19 April 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Critique: Subaltern Immigrants

Odem 2008 Subaltern Immigrants

The status of millions of undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America in the United States poses a serious challenge to the country’s founding myth as an immigrant nation. They form an integral part of the US labour force, but exist on the margins of the nation’s political and social life. With a view to illuminating one aspect of subalternity and citizenship in the US, this essay examines significant shifts in twentieth century immigration law regarding Mexicans and others from south of the border and the shifting conceptions of American national identity on which these laws were based. Since the beginning of large-scale Mexican immigration to the US, they were positioned as cheap, temporary labour – accepted as hard workers, but not desired as permanent citizens. Mexican and other Latino immigrants have resisted their position as a disposable labour force by establishing families and communities and claiming membership in the places where they have settled. I examine the local struggles over immigrant membership in Atlanta, Georgia, a metropolitan area that has experienced a dramatic increase in Latino immigration in the last two decades and that has been at the centre of the political turmoil around illegal immigration.

Thanks to Kyle from Citizen Orange for the article.

Written by Mary Odem from Emory University, this article is one of the few that align the Gramscian word ‘subaltern’ to ‘illegal aliens’ or ‘undocumented immigrants.’ While ‘illegal alien’ is plain derogatory and ‘undocumented immigrant’ fails to capture the reality of many out-of-status immigrants who do possess documents and paperwork, ‘subaltern immigrant’ also fails to really capture the essence of ‘irregular immigrants.’

I do not have a discursive preference.

For those who are unfamiliar with what subaltern denotes, Wikipedia comes to the rescue:

Subaltern is a term that commonly refers to the perspective of persons from regions and groups outside of the hegemonic power structure.

There is much dispute whether the term should simply denote marginalized groups in society or whether it should be reserved for marginalized groups that do not speak the hegemonic discourse.

Gayatri Spivak, a Marxist deconstructionist, would state that establishing families, learning English and wanting to be a part of the mainstream is not subaltern. It is not a counter-hegemonic discourse. And DREAM Act students are certainly not subaltern since we abide by the same hegemonic discourses–border enforcement, nationalism, militarization, legal-illegal binaries–that oppress us.

Who would be a subaltern immigrant if we are to abide by Spivak’s reservations?

The No Borders networks come to mind.

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