“What Happens AFTER a Latin Explosion?”

I was honored to be invited to deliver the keynote address at the Regional Workshop sponsored by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) and hosted by the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 16, 2012. The following is a transcript of my remarks.

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Good afternoon. And thank you for the opportunity to speak before you here today. Thanks especially to Tey Marianna Nunn for bringing me to NALAC’s attention; to Michael Quanci for his able (and last-minute) assistance in fabricating the visual aids for my presentation; and to Adriana Gallego at the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures for all her work toward making my presence here today possible.

I regret that prior obligations prevented me from participating in this morning’s program, and I beg your indulgence should I reiterate anything that’s already been discussed. That said, I’m pleased to now join this important conversation and look forward to the instigations that the rest of today’s programs bring.

And now to my remarks for this afternoon:

“What Happens after a Latin Explosion?”

When I first accepted the invitation to speak to you today, I asked the event organizers if there was anything I might keep in mind as I developed my remarks. They encouraged me to perhaps consider the 2012 National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures Conference theme: “Seizing the Moment NOW.” As I understand it, this fall’s NALAC meeting aims both to consider how shifts in demographics affect the future of the Latino arts field and also to discern the aesthetic, formal and political conversations presently shaping Latino arts cultural production. This fall’s conference participants will together explore the question: “How can the Latino arts field position itself in the most advantageous way to maximize its potential?”

As I ruminated over what it might mean for Latino arts professionals, both regionally and nationally, to connect and engage around the challenge of “seizing the moment now,” I was reminded of this image, which may have caught some of your attention as well in recent months.

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It’s the cover of Time Magazine for March 5, 2012: “Yo Decido. Why Latinos will pick the next president.”

Indeed, Time Magazine’s 2012 Yo Decido cover evokes the same sense of urgency, of immediacy, of opportunity called forth by NALAC’s 2012 theme, “Seizing the Moment NOW,” and, in particular, both the cover and the theme hail this “next” moment “now” as presenting an especial challenge to Latinos generally and, perhaps, to Latino artists, arts presenters and arts advocates in particular. Time Magazine’s Yo Decido cover both names and frames not only the undeniability of, but also the uncertainty surrounding, the anticipated impact of shifting Latino demographics upon the operation of US electoral politics.

So, yes, I thought of Time’s “Yo Decido” cover almost immediately upon learning of the NALAC 2012 theme but what really caught my attention was not the connection between the cover and the theme. No, what caught me was my reaction. Thinking, in the same mental breath, of Time’s Yo Decido cover and NALAC’s “Seizing the Moment Now” theme made me a little anxious, and elicited a nagging uncertainty.

Not that I question the NALAC theme. I mean, I totally get it and actually agree that this cultural moment does seem auspicious, significant, worth seizing – especially for us as Latino artists, arts presenters and arts advocates. Yet…

This generalized buzz of interest and excitement about the potential impending significance of Latinos within so-called “mainstream” US culture and politics, so prominently proclaimed on the March 2012 cover of Time

This vaguely ominous enthusiasm about what Latinos are about to do…

It makes me nervous.

Not because it seems so auspicious, but precisely because it’s on the March 2012 cover of Time Magazine. Because, just as the NALAC theme brought to mind Time’s “Yo Decido” cover, so too did Time’s March 2012 cover bring to mind another Time cover from almost 35 years ago. This Time from October 16, 1978.

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“Hispanic Americans – Soon: The Biggest Minority”

The visual echoes between these covers are striking enough. Both covers visually represent the diversities intrinsic to US latinidad – 1978’s rough collage of faces refracting 2012’s precise mosaic – and and in both covers we can see the same sense of anticipation, the same sense of impending inevitability, that this internally diverse group called variously Latinos and Hispanic Americans are are “next”…are “soon”…are about to matter to American life.

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Indeed, something about this auspicious moment that we (with NALAC’s instigation) are about to seize seems to me, and I’m sure to many of you, curiously familiar, because as different as these two covers of Time magazine are, as different as 2012 is from 1978, something about this moment now and that moment then seems almost exactly the same. And I think it’s that sense of historical déjà vu that so stirs my uncertainty. Because, when you stop to think about it , according to the mainstream media, Latinos have been about to be really important for a really long time.

In my own book project – Latin Explosion: Latinos, Race, and Twentieth Century U.S. Popular Performance (which I’m presently revising for publication) – I examine as historical phenomenon the intermittent and seemingly discrete moments wherein Latino cultural presenc
e seems to “explode” within U.S. popular performance. You know, how the the mainstream US cultural apparatus, about every half generation or so, discovers with fascination the surprising, always impending importance of Latinos to US society at large…like what Newsweek did inside its 1999 “Latin USA” issue, when an uncredited copyeditor quipped: “Hispanics are hip, hot and about to make history.”

In the book, I term these intermittent, fascinated moments of discovery “Latin explosions” and I argue that such “Latin explosions” are best appreciated as popular performance scenarios – scenarios that repeat to make Latinos freshly legible (and the category of Latino newly “real”) to and for US audiences. And as I am a performance historian, Latin Explosion charts how this intermittent fascination with Latino performers, Latino narrative content and Latino cultural forms also demonstrates the ways that performance (especially performance’s capacity to make imagined things appear utterly real) helped to rehearse and to realize shifts in US Latino racial formation between 1939 and 1999.

Because, I mean, Latinos have been exploding for pretty much my entire life. Just ask Time Magazine.

In 1978, we were “SOON” to become the biggest minority.

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In 1988, we were “¡Magnifico! Beaking out of the barrio!”…in yet another Time cover story. This Time a special issue devoted to the cultural influence of Latinos within US popular performance and culture.

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And then in 1999, we were going pop!

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1999 was the summer that everyone was “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which inspired Time to appoint Ricky Martin as photogenic poster boy for, once again, the magazine’s investigation of Latinos as an important and new cultural phenomenon. As the 1999 feature story breathlessly enthused, “With Hispanics poised to become America’s largest minority group within the next few years, [Latin] music might just be the sound of your future.”

So, in the book, I document these “Latin Explosions” (these episodes of fascinated discovery) as they recur throughout much of the 20th century, thereby demonstrating how this cycle of discovery, fascination and deflection characterizes the ways Latino presence in the United States has been repeatedly framed by the cultural apparatus for at least the last 75 years. I approach the “Latin Explosion” phenomenon as a performance itself — a dance, almost, that the US culture industry does with Latino artists, performers, and audiences from time to time. And in so doing, I approach the Latin explosion as a recurring, repeatable performance scenario that affirms, typically with great flourish and fanfare, that Latinos are about to be really important within USAmerican culture.

Each Latin explosion typically begins with an excited discovery of Latinos (their numbers, their youth, their diversity, their cultural distinctiveness) – a discovery that heralds the transformative challenge Latinos are about to present to mainstream US culture. Next, the Latin explosion moves to a fascination of sorts with Latino individuals, Latino stories and Latino cultural forms, a fascination characterized by heightened visibility in all media. (Whether everyone’s doing the mambo in the 1950s or the macarena in the 1990s, you can know for sure that — in a Latin explosion — the rhythm is gonna get you.) Then, just as abruptly as it began, the Latin explosion typically dissolves as the sudden fascination with all things Latino just as suddenly dissipates and mainstream cultural attention discards the Latin fad to something, to anything, else.

It’s like fireworks. An attention grabbing pop, followed by a spectacular display that garners excited attention, which then fizzles, leaving the breathless audience to await the next explosion. Which will happen, if the last forty years of Time Magazine are to be believed, every ten or twelve years or so…

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And much that is good does comes from each of these “Latin Explosions.” Careers are fortified. Miranda and Montalban; Olmos and Estefan; Ricky and Jennifer – most of the most enduring Latino figures in US popular performance became iconic amidst the swirl of one or another Latin explosion. And it’s often against the background of a Latin explosion that many of our leading Latino arts non-profits, initiatives and centers were established (or experienced their best fundraising and/or audience building years). Just as it’s frequently in the ferment of these Latin explosions that long-labored-for exhibits, festivals, book contracts, and film/theatre/television productions are finally added to the production calendar by the powers that be. All of which is to say, “Latin Explosions” can be good for Latino artists, arts presenters and arts advocates

At the same time, several troublesome aspects of the “Latin Explosion” scenario repeat just as reliably as the good stuff. Hence, my nagging anxiety upon considering NALAC’s 2012 theme, “Seizing the Moment NOW.”

Each “Latin Explosion” brings an intensified period of interest in the possible ways in which Latinos are about to be newly important within US cultural politics and, in each, that amplified interest typically fades about as quickly as it begins. So, paradoxically, the “Latin Explosion” performance scenario does not confirm that Latinos are important, only that they are about to be. Remember what Newsweek said: Hispanics are hip, hot and about to make history.

More than almost anything else, the “Latin Explosion” performance scenario rehearses and refines the notion that Latino cultural influence is new, that Latino cultural influence is foreign, and that Latinos don’t yet fit within the US cultural system. This scenario of discovery thereby confirms the perpetual novelty status accorded Latinos in US culture. By repeating the cycle of discovery, fascination and discarding, each “Latin Explosion” rehearses and reenacts the insidious notion that US Latinos are perpetual novelties – always already new, unusual and unfamiliar.

Thus, just as each “Latin Explosion” celebrates of the remarkable new cultural importance of Latinos, it also enacts a ritualized forgetting of the longstanding presence, influence and significance of Latinos within US culture, life and history In each discovery that US Latinos as hot, hip and about to make history, the “Latin Explosion” scenario enacts the notion that Latinos are “new” arrivals to US culture, eliding the fact that Latinos have been central to this nation’s history since well prior its inception. Each “Latin Explosion” pivots upon the presumption that Latinos remain subcultural, enclaved, alien – novelties requiring not only translation but introduction – somehow forgetting that US audiences already know all about Speedy Gonzales, Charo, and George Lopez (each of whom became iconic amidst historically previous Latin explosions). Most profoundly, “Latin Explosions” rehearse a posture of studied uncertainty as whether and where Latinos might fit within the US body politic. This anxiety over where to “put” Latinos within the existing cultural systems often manifests racially (especially regarding where should Latinos fit within the existing racial hierarchy), sometimes culturally (whether Latinos are a part of US cultural traditions or apart from them), and – more recently – politically (as now, as in the Yo Decido cover, and in seemingly unending speculation over whether US Latinos will vote democrat or republican) – a posture of putatively forward thinking that assiduously denies the deep and diverse traditions of political struggle for inclusion enacted by prior generations of Latino cultural activists. In its way, then, as primarily a performance scenario of discovery, each “Latin Explosion” makes Latinos new all over again, and, as it does, make historical amnesia fun for Latino and non-Latino audiences alike.

So, as we contemplate how best to seize this moment now, amidst this sense of urgency and immediacy and possibility, please remember: should this year’s Latin explosion feel a bit familiar….like a dance we might have danced before…that’s because it is.

Each Latin explosion’s rhythm of discovery, fascination and discard is as a dance – a dance that feels new but which has actually been long rehearsed. So we (as Latino artists, arts presenters and arts advocates) must resist the impulse to play along with this discovery scenario. Indeed, we must remain alert to this Latin explosion’s subtler moves, lest we might find ourselves, in a year or three, looking back upon this moment as just another Latin explosion, which came and went.

Because in five or ten years, I hope not to be delivering a version of this talk noting 2012 as the “most recent” Latin explosion. Rather, I hope to point to 2012 as the year that the Latin explosion performance scenario stopped working. I hope to point to 2012 as the moment Latino arts activists seized upon and intervened within this cycle of discovery and discard to innovate a transformative resolution for this old cultural dance.

So, yes, this moment is one we’ve seen before. And if we want to see it have a different outcome, it it is imperative that we follow NALAC’s challenge to seize this moment now. But we’ve got to take the lead here. We, as US Latino artists, arts presenters and arts advocates, must be the lead partner in this tired 20th century routine. And as we do, we can’t be distracted by the Latin explosion as it goes pop. We must remain alert to how its well rehearsed rhythm will want us to move, because now might just the time we can dance this “Latin Explosion” toward an entirely different finale.

Thank you.

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Keynote in action. Photo credit: Georgina Ortega.

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