner, 97–122. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.Find this resource:


(1.) Egla Martínez Salazar, Global Coloniality of Power in Guatemala: Racism, Genocide, Citizenship (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012), 3.

(2.) Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, & Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

(3.) Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

(4.) Ana Patricia Rodriguez, Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

(5.) Horacio Legrás, “The Rule of Impurity: Decolonial Theory and the Question of Literature,” in Decolonial Approaches to Latin American Literatures and Cultures, eds. Juan G. Ramos and Tara Daly (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 19–36.

(6.) Mario Bencastro, Odyssey to the North, trans. Susan Giersbach Rascon (Houston: Arte Publico, 1998); Sandra Benítez, Bitter Grounds (New York: Hyperion, 1997); Francisco Goldman, The Divine Husband (New York: Grove, 2004); and Karina Oliva-Alvarado and Maya Chinchilla, eds., Desde el EpiCentro (Los Angeles: Centroamericano Writers, 2007).

(7.) See Arturo Arias, “Central American-Americans: Invisibility, Power and Representation in the U.S. Latino World,” Latino Studies 1, no. 1 (March 2003): 168–187, and ensuing special issues on Central American-American topics, such as “U.S. Central Americans: Representations, Agency, and Communities,” Journal of Latino Studies 11, no. 2 (Summer 2013); “Centroamericanidades: Imaginative Reformulations and New Configurations of Central Americanness,” Studies in 20th and 21st Century Literature 37, no. 2 (2013); and “The Colonial Legacies of Central American Studies: Imaginary Approaches to Postcolonial Issues,” Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 2017).

(8.) James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(9.) Belich, Replenishing the Earth, 31.

(10.) According to Luis J. Rodríguez, as many as 40,000 people accused of belonging to either the Mara Salvatrucha or the 18th Street gang were deported every year to both Mexico and Central America; Luis J. Rodríguez, “A Gang of Our Own Making,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2005, 1.

(11.) William I. Robinson, Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change (London: Verso, 2003).

(12.) José David Saldívar, “Unsettling Race, Coloniality and Caste: Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Martinez’s Parrot in the Oven, and Roy’s The God of Small Things,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March–May 2007): 339–367.

(13.) Bencastro, Odyssey to the North, 2, 10–11.

(14.) Bencastro, Odyssey to the North, 3.

(15.) Claribel Alegría, Ashes of Izalco, trans. Darwin J. Flakoll (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1989); and Roque Dalton, Miguel Mármol, trans. Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1987).

(16.) Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and “the Jews,” trans. Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

(17.) Benítez, Bitter Ground, 23; and Kelli Lyon-Johnson, “Acts of War, Acts of Memory: ‘Dead-Body Politics’ in US Latina Novels of the Salvadoran Civil War,” Latino Studies 3, no. 2 (2005): 205–225.

(18.) Lyon-Johnson, “Acts of War,” 210.

(19.) Benítez, Bitter Grounds, 411. Lyon-Johnson uses the same quote in her analysis, though pointing in a different critical direction and seeking alternative conclusions.

(20.) Ariana Vigil, “The Divine Husband and the Creation of a Transamericana Subject,” Latino Studies 11, no. 2 (July 2013): 190–207.

(21.) Vigil, “The Divine Husband and the Creation,” 192.

(22.) Vigil, “The Divine Husband and the Creation,” 195.

(23.) Vigil, “The Divine Husband and the Creation,” 195.

(24.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 17.

(25.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 17.

(26.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 19.

(27.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 19.

(28.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 19.

(29.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 20.

(30.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 181.

(31.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 184.

(32.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 218.

(33.) Goldman, The Divine Husband, 260.

(34.) The National Central American Round Table (NACART), founded at the end of 2002, was instrumental in launching this initiative and getting it passed by the Los Angeles City Council in 2005.

(35.) In the mid-1960s, a radical Catholic group in Guatemala, forerunner of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, named itself “Crater.” In the late 1970s, the Guatemalan Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA, for its Spanish acronym) had an erupting volcano as an emblem.

(36.) The phrase “globalized coloniality” is borrowed from José David Saldívar’s “Unsettling Race, Coloniality and Caste.”

(37.) You can both hear it and see it at “Desde el EpiCentro Book Project,”

(38.) This trend is not unique to Epicentro. It has become widespread both in certain US poetic circles as well as in Spain and Latin America.

(39.) Karina and Chinchilla, Desde el EpiCentro.

(40.) Mesoamerica is a term most often employed by archaeologists to name the cultural regional unity of Mexico and Central America.

(41.) Mayab’ is the common denomination of the Pan-Maya region, which would include the southernmost Mexican states and the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

(42.) Karina and Chinchilla, Desde el EpiCentro, 62.

(43.) Karina and Chincilla, Desde el EpiCentro, 56.

(44.) Karina and Chinchilla, Desde el EpiCentro, 58.

(45.) Personal communication, San Salvador, April 18, 2009.

(46.) Karina and Chinchilla, Desde el EpiCentro.

(47.) Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March–May 2007): 168–178.

(48.) Transmodernity 7, no. 1 (2017): 124–145; and Chasqui:Rrevista de Literatura Latinaomericana 45, no. 1 (2016): 103–115.