ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)
Author: Dr. Maximiliano E. Korstanje

Book Review of Nicole Guidotti- Hernández (2011). Unspeakable Violence: Remapping US and Mexican National Imaginaries. Durham North Carolina: Duke University Press.

English translation by the author.

Guidotti-Hernández explores the thesis is that violence corresponds with stereotyped forms and practices rooted in the language that is used to create the selective memory of colonization. By focussing on the US-Mexico border Guidotti-Hernández draws out attention to the space where two different patterns of colonization collide [England in North America and Spain to the South]. This valuable book assesses six terms which have been used to label respective ethnicities. “Chicano” was coined to denote the Mexican-Americans who are politically active in struggling for improving the rights of Latin American migrants. “Indian” refers to the natives (aboriginals) of North America. “Indigenous” and “Indigena” are employed in different contexts. The former refers to all Mexican Indians while the latter connotes an ancient root to the first people of the Americas. “Latino/a” arose in the twentieth century to represent people of Latin America. “Mestiza/o” applies on a mixed ethnicity between Spanish, Indian or African.

Given this conceptual backdrop, Guidotti-Hernández explains that the racialized violence exerted against Mexicans, which is based on stereotyped discourses, works as an instrument of indoctrination conducive to maintaining the status quo. For example: In 1885 a Mexican women (Juanita) is lynched in Downietown, California. This tragedy, like many other examined by the author, is taken as the epicenter of a much broader discussion about how violence and nationalism converge. Guidotti-Hernandez argues convincingly that the tourist magazines which advertise the Downietown tour are not only being superfluous in respect to the reasons behind this awful crime, but also serve to continue to legitimize this gendered act of violence. It is an example of how tourism and death may be commoditized and sold in spectacular narratives which visitors consume.  Represented as a trivialization of reality, this violence is determined by an earlier racial hierarchy. In view of this, she acknowledges that “racial positioning, gender and class alliances were fragile and shifted according to need and economic conditions” (p. 3). Throughout borderlands, these types of violence appeal to an idealized foundation of “national being” that perpetuates the racial asymmetries.

It is difficult to reduce a project of the excellence of Unspeakable Violence in a brief review as its 375 pages provide an all-encompassing perspective on multiculturalism in its many guises. For the purposes of a brief review I point to three main arguments in the book:

1) Nation states are formed under process of differentiation and its economic re-organization of territory. Far from being a site of frank dialogue, stability, and understanding, the US-Mexico border shows a legacy of territorial disputes and conflict. At the same time, nation-states administrate racism and sexism to control their citizens, who under some circumstances may defy the economic conditions that sustain the class hierarchy. A much broader selective memory narrates some events or over-exaggerates certain aspects of politics while silencing others. Following this argument, it is important not to lose the sight of the idea that borders are spaces of multiple identities that need violence to exist; in so doing, when multi-racial communities enact violence on each other they serve to perpetuate both their own cultural values and amnesia.  This book not only presents an innovative thesis respecting to the role played by selected-memory in silencing violence, but also contrasts sharply to the old belief that portrays Anglos and Chicano under the lens of master/slave game.

2) Race is a concept in which elites play a key role in its construction and negotiation. Racial mixture often is used as the basis of disenabling the emancipation of ethnicities. This belief runs the risk of presenting the Mestizo or Chicano as part of nature, when really they are legacies of a colonial order. In view of this, any movement of resistance is remapped and re configured according to new more acceptable values rooted in the culture of the masters. For example, one could experience certain nostalgia for those aborigines who had lost their lands, but what the aboriginal evokes remains a concept politically determined white-power. The centre of hegemony, like ideology, works by the control what it means to be an ‘authentic’ Indian, Chicano or Mestizo. To varying degrees scholars and intellectuals have historically contributed to this system of labelling.

3) When one uses the word, mestizo, two contrasting economic structures collide: colonial order vs. nation-state. Mexico idyllically recognizes its influence from aboriginal legacy, but the fact is that today many aborigines are struggling against their state in order for their rights to be respected. Although the Anglo/Mexican binary has brought the attention of politicians, activists, and journalists in recent years, there are other particularly troubling relationships unresolved between Indians and Mexican State that are largely ignored. The Aztec (lo indio) past is being selected to denote greatness, power and intervention, even by side of the state over other indigenous groups. Calling on the imperial heritage of the Aztecs to illuminate contemporary Mexico the Government reserves the monopoly of force against Uncle Sam but also to other ethnicities within its boundaries.

This book is a productive source for understanding how social imaginaries are often manipulated to introduce policies or reforms that otherwise would be refused; a point which remains unstudied by specialized literature. It also makes a successful attempt to provide a conceptual framework to understand the connection of selective memory, violence, and nationalism in post-modern times. It is one of the best books in cultural studies today concerning indigenous people.

About the Author
Dr. Maximiliano E. Korstanje is from the Department of Economics, University of Palermo, Argentina.