Ethnic Studies: A Cure for the Diasporic Human Condition

During the last year, while immigrants have become a favorite target of many politicians in the USA, at Saint Mary’s College of California we have kept busy implementing a new Ethnic Studies major. This program offers a wide variety of courses that more than ever need to be included in the required curriculum taught in high schools and universities across the United States; that is, if Americans want the states to remain united.

Someone will certainly ask: why is Ethnic Studies a solution to the present socio-cultural battles raging throughout the country? Since I prefer to explain with stories, I probably would answer thus: when I was an adolescent living in Mexico, time and space seemed to stand still, nothing changed quickly. Most people lived their lives within a short distance of the place they were born and raised. Going on a trip to a nearby city was the trip of a lifetime, and traveling to the nation’s capital, Mexico City, was like going to the moon. People lucky enough to go on such trips saw strange, fascinating places and things, which gave them a special aura among the townspeople. Much like the gypsy, Melquíades, in Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, they came back full of magical tales about the world out there beyond the circle of mountains that surrounded the town.

My family broke through that physical barrier when my father, a former bracero, nos arregló papeles through the family reunification clause of American immigration law and moved our family from our small town in Michoacán to Youngstown, Ohio. Even then, migration was the exception, not the rule. After moving to El Norte, I found out that not only in Mexico but also in the U.S., there wasn’t a lot of human movement. People lived in geographical containers called countries and nations, with distinct inhabitants we called French, Mexicans, Americans, English, etc., with their languages and cultures tightly bound within national borders. And though some people did have the opportunity to go on trips and others even moved to another country, for the most part, things still didn’t appear to change dramatically, they remained the same way. Everywhere, it seemed, one always ran up against the uniformity of nationality.

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Then a miracle year, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down or was beaten down, and soon after President George Bush, Sr. declared that a new world order would emerge from the fall of communism. But a funny thing happened on the way to this new world order: the geographical containers sprung leaks and people began to move all over the world. And when massive amounts of people move, shit happens. If you don’t believe me, ask the Romans.

Well, here we are 28 years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. The new world order is here, but many people in Western Europe and the USA are not too happy with the results of the new order of things, which Zygmunt Bauman calls, “the age of diasporas.” The mass migrations of people have caused havoc everywhere; they have confounded our notions of nationality, ethnicity, citizenship, and culture. I have made my peace with this new reality. I’m aware that part of me harks back to Spain, a place where from ancient times to 1492, the great civilizations of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East mixed freely during an early diasporic age. From this mestizaje of Phoenician, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Jews, Muslims, and Visigoths emerged that which we call Spanish language and culture. I’m the bearer of this beautiful mélange of cultures and languages. They’re ingrained deep in my soul. Then, another part of me is rooted in Mexico, a region where the Asian, African, and pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations fused with the intricate linguistic, cultural, and racial hybridity that the Spanish brought with them to produce what Alejo Carpentier called, “lo real maravilloso.” Therefore, I don’t consider myself a Mexican in the nationalistic sense, where I’m supposed to be a mestizo, the sole product of indigenous and Spanish. No, I am a postMexican who claims a diversity of cultures from around the world. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, I am multitudes of cultures. I am transcultural, transnational and always open to a mixture. I welcome it gladly.

There are other people, however, who have a deep fear of the new order of things. The hybrid nature of the diasporic world is confounding to them. They desire to go back to the geographical containers with their neat and distinct borders, with national populations which never were so pure in the first place. But no matter how hard they try to plug the holes in the geographical containers, another leak will spring. You cannot stop the movement of people. You hear me, Donald! Build your beautiful wall, if you want, but like the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain and even the biblical Wall of Jericho, it will eventually come tumbling down.

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This is why Ethnic Studies are more important than ever today. They help to allay these fears of the diasporic nature of our present, but not by merely cheering for our side whatever that may be, or by going back to essential notions of self, culture, and society. The goal of Ethnic Studies is to take us deep into the complex, social-political, and cultural relations that bound the world today. They help us comprehend how we are repositioned constantly in ever-changing social-cultural configurations of the societies where we live. To understand that transformation is the order of the day, not to be afraid, but to come to terms with this phenomenon. More importantly, Ethnic Studies teach us to cope with the world now made of alterity and differences, to perceive these differences as historical; to learn to accept and live with diversity and inclusivity within the local, the national, and the global.

It is for these reasons that Ethnic Studies should be part of the curriculum taught in every high school and university in the United States. These academic programs are crucial if we want to properly prepare students to take on the new citizenship role required in the “age of diasporas.” They provide the tools necessary to work in the diverse societies that make up the United States and other countries around the world by giving students the historical and cultural knowledge of different ways of interacting and of being in the world; a knowledge that will make them better educators, doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists, business persons, or whatever career they happen to choose. Above all, Ethnic Studies are important because they teach us all how to live in a post-national world where we now see borders for what they truly are: artificial boundaries we impose upon ourselves and other people. They will help to dispel the false notions of nationalism. In this sense, Ethnic Studies are the perfect antidote to the highlighting of borders and xenophobia that is spreading throughout much of the post-national world.

As I like to say, show me a border and I’ll show you a figment of your imagination.

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