URC

After Latinidad: Reimagining Latino Identity in the works of Junot Díaz

Grant Glass
Harvard University

Keywords: Díaz, Latino, identity, linguistics, intertextuality

Abstract

This paper discusses where and how Díaz positions himself within a Latino identity, and how his narrative style incorporates his sense of Latino culture specifically in The Brief Life of Oscar Wao (2007) and Drown (1996).

Introduction

Junot Díaz began his first novel, The Brief Life of Oscar Wao (2007) with an epigraph, a poem from the Saint Lucian born Derek Walcott. The poem, "The Schooner Flight" (1980) described the complicated affirmation of identity: ". . . and either I'm nobody or I'm a nation." Díaz understood that this quote had far reaching implications beyond just the framing of the novel but in positioning his work to a larger group. The question became what group, and even further what identity was he claiming? Was it American, Hispanic, Dominican, or Latino? Only by carefully reading the literary style of Díaz in which he executes his narrative would he reveal what his association was and how that association functioned. Not only did Díaz use poetry to inform and frame his novel, he also used the same device to frame his short story collections. A Gustavo Pérez Firmat's poem, Bilingual Blues was provided to frame Díaz's short story collection Drown (1996). The poem provided a greater clarity to what group Díaz might be speaking to, "how to explain to you that I don't belong to English though I belong nowhere else." Does this suggest that Díaz claimed to be a part of the Latino identity? Somewhere between English and Spanish or between America and the Dominican Republic? This paper discusses where and how Díaz positions himself within a Latino identity and how his narrative style incorporates his sense of Latino culture. Díaz destabilizes notions that Latino literature should be separated from the American cannon and positions Latino culture not outside of the American culture but within it.

Narrative Style

The academic debate on what it means to be Latino has been filled with questions as to what constitutes a Latino identity. The debate of what is Latino identity traces its roots to the late-1990s, where a growing highly educated Latino audience emerged as the majority minority population in the U.S. During this period, scholars started to come to grips with a growing culture that had a name but not quite an identity. Amidst this debate, Karen Christian's work, Show and Tell: Identity as Performance in U.S. Latina/o Fiction (1997), provided some clarity as to how this identity was being understood and represented. Christian was careful not to essentialize Latino culture by grouping together different Latino texts: "Identity is thus an ongoing narrative that can never be outside representation" (Christian, 9). Essentially Latino identity was constantly being represented but also constantly changing, so any attempts to stabilize an identity within a single text would be quickly assimilated and complicated by other texts.

Intertextuality

In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, intertextuality served to stabilize the text amongst other texts that change its representation. The epigraphs that framed the text were from Walcott and from Fantastic Four, which simultaneously situated the text within Caribbean literature and popular American culture. Díaz used other narratives to tie into his own narrative, such as The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Steven King's The Stand, and even Herman Melville's Moby Dick. This placement of popular and canonical texts against the story that Yunior was telling provided the narrative stability against the uncertainty of Latino identity. However, one concept tied the entire narrative together, the concept of fukú, in which Yunior described both the greater world's fukú story and his own fukú. Here Yunior not only became central to the subject of the narrative but he also possessed the power to influence and reshape the broader American canonical narratives represented by his own story.

Christian recognized that at this time there were no other scholars dealing with the implications of Latino texts, "…this move to treat writings by Chicanos, Nuyoricans, U.S. Cubans, and other Latinos as part of the same literary corpus has not been accompanied by critical studies of Latina/o culture as a whole" (Christian ,4). These different identities were regarded as distinct cultural phenomena, and many scholars were weary of grouping these different experiences into one group, one identity. Christian thought that there needed to be a starting point specifically for Latino culture that built upon her ethnic theory. If the Latino identity was constantly located in contested territory between past, present, and future, how was it to be represented? Looking at Latino texts, Christian was able to find a common theme, "Literary text makes visible the tension between the everyday 'performances' of Latinos" (Christian, 15). Since the Latino identity was always changing, every representation was like a performance of something real, but in itself it was not real.

Performative

The performative aspects of these identities were what continuously shaped notions of a Latino culture. For Junot Díaz, even placing the accent above the "i" was a sort of performance that represented his association to Spanish. Some Latino authors chose not to use this grammatical unit, like Richard Rodriguez, thus providing an ever-changing notion of Latino identity. Going beyond including Spanish within his work, in Drown Díaz did not italicize the Spanish words, "I want a younger cobrador"(Díaz, Drown ,11). There no longer was a marker of another language within the text; the two languages stood next to each other. By using Spanglish, Díaz reshaped the notion of language within Latino culture. However, the majority of the writing is in English, suggesting that English was essential to being understood in the broader American culture. In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz used complete Spanish phrases within the narrative, "I've heard that you have a daughter Dr. Cabral, una que es muy bella y elegante, no"(Díaz, Brief, 221). The sentence was split down the middle between English and Spanish, suggesting an equal relevance to the text. Rather than exploiting the differences between the two languages, Díaz intertwined the two languages, making them not only a part of Latino culture but exploiting his influence on American culture as well. Díaz's literary success was used to change perceptions of what Latino and American language should be.

Christian's most interesting gesture in her critical study of Latino culture was her insistence on using the term "Latina/o" rather than just Latino. Some scholars continue to use the abridged version of this term, and some continue to use Christian's gender friendly term. The sensitivity towards an equal standing with both genders evolves throughout Díaz's work. In Drown, the title to one of the stories, How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie suggested that there was some equality to all women in the narrator's eyes. And in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz came full circle by suggesting that the mother is the source of narrative voice, "Before there was an American story…there was their mother"(Díaz, Brief, 77). Not only does Díaz ensure that Latino culture is included in the American identity, he also ensures the Latina identity is not lost along the way.

Journeying further into the discussion on Latino culture, Paula Moya's With Us or Without Us: The Development of a Latino Public Sphere (2003) marked a point where Latino culture was exploding due to the popularity of Latin music, food, and literature within the late 1990s. However, although Latino "performances" were becoming a part of American popular culture, none of the aspects were creating an identity for Latinos, "unlike African Americans, Latinas/os do not yet constitute a cohesive, or even a readily identifiable, national minority community"(Moya ,236). The performed characteristics of Latino were not evolving into an identity and there was doubt if a substantial identity would show through. Almost anticipating this sort of doubt, Díaz began The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with the line, "They say it came first from Africa…"(Díaz, Brief, 1). From the start the narrative provided doubt, coming from some outside perspective, "they." The outside perspective mirrored the American popular culture that embraced so much of the performed Latino identity. Including Africa within the first line of the novel paralleled Moya's suggestion that African American identity was the only identifiable, national minority. Yunior brought hope to the Latino identity by suggesting the act of writing would heal this identity, "Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain't a zafa of sorts"(Díaz, Brief, 7). What would Moya offer as a counterspell?

The problem that Moya encountered was that each ethnic group that made up what was commonly known as Latino was very different from one another. Moya only discussed what she deemed as the three major groups, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans. In a brief snapshot of each of the group's history, Moya concluded that the interests of each of these three groups were so varied that it was impossible to group them together as one identity. Based on reality these groups would never congeal into a singular identity, so Moya suggested that this identity must be imagined. Evolving from the performative quality of Latino identity, Moya picked up the discussion by interjecting the imaginative qualities of texts as the driving force in Latino identity: "the Latino community, for all its heterogeneity, is being vigorously imagined into existence as a more or less coherent community even as I write"(Moya 248). Díaz articulated this sense of disconnect to the larger Latino community, "'what,' he asks, 'is more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?'"( Díaz, Brief, 6). Oscar saw the disassociation from his current life to that of where he came from and a disconnect from a larger group he was both a part of and an alien to. However, Oscar's association with writing and science fiction as a way to connect his story to the Dominican reflected Moya's conclusions that a Latino identity must be imagined.

Imagined Identity

Moya's outlook in 2003 was grim for the Latino identity; she viewed it merely as a tool for marketing. The anticipation to use this identity to gain agency was Moya's wish, "I am still waiting to see whether the identity can be used effectively for progressive political or social change"(Moya, 250). This identity started to take shape through a reimagining of the connection Latino culture had to the larger American culture. It was Yunior that straddled multiple culture and languages to tell a cohesive Dominican story, one that both called attention to its fiction but rooted itself in history. Moya looked for a political figure to drive social change, but she should have been looking for an imagined identity, Yunior. Moya could not use her own tool of analysis to see that not only was there a need to imagine the identity but its creator as well.

On a more recent debate about Latino identity, Marta Caminero-Santangelo's On Latinidad: U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity (2007) explored the borders of what was considered Latino and what was not. The identity of what was considered Latino needed to be revisited; no longer was Latino a minority group but according to the U.S. census data from April 1, 2010, one out of every six people in the U.S. was Latino. These included more and more authors, filmmakers, readers, critics, academics, and more people that affect the way culture is produced. When taking this data into account, one could assume that the Latino identity was a more academic one. Scholars started to use the term, Latinidad as a way to talk about a shared language, culture, and history. However, this term was largely academic and distanced itself from the social reality that Latino culture was even more divided as it grew. Moya's sense of an imagined identity grew to completely disassociate itself from a real social identity. Díaz, employing street language and simple syntax, brought the social reality back into the Latino identity. Using the form of the short story as a way to easily enter a larger reading audience, Díaz was able to pull Latinidad away from an academic sense and into street reality.

Caminero-Santangelo's concept of Latinidad and its notions of the boundaries of Latino identity rested upon talking about cultural differences between different ethnic groups. She argued that these cultural differences were, "indicated by the differences in 'ethnic markers' such as food and language usage"(Caminero-Santangelo, 2). Díaz's work served to include not only Spanish and English, but also street talk and nerd talk. References such as, "the students exiled Wei to the Phantom Zone" (Díaz, Brief, 84) included both the language of ethnic and popular culture. These terms were not italicized and were not placed in any boundary outside of the text. The terms were as much a part of the language as anything else. In Drown, we saw food deprivation and its connection to family. Although Caminero-Santangelo was suggesting images of certain types of food indicated ethnicity, Díaz used the trope of starvation as a way to connect not only to life in the Dominican Republic but also to life as an immigrant. Further, Díaz provided a negative trope in the absence of food, suggesting that food did not indicate ethnic identity. 

Starvation was a way that Díaz articulated the struggle of ethnicity, a common marker that most families dealt with at one time or another. Caminero-Santangelo argued thatit was the struggle that produces an identity; "Identities must be produced through social relations and struggle"(Caminero-Santangelo, 3). Constructing a common marker like starvation connected the text to a larger marginalized group but also separated it from Latino academics and culture makers. And the inclusion of comic book and science fiction references further separated it from this academic group. At the cost of excluding itself from Latino culturists, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao connected with a larger American culture through those references. The use of unitalicized Spanish was an "ethnic marker" and connected the work to Latino identity in its most basic and essential element.

Caminero-Santangelo used Moya's concept of imagined identities in Latino culture to articulate how borders between ethnic groups were made. Because an imagined identity was different from one rooted in reality, it was literature that drove what was a part of that identity and what was not: "What connects these communities is a set of 'collective fictions' that, far from being themselves stable, are 'intensely debated' and 'continually reinvented'" (Caminero-Santangelo, 3). The contrast of different narratives created a picture of identity for a group. Essentially, Caminero-Santangelo argued that because an author wrote like a Latino author, that author was not an American author. This helped to create a sense that the identity of the group was rooted in reality. However, by not only hybridizing his writing (and positioning himself within a Latino identity), Díaz also included the language of nerdy American culture. The nerd culture was seen within the American culture as a marginalized group, and by including it Díaz provided an identity that was not majority American culture but was a part of that culture nonetheless.

Caminero-Santangelo found that because Latino culture was rooted in those that spoke and wrote Spanish, the borders of what consisted of Latino identity were not made from within the group but outside of that group: "It is arguable that the origins of 'Hispanic' ethnicity in the United States lie at least as much in outsider perception of a singular group"(Caminero-Santangelo, 3). As proof of this point, she noted that a Puerto Rican would never call another Puerto Rican Latino; only a white man would call a Puerto Rican, Latino. However, within Diaz's work, he invoked the Latino identity, "I mean shit, what Latino family doesn't think its cursed" (Díaz, Brief, 32) and "Two of them swim past, black and Latino" (Díaz, Drown, 93). Simultaneously Díaz played the role of outsider and insider, connecting Latino identities within the discourses of his narrative and using terms that had traditionally been meant to identify the Latino ethnic group from a hegemonic perspective. Díaz framed this use of Latino with race and family, two concepts that articulated struggles of finding a common Latinidad. Instead of distancing himself from the term Latino, Díaz used the term and brought a larger hegemonic American discourse into his work.

The idea was held that the outsider conception of what constitutes Latino identity goes beyond what language and terms are used to describe it also included linguistic elements as well. The use of street language or slang was an indicator for Caminero-Santangelo that a text might have been seen as outside of a common Latino dialect and more of a specific Caribbean or Dominican dialect: "Linguistic differences as simple as the presence or absence of an /s/ at the end of a syllable can become identified with superiority or inferiority" (Caminero-Santangelo, 16). Deployment of these dialects within dialogues of characters established a kind of specific identity rather than a general identity. Díaz complicated this notion by utilizing different types of slang, from street slang to barrio slang to geek slang. Not only did his characters display this quality but his narrator, Yunior, as well. Including many different types of speech made it impossible to map a singular vernacular to the text. This reflected the myriad of cultures that intersect within a Latino identity. By including these elements, Díaz created a culture of inclusion, not exclusion. However, there are so many different linguistic elements at work that the idea of including them in a singular identity can only be solved by including this type of language within an American identity.

Summary

Díaz created a linguistic style that could only be described as American and complicated the notion of Latino identity separate from American identity. In one of Caminero-Santangelo's most clear statements was a realization of the link between narrative and nation, "Ethnicity, like nation, is narration" (Caminero-Santangelo, 21). The narrative that included elements of slang, Spanish, English, and geek talk had no previous identity. This identity was completely imagined by Díaz, but his work was grounded in a Dominican vision of the immigrant narrative. It existed everywhere and nowhere, much like the epigraph at the beginning of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which the protagonist claimed that he was no one or a nation. In a sense, Díaz's work was a nation in itself, struggling to find an identity to call its own. It was the epigraphs that grounded the works, starting with an identity that cannot find its own language in Drown, to an identity that grounded itself in fantasy in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. These epigraphs set up the boundaries of a nation, of an identity that was composed within the text.

The epigraph that framed The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, taken from the Fantastic Four articulated the struggle that Díaz had with fitting in to a larger identity. The feeling of being a part of a larger identity framed the entirety of the narrative, "Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus." The text of Galactus was the only piece of text that was bold throughout the entirety of the book, suggesting that this named identity existed somewhere else, outside of the text. American includes the same amount of letters as Galactus, somehow hinting that these two elements could be interchanged. Latino did not fulfill this same kind of space. The concept of Galactus was imagined, and the same could be said of any cultural identity according to Moya including American identity. Further, this epigraph framed the entirety of the text, including the epigram of Walcott, which posited the boundary of the book to be about an American identity.

The boundaries of identity were being questioned within the mapping of a Latino identity. Academics like Caminero-Santangelo were caught up with what was included within an identity, "I am interested in looking at the boundaries of ethnicity: how they are narratively drawn; how they have fluctuated… who gets included and who gets excluded" (Caminero-Santangelo, 31). But where did the line get drawn when a text like The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao partly set the story in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, both simultaneously representative of past and present. Looking forward as well, Díaz's work encapsulated both the evolution of Latino identity and its future by providing narrative elements that included markers of Latino and American culture in perfect harmony. Essentially, Díaz complicated these boundaries through his use of epithets, language, and style. The resulting identity triggered new relations to what was Latino and American, suggesting that while both have different elements, a collective American identity could also include a Latino quality.

Works Cited

Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. On Latinidad : U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. Print.

Christian, Karen, 1960-. Show and Tell : Identity as Performance in U.S. Latina/o Fiction. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997. Print.

Díaz, Junot, 1968-. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

---. Drown. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. Print.

Moya, Paula M. L. "With Us or Without Us: The Development of a Latino Public Sphere." Nepantla: Views from South 4.2 (2003): 245-252.

 


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