August 10, 2017
Latin American Studies Association 2018
A Panel Proposal for LASA Congress XXXVI Barcelona, España, May 23-26, 2018
Since the 2016 campaign trail, Trump suggested that “bad hombres” were in our midst, people of ill-repute that required immediate deportation and that are threats to the American way of life. Underneath its racial dogwhistling, the “bad hombre” is part of the historical continuum of U.S. white settler culture, the phrase a linguistic remnant of both the political and racial history of the American Southwest as well as the projects of U.S. empire in Latin America. Some time and many tweets later, now in the start of his presidency, the Trump administration revealed Central Americans to be the focus of his anti-immigration stance, centering on Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a national boogeyman. What at first seemed to be an innocuous comment that furthered Trump’s political insipidness: “We have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out” happened to instantly criminalize Latin Americans, and, as this panel contends, squarely on the racialized bodies of Central Americans. This quote, now reinforced and legitimized by the power of the oval office, has become a centerpiece to Trump’s assessment of national malaise. In specifying the identity of these “bad hombres” as Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, the administration is suggesting that illegal immigrants are predisposed to violent crime, and their very presence indicates a threat to the American way of life. Thus, Trump’s assertions have had the effect of stigmatizing Central American communities through their discursive linking to the gang MS-13, an entity that today functions as America’s paradigmatic dangerous other. In doing so, Trump has leveraged anti-immigrant sentiment and utilized racial scapegoating to justify his immigration policies, pushing for militarization and further “tough on crime” initiatives that criminalize the Central American community and aggravate the precarious social realities of people in the isthmus.
While initially the “bad hombres” comment was mocked and ridiculed in social media and in newspapers as further evidence of Trump’s unfitness for the presidency, today we see its serious material consequences. This panel reflects on the ramifications of Trump’s political discourse on Central Americans as it pertains to processes of racial formation in the United States and in the region itself, the many connected to the dominant metaphor of the criminal gang as a terror, a monster, a wretch in the U.S.-Central American imaginary. From interdisciplinary perspectives, this panel thus has the goal of historicizing the use of the “bad hombre” to designate undesirables, offering an analysis of contemporary U.S. political culture to grasp the social use and political function of the violent other, interrogate the industries of border insecurity and immigrant detention that overwhelmingly affect Central American people, and the everyday challenges of being a Central American blemished by their place of provenance, in a context of heightened discrimination. Moreover, we hope to draw closer attention to how the “Bad Hombre” reflects a new transnational racial project of which Central Americans are its core.
Arely M. Zimmerman, Assistant Professor, Ethnic Studies, Mills College
Jorge E. Cuéllar, PhD Candidate, American Studies, Yale University