Tag Archives: Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo

Advocating for Ethnic Studies in 2017

Lessons from Ethnic Studies on Strategic Courage

By Andrea Romero and Michelle Téllez

On May 5 2011, a small group of faculty from the Arizona Ethnic Studies Network gathered in Tucson following a devastating Tucson Unified School board meeting where the Mexican American Studies program in the district was ended. It was a blow that was felt deeply by us all. We came together as scholars from universities and colleges across the state to publicly voice our support for Ethnic Studies. This was in the aftermath of HB 2281 that banned courses that “(1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people or are (3) designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” (AZ House Bill 2281, 49th Legislature, 2010). This bill was used to target, monitor, and dismantle a successful Mexican American Studies curriculum, despite the fact that external auditors determined that the courses were academically successful and promoted positive group interactions (Cabrera, Millem, Jaquette & Marx, 2014; Cambrium Audit, May 2, 2011). In response, we worked as a network to ensure our critiques were made public and to support those teachers and students who were being directly attacked. It was from this source of collective action that we drew strength, and from these activities was born new research, new relationships, stronger students, and a highly aware and involved community.

We find ourselves again at a point in U.S. history where higher education is under conservative scrutiny and new “watchlists” for “dangerous” professors are being created and used to threaten and intimidate scholars in the academy. We live in a country that has been shaped by a particular history of exploitation, genocide, and exclusion. In this, Arizona is not an anomaly, but the norm. However, given the legislative battles we have had in in this state over the last six years, it seems important to comment both on our experiences and on what we imagine our role as Ethnic Studies scholars to be in the coming years given the emergence of what mainstream media Continue reading

Some of my Students are Leprechauns (Or Why it is Difficult for White College Students to Understand that Racism is still a Big Deal)

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Photo by Edward Foley (CC BY-NC 2.0).

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Photo by Edward Foley (CC BY-NC 2.0).

By:  Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo

“The new world of monsters is where humanity has to grasp its future.”
—Hardt and Negri, Multitude

Teaching Introduction to Ethnic Studies and the Art of Asking Questions

I hate surprises in the classroom. I appreciate the potential of surprises in life. The promise they sometimes carry with them. The ability to keep me on my toes, so to speak. But to be clear, I hate surprises in the classroom. Especially when I teach lower division courses. When I teach Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies in particular, a service course we do for the university, I follow a simple, modified rule designed for lawyers in court: do not ask a question for which you do not know what the answer will be. The questions I am talking about here are not questions about class content, but rather demographic or attitudinal questions, that is to say, questions for which the answers will illustrate a particular point. This is not about students knowing the “correct” answer, but about me knowing the answer that students will give me beforehand because although I do not know each one personally, I have a certain general knowledge about who is in my classroom, and the ideas they may bring with them. Thus, I rely on both experience and “external” indicators to anticipate what their answers will be. For instance, when I ask my students in the Introduction course (like I usually do at the beginning of the semester) to stand up if they see themselves as White (to make a point about the changing definitions of “Whiteness” in our country), I know, before it happens, that 80-85% of the 100 students in the classroom will stand up (because I know the student demographics at our institution). Also, when I ask for the left handed students to raise their hand to make a point about certain predictable angles of “random populations,” I know that about 10% will do so (because they mirror the general population, and the very point I am making by asking them to raise their hand is based on that precise fact). And when I ask them to talk to me about their experiences with “diverse populations of students” at their high schools, I know what they will tell me (e.g., whether there were “lots of students of different backgrounds in their high schools” or whether they “hadn’t interacted much with students different from themselves until they stepped foot on our campus”), depending on what part of Washington they went to school.

On a carefree day, I would say that I have turned this “asking only questions for which I know what the answer will be” endeavor into a work of art. Over the years I have become accustomed to and very comfortable with this practice: I always know (at least approximately) how many students will stand up or raise their hands, or the verbal answer they will give me in response to a question I make. Like I said, I hate surprises in the classroom.

The Question that Broke my Art

A few years back in my Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies class, during a lecture on the use of American Indians as mascots in sports teams, I made two simple points: (1) the (ab)use of American Indians as mascots is tied to the (ab)use of American Indian cultures and peoples by mainstream American culture, which has a long history; and (2) the practice must be terminated. I showed them horrifying visuals depicting these practices throughout the decades, including pictures of sports teams using the American Indian mascots of other teams in violent, degrading ways. During this lecture, I lingered on a particular picture of a state college with a bull as a mascot portraying the American Indian mascot of its rival state school on its knees performing fellatio on their bull. My students thought the picture was in bad taste (which is a start), but I also asked them to think about the treatment of mascots in general, and whether it was fair to portray human beings in the same light. For instance, a tiger performing fellatio on a bulldog is still in “bad taste,” but the objections may end there. This was not the first time I had given that lecture, so I knew the point the students were going to raise in response, which they did, right on cue: American Indians are not the only “humans” portrayed as mascots, for we also have the “Vikings” and the “Fighting Irish,” they earnestly offered.

I always take this point very seriously, because I assume they bring it up in good faith, wanting to understand the difference. This time, my answers were simple but to the point: As a group of people, the Vikings (like the Trojans, and the Ancient Greeks) are gone, the American Indians are still with us. As for the Irish, I usually concede that it is a good example, because the Irish, as a people, do exist. I could have easily gone into all sorts of discussions about the positionality of the Irish as an ethnic group within U.S. culture or even within the United Kingdom, but this time I decided to take a different route: I asked my students what the mascot of the Fighting Irish was (and as with every question I ask in that class, I knew the answer). They promptly and ceremoniously responded: “a leprechaun.” Then, with the picture of the bull and the American Indian on his knees still up, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had American Indian ancestry. I saw them hesitate, so I made it clear: raise your hand if either of your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents is or was American Indian. Around 30% of the students in the classroom (regardless of how they identified ethnically or racially) raised their hands, and as always, I knew they would. So, I said, that picture right there (pointing again to the Indian on his knees) is about your relatives, which is to say, is about you. Now let me ask you this: How many of you have leprechaun relatives? I thought I knew the answer to this question. The question was supposed to be a throwaway, a joke for them to get the point. No hands were supposed to go up. Not one hand up was the answer I knew to expect. But, to my surprise (yes, a surprise in my classroom), at least three white-identified students raised their hands. Not as joke, not even as a challenge to my authority, but as a bona fide answer to my question. I am hardly ever thrown off balance in my classes, but for a fraction of a second I was, and then sternly told those students to put their hands down because although I hated to break it to them, “leprechauns, just like unicorns and mermaids, do not exist.” At least not in the corporeal sense that would prompt genealogical claims. For a moment there all I wanted was to get those hands down and erase the incomprehensibility they represented. But regardless of how fast they put their hands down (and they were extremely fast), my fail-safe system of asking students questions in class was broken. Even if momentarily.

Some of my Students are Leprechauns, Which is to Say, they Think Racism is not a Big Deal

Those hands confirmed that this generation of students is truly lacking an understanding of the historical impact and contemporary reverberations of racial formations (a la Omi and Winant) and racism. More to the point, if students do not understand the difference between “real” and mythological peoples or even how genealogy has operated in their own creation, how can they understand the difference between racial myths and racial realities, or how racism works in our society? Students suggesting that mythological leprechauns or extinct Vikings are as abused as flesh and blood American Indians should be troubling enough. But for them to actually identify with the figure of the monstrous leprechaun by seeing themselves in that figure should be beyond comprehension. Unless you understand this generation, that is. This is the first generation of White Americans raised with a societal understanding that equality between the races as a principle should not be disputed. However, this understanding has been intertwined with a convenient lie, mainly, that we have actually achieved racial equality. That lie has taken root because although their generation is buffered by my generation (Generation X), which was born after segregation and other major forms of de jure discrimination were deemed unconstitutional, studies show that buffer notwithstanding, White millennials have not transcended the history of this country. Thus, when it comes to expressing racism, Millennials are sometimes no better than their parents (Gen Exers) or their grandparents (Baby Boomers) (Clement, 2015). As Michael D. Smith argues, “the education [white Millennials] have received has left them ill-equipped to understand the nature of racism,” as they “have inherited a world in which the idea of ‘reverse racism’ has been legitimized…” (2015). Their “education” has taken place in a vacuum where discrimination against Black folks (which they equate exclusively with slavery and perhaps segregation), was something that happened in a long and terminated past, something that has no repercussions today because, as they’ve learned, we are now all equal.

And that is the crux of the matter, for if as they’ve been instructed, we are all equal today (whether we descend from American Indians or leprechauns), that means that Whites can experience as much discrimination as anybody else (hence “reverse discrimination”). So, from this perspective, Black folks, American Indians, and Latinas/os may be having a hard time in our society, but by golly, so are Whites. Their understandings of race and racism have become another mythology, where their perceived oppression is equal to that of anyone else’s. And in their mythological views about race and racism, their non-human, monster-like “leprechaun ancestors” are being abused by sport teams, just as are those of American Indians. Unfathomable to many, but if we (professors) are to help them understand their own positionality within historical and contemporary manifestations of racism, and to help humanity “grasp its future” as Hardt and Negri compel us, we must become adept slayers of mythical creatures in this new world of monsters, which irritatingly enough, seems to include a classroom surprise or two.

Clement, Scott. 2015. “Millennials are just as Racist as their Parents.” The Washington Post. April 7. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/07/white-millennials-are-just-about-as-racist-as-their-parents/.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formations in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.
Smith, Michael D. 2015. “Millennials are Products of a Failed Lesson in Colorblindness.” PBS. March 26. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/white-millennials-products-failed-lesson-colorblindness/.

Las dos alas de un pájaro: The Cuban Refugee Program and Operation Bootstrap

by Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo and Cheris Brewer Current

Cuba y Puerto Rico son
(Cuba and Puerto Rico are)

De un pájaro las dos alas,
(Two birds of a feather)

Reciben flores y balas
(They receive flowers and bullets)

Sobre el mismo corazón…
(Over the same heart…)

—From Mi libro de Cuba by Lola Rodríguez de Tió


One Bird, Two Wings

Sometimes attributed to Cuban revolutionary José Martí, the verses by Puerto Rican revolutionary Lola Rodríguez de Tió were first published in 1893, while she was exiled in Cuba. Martí and Rodríguez de Tió became good friends and avid advocates for the independence of their own and each other’s country, as Cuba and Puerto Rico remained the last bastions of Spain’s Empire in the Caribbean. The verses were a testimony of the similar histories the two islands developed under four centuries of Spanish rule. They can also be seen as a chilling presage of what was to come after the U.S. won the Spanish American War in 1898 and became a consistent presence in the future of both countries, as U.S. decisions and U.S. policies have affected the way Cubans and Puerto Ricans live their lives on both their respective islands and the US mainland as well.

The islands were forced into different routes during the 20th century with the Platt Amendment (1901) steering Cuba in one direction (i.e., eventual independence), and the Foraker Act (1900) and Jones Act (1917) gearing Puerto Rico in another (i.e., an entrenched colonial status). Later, when Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the U.S. in 1952 and Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959, this bifurcation seemed to be irreversible. The effects of U.S. policies toward Puerto Rico and Cuba have been critical in shaping the positions that both islands occupy globally, and in the living conditions of Cubans and Puerto Ricans on the mainland.

This essay presents a brief comparative sketch of two distinctive immigrating and incoming Caribbean groups resulting from two specific structural programs: the Cuban Refugee Program (CRP) targeting Cubans in the U.S.; and Operation Bootstrap (OB) involving Puerto Ricans on the island. Both programs had their genesis in the mid-twentieth century, at a moment when the U.S. was attempting to re-vamp its racial politics in response to both domestic and international pressures. Yet, it is noteworthy that both CRP and OB were operational before the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which ended explicit race based preferences in entrants.

Thus Puerto Rican incomers and Cuban immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s are a precursor to the increasingly diverse group of immigrants who were to follow. Movement from Latin American and the Caribbean to the US contains a peculiar history shaped by individual relationships between countries of origin and the US. Immigrants from countries with closer political, economic, and social ties to the US were (and are) granted advantages in entrance, settlement, and employment that are unavailable to immigrants from countries who do not share the same intimacy with the US. This is clear when you compare Cubans with other political immigrants of the period—Haitians and Dominicans, for instance—who, because of racial and political reasons were not granted refugee status. This essay focuses on two relatively privileged groups of Latino immigrants: Puerto Ricans who entered with citizenship status, and Cubans who were granted legal status, provided financial assistance, and structural assimilation. Tracing the reception of these two groups illustrates the ways in which the U.S. government eased and aided the process of migration for some, while it outright neglected other newcomers.

Bootstrapping the Island

As an economic policy and as a development initiative, OB was not a U.S. policy per se, but rather, the effort of Puerto Rican leaders, who sought to develop Puerto Rico economically (Maldonado, 1997). The program was funded, almost entirely, by the island’s government. However, U.S. involvement was at the heart of its conception and implementation, for the companies targeted by the program were exclusively U.S. companies. U.S. policy was also at the heart of the program by way of specific tax exemptions that these companies would enjoy, as “Puerto Rico had been exempted from U.S. taxes since 1900” (Maldonado, 1997: 46). Those exemptions were the core of the program, so OB was possible, fundamentally, because of already existing U.S. policy. In addition, the massive movement of Puerto Ricans to the mainland that ensued after OB was also only possible, again, because of U.S. policy (in this case, policies ruling citizenship and territories).

Using an “industrialization by invitation” approach (Dietz, 1986; Whalen, 2005),
Operación Manos a la Obra (as it is known in Spanish) began in the 1940s, and had among its main objectives to eliminate extreme poverty on the island, and to develop the island economically (Morales-Carrión, 1983). Initially, the project included federal tax incentives and exemptions to entice American businesses with cheap and abundant labor. OB turned into an export-oriented form of absentee capitalism that overhauled the economy in Puerto Rico in unprecedented ways. By the 1950s the island had largely left its agricultural past behind, for as James Dietz (1986) tells us, agriculture came to be regarded as an obstacle to progress.

OB prompted a massive exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland US that has literally divided the Puerto Rican population in half, and has prompted poet Nicolasa Mohr to thoughtfully proclaim that “Puerto Ricans are no longer an island people” (in Rodríguez, 1991). The movement of Puerto Ricans alleviated the large-scale unemployment produced by the sudden shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The mainland Puerto Rican population went from 53,000 in 1930 (before OB), to 1.5 million in1964, roughly 20 years after OB began (Briggs, 2002). Although the set of initiatives, policies, and practices that came to be known as Operation Bootstrap did not institute or formally encourage island to mainland movement, we are suggesting (as have others before us—see, e.g., Briggs 2002; Dietz 1986; Maldonado 1997; and Whalen 2005, etc.) that Operation Bootstrap created a de facto form of movement to the U.S. by “pushing” migrants northward.

When the U.S. is Pulling the Bootstrap

The post-1959 migration of Cubans was part of an immigration continuum that had brought Cubans to Florida whenever political or economic strife hit the island (Mirabal, 2003; Poyo, 1989). Given this history, the U.S. became a natural refuge for former supporters of Batista and other Cubans who quickly became politically and financially disillusioned with the revolution, but discerning why the U.S. chose to accept over 650,000 refugees by 1977 is a more complicated challenge (Whorton, 1997). The acceptance of Cubans, first as immigrants and then as refuges, marks an anomaly in US immigration policy, as they arrived during an era of restrictive immigration (1924-1965).

Accepting Cuban refugees was merely one aspect of the U.S.’s developing policies directed at incoming exiles. Early on, many Cubans leaving the island managed to take money and other forms of capital with them and were able to support themselves –if only temporarily– in their exile. The restrictions Castro imposed on what Cubans could take with them became increasingly stringent over time as concern grew that assets in the forms of cash and jewelry were being sent northward. Eventually luggage was limited to a change or two of clothing.
As Cubans began entering the U.S. early in 1959, private agencies and local church groups offered aid to impoverished refugees. Federal aid increased greatly in 1961 with the creation of the Cuban Refugee Program, providing the needed resources for the programs many aid-based goals. The CRP, administered by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), provided funds for resettlement, and “monthly relief checks, health services, job training, adult educational opportunities, and surplus food distribution (canned meat, powdered eggs and milk, cheese, and oatmeal, among other food products)” (García, 1996).

Based on number of dependents, place of residence, and employment status, CRP staff calculated a monthly financial benefit for deserving refugees – primarily the unemployed – and granted refugees a maximum of $60 a month for a single person and $100 for a family (Voorhees, 1961). These payments were substantially more than the welfare payments available to U.S. citizens (including Puerto Ricans). The CRP also provided additional assistance, including medical insurance, assistance with employment readjustment, and college scholarships. This comprehensive program ensured that Cuban refugees were provided with structural assistance that extended beyond the stopgap needs of early exile.

Final Thoughts: Of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Republicans, and Latinos

The unequal power relations that typify U.S.-Latin American exchanges mark the admittance, treatment and integration of Latin American immigrants, as all migrants from the region have been subject to the whims of the U.S.’s shifting relations with Latin America. Similarly, the complex histories that individual nations share with the U.S. have dictated the response to immigration policy and immigrants (Taft, et al, 1979 ). This in part explains that although Puerto Ricans and Cubans are all categorized as “Hispanic” in the eyes of the U.S. government or Latinos in the U.S. popular imagination, for instance, specific historical, political and perceived racial differences have produced great disparity in U.S. policy and reception of immigrants or incomers from the country and territory respectively.

This discrepancy becomes patently obvious when one compares the reception of Cuban refugees to that of Puerto Ricans workers during the mid-twentieth century. On the one hand, during the Puerto Rican movement to the U.S., the U.S. government benefited from the cheap labor that ended up manning its factories and processing plants. It was assumed that Puerto Ricans, who were U.S. citizens after all, could access welfare if needed—yet the racialized welfare system discouraged if not outright barred people of color from accessing services (DeParle, 2004). Meanwhile, unlike Cuban refugees from the same period, Puerto Ricans did not receive a hero’s welcome, or assistance to find a place to stay, or to learn English. They were given no free vocational training, or medical services. In sum, Puerto Ricans were not presented with an aid package tailored to their needs. As citizens, they were assumed to have access to the U.S. government resources, when the reality seemed that they were here only to fulfill the needs of an economic system that thrived on cheap labor. The massive migration turned out to be a “win-win” for both governments (US’ and Puerto Rico’s), while it became a “lose-lose” for Puerto Ricans, including Puerto Ricans in the U.S., who ended up at the bottom of the economic ladder.

On the other hand, the US government not only allowed Cubans entry, but it also provided direct assistance that exceeded any welfare program available to its own citizens, including Puerto Ricans. Some of the motives behind this benevolence remain unclear; what is clear is that the Cold War and anti-communist rhetoric shaped governmental discussions of Cuban immigration; ensuring the well-being and success of people fleeing communism held important ideological value. The direct assistance that Cubans received was, indeed, helpful in some form, as they still have the highest net worth of any U.S. Latino group. Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, continue to lag behind, and are experienced as a problem group, one immersed in poverty—and racialized as non-White. Regardless of the historical, social, and racial similarities shared by Cuba and Puerto Rico pre-1898 (the two birds of a feather), an act of American exceptionalism elevated (and perhaps continues to elevate) the status of Cubans, while Puerto Ricans and other Latino/as remain(ed) marginalized. This unilateral decision predisposed Puerto Ricans to a different treatment by mainstream U.S. culture, and hence, a different future from that of Cubans.

Over half a century into that future, the 2016 presidential election campaign has produced (thus far) two Republican hopefuls of Cuban descent, while not one Puerto Rican has ever made a bid for the presidency (on either party). Something to note here is that the candidates in question are both the offspring of Cubans who migrated to the U.S. before Castro took office, meaning, they are not CRP babies. This fact brings us to a crucial, final argument: the CRP seems to have “lifted the boats” of Cubans as a group, even those who did not participate in it (and perhaps even those who came after the program was terminated). This point is important, for the net effect of the CRP extends beyond the assistance granted to individuals, as the program collectively elevated the economic and social status of Cubans. The CRP argued that these heralded newcomers were capable of accessing the American Dream and political self-determination (as it was assumed that the future leaders of Cuba were temporary sojourners, who would return to the island eventually and take control). Puerto Ricans were pushed to the margins as they were denied structural assistance and viewed as political and economic dependents, creating a long-lasting, major chasm between both groups.

But now the chasm seems to be closing, and Republican candidates notwithstanding, second and third generation Cuban Americans are shifting politically, presumably joining Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in less conservative spaces (Fisher, (2015). Thus, regardless of their bifurcated histories, and their still dissimilar class status, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the U.S. seem to be finally converging not only geographically, but in their ideals and aspirations as well. There is also the collective imagination of Americans who sees both groups as part of that collective known as Latinos/as, and whether that is a good thing or not, is a question for another essay.


Briggs, Laura. 2002. Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boswell, Thomas and James Curtis. 1984. The Cuban American Experience: Culture,
Images and Perspectives. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Allaheld Publishers.

DeParle, Jason. 2004. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive
to End Welfare. Penguin Books: New York.

Dietz, James L. 2003. Puerto Rico: Negotiating Development and Change. Boulder:
Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Fisher, Marc. 2015. “Cuban Americans’ Shifting Identity, and Political Views Divides
Key Block.” The Washington Post. June 12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/

García, M.C. 1996. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994. Berkley: University of California Press.

Maldonado, A.W. 1997. Teodoro Moscoso and Puerto Rico’s Operation Bootstrap.
Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Masud-Piloto, F.R. 1996. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the US, 1959-1995. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Mirabal, N. R. 2003.“‘Ser de Aquí’: Beyond the Cuban Exile Model.” Latino Studies vol. 1: 366-382.

Morales Carrión, Arturo. 1983. Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History. New
York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Poyo, G. 1989. With All, and for the Good of All: The Emergence of Popular Nationalism in the Cuban Communities of the United States, 1848-1898. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rodríguez, Clara E. 1991. Puerto Ricans: Born in the U.S. Boulder: Westview Press.

Taft, J.V., North, D.S.& Ford, D.A. 1979. Refugee Resettlement in the US: Time for a New Focus. Washington DC: New TrasCentury Foundation.

Thomas, J.F. 1963. “US Cuban Refugee Program.” (December) Records of Health, Education, and Welfare, RG 363, Carton 12, File CR 18-1, National Archives II.

Whalen, Carmen Teresa. 2005. “Colonialism, Citizenship and the Making of the Puerto
Rican Diaspora.” In The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives edited by Carmen Teresa Whalen and Víctor Vázquez-Hernández. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Whorton, B. 1997. The Transformation of Refugee Policy: Race, Welfare, and American Political Culture, 1959-1997. PhD Dissertation. Sociology, University of Kansas.

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender,  and Race Studies at Washington State University. Her research focuses on Latinos in the US, “the War on Terror,” and the representation of Latinas/os and other minorities in popular culture. Cheris Brewer Current is Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Work
at Walla Walla University’s Wilma Hepker School of Social Work and Sociology. Her research focuses on Cuban Immigration to the U.S., and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

Latinas/os and Corporate Mestizaje


by Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo and José Alamillo

En lo puro no hay futuro
la pureza está en la mezcla
en la mezcla de lo puro
que antes que puro fue mezcla.

“En lo puro no hay futuro,” Jarabe de Palo

[There is no future in that which is pure. / Purity comes from the mixing. / The mixing of that which is pure, / Because before it was pure, it was a mixture. “There is no Future in that which is Pure” Jarabe de Palo]

During the last two decades, Latinos and Latinas have achieved a modicum of recognition in U.S. mainstream culture, in part because of the marketing machine of corporate America. However, as Arlene Dávila (2001) proposed, the recognition that Latinos/as have achieved has been simultaneously and paradoxically accompanied by “a continued invisibility in US society” (3). Corporate spending and advertising directed at Latinos/as have grown at an annual average rate of more than 10 percent since 1998 and will continue to grow as census numbers reveal that Latinos now constitute the largest minority ethnic group (US Census, 2012). Given this new demographic reality suspiciously dubbed the “browning of America,” marketing officials are developing more sophisticated approaches to reach the Latino/a consumer replacing the crude and offensive images of the past that outraged Latino civil rights groups. The new images have been refined and repackaged to present Latinos/as less as a caricature and more as a seamless harmonious unified group. This contemporary construction of Latinidad by corporate America needs more critical interrogation amidst neoliberal policies and global economic forces that insist on merging the Latin American South with the Latino North to create the new (future) hybrid marketing, especially one geared toward mainstream non-Latino communities.

The process of intercultural borrowing/appropriation and racial mixture has a long, tormented history in the Americas, dating back to the European colonizations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This process has been known as syncretism, miscegenation, creolization, metis, transculturation, hybridity, and mestizaje. Because of their own colonial histories, many Latin American countries have adopted the ideology of cultural and racial mixing as a central tenet for their nation-building projects. Although some of those projects have transcended their countries of origin through the movement of immigrants, in the end, the US has never adopted or even seriously contemplated hybridity as part of its nation-formation processes.

At the same time, Chicano/a Studies scholars have critically interrogated the concept of “mestizaje” making a crucial distinction between its Mexican and Chicano nationalist configuration. In Mestizaje, Rafael Pérez-Torres argues that because of Chicana/os racialized experiences in the US context, “mestizaje” rises to the level of a counter discourse and practice that challenges dominant Chicano and American conceptions of white masculinity and heteronormative sexuality. While Pérez-Torres’ re-configures the term “mestizaje” with a critical edge, it does not prevent US advertisers and marketers from appropriating hybrid culture for economic gain.

Thus, the American marketplace has recently developed its own ideas about mestizaje and hybridity with the purpose of selling products, images, and ideologies to mainstream American audiences. These ideas are usually used in tandem with mainstream commodified constructions of Latinas/os, which are often presented as “mestiza/o” or “hybrid” constructions. This is happening at the same time that we are witnessing a major backlash against Latinos in virtue of a government-created hysteria about (Mexican/Latino) immigrants and immigration. We call this particular selling of ideas corporate mestizaje, not because we think this is a bonafide case of social or cultural syncretism, but because we want to call attention to a specific pattern where those doing advertising for US companies combine seemingly benign aspects of American and Latin American cultures in their selling of specific products (cars, food items, etc.). As an illustration, we offer the advertisement for a beer introduced by Miller Company in 2007, which used a particular kind of English-Spanish hybridity to market its new product. Though we only discuss this one example, we would like to call attention to the fact that this has been done pretty consistently during the last decade or so, as we have repeatedly witnessed the peddling of consumable “hybrid” images for the mainstream audiences.

Miller’s New Hybrid Beer

Milwaukee-based Miller Brewing. Co. has long been associated with white blue-collar America and sales have been declining for the past few decades. To reverse sagging beer sales, Miller decided to go “south of the border” to find inspiration for their new light beer called “Miller Chill” (Kesmodel, 2007). This lime and salt flavored beer was introduced in a television advertisement campaign called “Se Habla Chill” (translated as “We Speak Chill”). The “Miller Chill” beer was advertised as “an American take on the Mexican ‘chelada’” (translated as the cold one). The “chelada” emerged as a popular drink in Mexican beach resorts in the 1960s and it consists of beer, lime, salt, and ice in a salt-rimmed glass. According to one Miller spokesperson, “We call it a modern American take on a Mexican classic” (Lentini, 2007). Miller Chill was packaged in a lime green bottle with words “Inspired by a Mexican recipe with lime & salt” on the top, followed by green and silver modular Aztec-like design in the middle” with word “Chill” in bold letters, and “Chelada style” words at the bottom. One television commercial featured a close-up of the green bottle with bright colors and Latin music in the background. The Spanglish narration included such mock Spanish phrases as “Beerveza,” “It’s Muy Refreshing,” or “Viva Refreshment.” The Miller web site (www.millerchill.com) described the “hybrid” dimension of this new beer: “Refreshment takes on a whole new meaning south-of-the-border where the sun burns HOTTER and LONGER; where heat creeps into EVERYTHING from food to music to nightlife….Inspired by a Mexican recipe. Miller Chill is a unique, refreshing fusion of two cultures per 12oz serving.”

The Miller Chill advertising campaign uses the trope of “tropicalization” that refers to stereotypical Latino images, music, and characteristics that are defined as “tropical” and associated with representations of hotness, exotic, wild, and passionate peoples/things (Aparicio and Chavez-Silverman, 1997). Building upon Edward Said’s concept of “Orientalism,” Frances Aparicio and Susan Chavez-Silverman (1997) argue that “tropicalization” is formulated from an Anglo dominant perspective, it homogenizes culture to construct a “mythic idea of Latinidad based on….projections of fear.” (8). The bright colors, salsa music, and tropical fruit are “tropicalizing” references associated with Miller Chill’s “Beerveza” made with an “unexpected twist” and “brewed for a new level of refreshment.” In addition, when the website pitches their new beer as “unique, refreshing fusion of two cultures” it is combining a “traditional Mexican style” recipe with low-calorie beer to construct a “happy hybridity” discourse that appeals to mainstream consumers.

The problem with this particular celebration of “hybridity” has to do with its disengagement from reality. For instance, although we could interpret the use of English and Spanish along with the specific allusions to Mexico as a step toward acknowledging the long (if torturous) relationship between that country and the US, or the crossing over boundaries of specific cultural artifacts, we must keep in mind that this type of hybridity is not meant to extend beyond the advertising campaign. That is, we could argue that immigrant behavior does the same thing creating a hybridity in defying two nation states by simply crossing the border between them. But, we would be ignoring how the nation state has continued to intervene in the lives of migrants through surveillance, legislation, militarization, arrests, detention, and deportation. Moreover, the “fusion” of American and Mexican cultures as reflected in the new Miller Chill beer campaign is less an example of hybridity (cultural, social, or political) and more an example of market forces dictating trends in beer consumption based on perceived notions about consumer preference via the appropriation of certain cultural elements. As Miller’s chief marketing officer observed, “There’s clearly a move toward Latinization if you’ve been watching the American consumer” (Kesmodel, 2007).

We must also point out, that although we see this type of marketing campaign as directed to mainstream audiences, Latinos also watch and witness how these advertisements are seeking to peddle certain cultural elements associated with them. In fact, Latinos and Latinas are not passive consumers of marketing campaigns, and have had a long tradition of organized boycotts against products and social actors that promote anti-Latino agendas. In 2006, when immigrant rights activists in Chicago discovered that Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, author of the anti-immigrant bill, HR 4437 received political contributions from Miller Beer they threatened a national boycott of Miller beer products. Almost immediately, Miller conceded to organizers’ demands and put out a one page ad in a Spanish language newspaper proclaiming their opposition to HR 4437 and pledged their “support for the Hispanic community and the rights of immigrants” (Navarette, 2006). Although Miller was more concerned about declining profits than becoming a pro-immigrant company, organizers took advantage of this political moment to fight anti-immigration legislation but also proclaim that market inclusion should translate into political inclusion.

Conclusion: The Corporate Hybrid in Perspective

Corporate America has used a Latino hybrid trope to reach mainstream audiences and consumers, but this “cultural inclusion” has meant material exclusion for the large number of Latinos and Latinas. More to the point, mainstream America seems more at ease with “south of the border” things than people, as long as these things appear in and stay confined to their television, their films, and their advertisements. Corporate Mestizaje is an insidious practice that creates and deploys commercials like those of the Miller Chill, turning them into tools to ease the insecurities and fears of mainstream culture about an impending Latinization of the United States. However, the marketing of Latinidad has not effectively addressed the underprivileged circumstances of Latinos/as. In the end, these types of commercials say nothing about Latinos and everything about mainstream U.S. culture. After all, an accessible and re-imagined mestiza Latino/a “culture” (one without the reality of Latino/a people) is definitely more titillating and certainly less frightening. Jarabe de Palo’s lyrics in the opening epigraph become an ominous means of marketing, “there’s no future in purity,” and corporate America is cashing in on that.

Works Cited

Aparicio, Frances and Susana Chavez-Silverman. Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad. Hanover, CT: University Press of New England, 1997.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture.  New York: Routledge, 1994.

Colker, Ruth. Hybrid: Bisexuals, Multiracials, and other Misfits under American Law. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Dávila, Arlene. 2001. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley: University of California Press.

García Canclini, Nestor. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Jarabe de Palo. 2001. “En lo puro no hay future.” De Vuelta y Vuelta. Emi Latin.

Kesmodel, David. “Miller asks, ‘Se Habla Chill?’ to keep U.S. Market Hopping; Brewer Hopes Lager With a Mexican Twist Can End Sales Slump.” Wall Street Journal. 12 Jan. 2007: B31.

Lentini, Nina. “Miller Draws Outside the Lines with New ‘Chill.” Media Post Publications. 9 Feb. 2007. 2 July, 2007. http://www.mediapost.com/publications/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=55265

McClain DaCosta, Kimberly.“Selling Mixedness: Marketing with Multiracial Identities.” Mixed Messages: Multiracial Identities in the Color Blind Era. Ed. David Brunsma. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

Navarette, Ruben. “Immigration Issue Brews Beer.” Hispanic Trends. June 2006: 35.

Pérez-Torres, Rafael. Mestizaje: Critical Uses of Race in Chicano Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006

US Census. 2012. “Hispanic Origin.” http://www.census.gov/population/hispanic/data/2012.html.

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University. Her research focuses on Latinos in the US, “the War on Terror,” and the representation of Latinas/os and other minorities in popular culture.  José Alamillo is a Professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Channel Islands. Dr. Alamillo’s research focuses on the ways Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans have used culture, leisure, and sports to build community and social networks to advance politically and economically in the United States. His current research project includes a transnational history of Mexican Americans in sports and the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo during the 20th century.