The Central American Community of California’s Central Valley Will Not Be Erased (OPINION)

Oct 3, 2019
2:18 PM

(Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

“Los que nunca sabe nadie de dónde son” – Roque Dalton

Imagine a party commemorating you, your life, your tragedies—yet you were not invited to it. A party to make others feel good about themselves and their efforts to “aid” you and even sprinkle your name in there a few times to remind the “gente” that “your life mattered too.” A party for them, to remind them that their struggle was your struggle, but your voice was not needed because they had their own voice.

I’m writing this piece as a Central American feminist, raised in Fresno but landed here out of poverty from Los Angeles, via my family’s transit through Mexico and generationally rooted in El Salvador. This is my attempt to describe an experience of Central Americans in the Central Valley. While our names our being thrown around, our people are screaming, but we are still not being heard.

Our name is Central America and many names and peoples within, but our name is just becoming recognizable… to some. Our stories are complex and unknown to a majority but we are hearing much of it now due to state-sanctioned violence from the U.S., such as concentration camps and Mayan indigenous and Central American children dying or outright murdered by state agents. Not only at the U.S.-Mexico border, but inside Mexico too. State agents and narco-traffickers who actively hunt down Central Americans (along with other mobile and racialized people) for profits in sexual slavery, extortion and assaults. Our families, however, have long known of this epidemic for years, talking about it in the privacy and protection of our own homes.

What is typically heard in media or even in non-Central American households is “those people’s governments and countries are corrupt, they are plagued with drugs and violence” and the typical “where is that in Mexico?”  For instance, the comment of “they are plagued with drugs and violence” was actually a recently comment heard from a Central Valley muralist and graduate student at an academic conference. Their presentation centered on the work they did to paint a visually iconic Chicanx mural in a Los Angeles Central American community as a way to heal “those people’s plagues.” This person won a conference award for misrepresenting a whole community and came out as the new “Chicanx savior” for our community.

Our diasporic community is disrupting this narrative.

Settler Colonialism: Not Just a “White People Thing”

I’ll begin by recognizing the true caretakers and people of the land in the Central Valley, the Yokut nation. It’s critical to immediately crush any type of settler colonialism that promotes Eurocentric borders, and yes this extends to California’s history as once being part of so-called Mexico. A typical slogan promoted by Mexican-American activists is “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” This slogan functions as an entitlement to territory to empower a whole community’s sense of “belonging,” meanwhile erasing Central Valley native peoples. So as a Central American, I challenge that and say, “NO!” We must know our place as settler colonizers, although at different degrees to white Protestant colonizers, but still in the position of benefiting from originating peoples displacement, and this includes all non-Yokut people.

Our trajectory from what could be considered “the homeland” (aka Central America) did not begin in the 1980’s. There are documented records of Central Americans in the U.S. since the early 1800’s, and major displacements of people due to U.S. military and economic intervention happened in the 1950’s and more extensively during the 1980’s with U.S.-funded wars and disastrous neoliberal economic policies such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Armed Department of State security agents accompany U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton in El Salvador, 1982 (Public Domain)

Visibility Without Tokenization or Capitalist Pursuits

The Central Valley’s population of Central Americans extends well into the tens of thousands as of 2010. Most of this population growth occurred during the 1990’s up to the present.

Why is it important for people in the Central Valley to know who we are?

Our hxstories of resistance are imperative in understanding imperialism and more specifically U.S. imperialism. When our relatives began arriving during the 1980’s, there was already much experience and knowledge of political organizing within our communities, and much of this experience, whether families were directly involved in any sort of organizing or not, came with stigmatization once having arrived in the U.S. This stigmatizing occurred much like we hear today with the arrival of caravans, of people “fleeing” violence or poverty, but much of what is reported by mainstream media has lacked a context of global neoliberal extraction, militarization and capitalist dominance mostly from the U.S., which has never halted and continues today.

Another part of that stigmatizing is red-baiting or the shaming of people who have or had Marxist or socialist organizing ideologies, a great part of Ronald Reagan’s policy for the invasion of Central America during the 1980’s, as well as much of Southeast Asia, whose populations also wound up in the Central Valley as refugees (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Hmong). Reagan’s administration spewed anti-communist rhetoric with the argument that “we are fighting off the evils of Communism,” but which our own community knew really meant, “we are upholding Western capitalism and imperialism, so y’all people can suffer and work for our enterprises for nearly nothing.”

This contextual history is important to understand as it applies to the the collective stigmatization and hyper-sensationalism of Central American gangs today.

Who Hijacks Who?

Major discourses in the Central Valley around immigration have most always been dominated by the Chicanx and farmworker movement of the 1960’s. This centering of attention to Chicanx movement leaders has consequently erased Filipino involvement, migration and organizing during that era.

Also noteworthy is the hostile stance that the United Farm Workers took with “illegal immigration” to uphold strikes and the co-optation of much of the movement work that the Filipino community had initiated. This is important information given the changes in the demographics of the Central Valley’s farm labor now being predominantly from Mexico’s south and specifically from Oaxaca and Guerrero. So it begs the question: how has this shift in demographics been utilized by the Chicanx narrative to fit and further their nationalist agenda, without having to fully reconcile the racism existent from white Mexican@s or white Latin@s or 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation Chican@s who upheld hostility against newer migrant workers or migrant populations?

I will also ask this: why is it important to contextualize the current debates around child detention and asylum seekers in order to contest Chicanx appropriation of this crisis? I say this because what can often be heard by Chicanx activists, artists and cultural producers is that “our children are in cages,” without ever having to acknowledge that those children are actually Central American and are being spoken for as either Mexicans or a Chicanx imaginary and construction of indigeneity specifically pertaining to an Aztlan nation, rather than the specificity of place and ethnic origin that children being held in these camps are actually from, ie, Choj, Mam, Chorti, Q’eqchi’, which are all in Guatemala and the many rural and multi-racial/ethnic municipalities throughout the isthmus.

Whose voices have become privileged now?

Mexican and Chicanx nationalist hegemony, centrism and elitism are alive and well—that really the only folks who really “should” have an opinion, position and voice on this issue are those who have “earned” the stature and the respectability of “notable institutions.” For example, take a recent event in Fresno called Writers for Migrant Justice, which raised funds to assist the work of national organizations fighting for migrants in detention centers (most of who are Central American). Although the intention was great, there was not one Central American poet or author to give context to the abuses happening in detention centers and in Mexico and the U.S., and less so to our hxstories of displacement.

This was yet another party where we weren’t invited.

Migration being tied only to a dominant Mexico (that excludes indigenous communities) in the Central Valley works to erase people who have experienced direct forms of resistance to U.S. imperialism and now reside there. Not only does it silence those experiences and knowledge, it functions to maintain the status quo of “who” is deemed a “deserving” or “worthy” migrant, and who is shunned. 

This is evident in the amount of hateful discourse in the media about “Mara Salvatruchas” and the intentional fear injected into the general public (without ever acknowledging the roots of the gang in the U.S.) to further xenophobia and racism. A recent case in the Central Valley was an alleged MS-13 ICE raid carried out in Mendota, a small agricultural town 30 miles east of Fresno, in which ICE —along with the FBI and the notoriously racist Fresno Sheriff’s Department and acting sergeant Margaret Mims— executed a raid targeting Central Americans. It was mockingly called “Operation Blue Inferno,” referring to the blue colors of Central American flags and the naming of our homelands as infernos. They arrested 25 Salvadorans for alleged murders and drug trafficking (of which have not been confirmed in detail or proof). The story got sensational reporting and continued to criminalize a group of mostly men who were detained at dawn during their work shifts at a local agricultural factory.

Shortly after reading up on this news, I searched for lawyers in the Central Valley who specialize in refugee cases for unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers. I could find only one, Camile M. Cook, although a similar report mentioned there were five. Cook was profiled in an article where she stated the “need for lawyers that understood the specificities of these cases, are dire in the Central Valley because there were just not enough.”

Beyond Representation: Education and Nationalisms

Much of my experiences in courses that proclaimed to be “Chican@/Latin@”-focused were hostile spaces against our hxstories of resistance and experience. There would be comments from Mexican students such as “you people are crazy!” in reference to our hxstories of rebellion, wars and culture. Or if professors and their Mexican-centric curricula were challenged, some of their responses would be, “well, this is a Chicanx class and we focus on Mexican American history,” all the while artificially referring to Latin America revolutionary leaders, Guatemalan artists, or Southern Mayan and Oaxacan indigenous cosmologies as part of the “Chicanx experience.”

When a student would raise valid objections, a tone of machismo and supposed intellectual superiority would be commanded by some professors (mostly male). We must keep questioning the power dynamics in Chicanx/Latinx studies classrooms and curricula to non-Chicanx femme, non-binary and trans-identified people/students and being vulnerable in being silenced by the politics of Chicanx nationalism and centrism.

What is the most disturbing now is the misrepresentation by Fresno’s Chicanx community of Central American and globally displaced people. You see the upsurge in Chicanx and Mexican-led nonprofits and organizations taking up the slogans of “our kids are in cages” or the Chican@ claim to indigeneity and by extension, somehow adopting the pain and experience of Guatemalan Mayan children who have died in ICE camps. Or the very liberal slogan of “keep families together,” which does nothing to argue against borders and colonial violence.

A majority of Chicanx activists are guilty in failing to call out the violence perpetuated by Mexico with their own concentration camps, disappearances, sexual slavery and murder. Also incongruent are the nationalist displays like the “grito de independencia” or the great pride of the Mexican flag, as was the case in a recent protest in Colorado at an ICE child concentration camp, where a protest group waved the Mexican flag. Meanwhile, the same tactics of surveillance and concentration camps are being carried out by Mexico to violently detain Central Americans, Africans, Haitian Cuban and other Latin American people, even under a “leftist” Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration.

In addition, the current plans by López Obrador to “develop” Central America in an effort to halt migration are really being done for Mexico’s economic interests, so, to this we say, yes, the hegemony does exist. The crux of contradiction, however, is the silence from our supposed allies around the number of disappeared, murdered, extorted and assaulted Central Americans on Mexican terrain over the last decade. We may never know the official number since Mexico refuses to launch an investigation, but activists and academics believe that the tragedy is in the hundreds of thousands—a genocide.

These inconsistencies and contradictions of Chicanx nationalism and discourse are the most damaging to our community. They fail to recognize our hxstories as specific and work to homogenize our identities and experiences, therefore leaving out the possibilities of actually challenging the greater enemy that is nationalism, capitalism and all forms of imperialism—including a possible Mexican imperialism (economic and cultural).

This is not to minimize the relief efforts that have been carried out, but we also do not need to be spoken for or misrepresented at events, fundraisers or social media platforms. Instead, reach out to us for our political positions and our own political representation. We have our own voices and politics, so please, leave us out of your think pieces, out of your poems, out of your self-aggrandizing artwork if all you will do is attempt to “claim us” or bank off of us, as one of yours to further a nationalist agenda or grant funding for your non-profit.

Start by denouncing the nationalism that continues to dehumanize us in the U.S. and in Mexico, or denouncing your family members who make the racist comments, who generalize us, insult us or worse, discriminate and are violent towards us.

And last but not least, denounce the surging gentrification that is well under way in downtown Fresno and the Tower District instead of enabling and encouraging it while benefiting from it through the folklorization of indigenous cultures and artwashing tactics being used by so many Chicanx non-profits and organizations, willingly lending themselves as cultural consultants to white capital and “development” projects.

So this is not a call for inclusivity or reformation of institutional politics. This is a call for middle-class Chicanx activists/artists/intellectuals to talk a stance on the Central Valley’s damaging politics and do the right thing.

Dont speak for Central Americans.


Paula Ayala is Central American. She is completing her thesis work in Latin American Studies at CSULA.