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Professor Yajaira Padilla began researching the image of Central Americans in the U.S. almost 10 years ago. Courtesy UT Press
Professor Yajaira Padilla began researching the image of Central Americans in the U.S. almost 10 years ago. Photo Courtesy: UT Press

Being Central American in the U.S.

Professor Yahaira Padilla shows how Central Americans deal with the feeling of being from nowhere.

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Growing up as a U.S. Central American and as a university student, Yajaira Padilla would have liked to find a book that could help her to better understand her sense of belonging and not belonging in the U.S. Instead, she had to write it herself.

The result is From Threatening Guerillas to Forever Illegals:US Central Americans and Non-Belonging (UT Press) , a book that examines how our country has historically stereotyped U.S. Central Americans. 

Padilla, who is now a professor of English and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, as well as director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program on campus, began researching and writing her book nearly 10 years ago. At that time, as reported by UARK website, she was “primarily interested in looking at the ways in which Central Americans, particularly immigrants, were visible in the U.S. literary and media landscape and what such visibility communicated about this community.”

The experience of Central Americans in the United States is marked by a vicious contradiction. In entertainment and information media, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Hondurans are hypervisible as threatening guerrillas, MS-13 gangsters, maids, and “forever illegals.”

Central Americans are unseen within the broader conception of Latinx community, foreclosing avenues to recognition.

Central Americans are unseen within the broader conception of Latinx community.

In her recent book, Padilla explores how this regime of visibility and invisibility emerged over the past 40 years — bookended by the right-wing presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump — and how Central American immigrants and subsequent generations have contested their rhetorical disfiguration.

Drawing from popular films and TV, news reporting, and social media, Padilla shows how Central Americans in the United States have been constituted as belonging nowhere, imagined as permanent refugees outside the boundaries of even minority representation. Yet in documentaries about cross-border transit through Mexico, street murals, and other media, U.S. Central Americans have counteracted their exclusion in ways that defy dominant paradigms of citizenship and integration.

Writing in 'Real Time'

“Writing this book was challenging, as the political landscape changed drastically from the time when she first began researching the book to when she finished writing it, which was during a pandemic and while being locked down,” she told UARK. “I also felt I was writing in ‘real-time’ as migration from Central America and drastic policies intended to deal with this ongoing phenomenon took center stage in U.S. politics and media in the last years.” 

Asked what impact she hopes her book will have, Padilla responded, “I hope that U.S. Central Americans/scholars like myself read this book and want to further the conversation started within. I also hope that those who read the book will better understand the nuances that exist among different Latinx communities in the U.S. due to long histories of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and related discriminatory immigration policies.”

Padilla hopes that her book’s audience sees how connected immigration issues are to questions of racial injustice, policing and incarceration, and economic inequity, among others.

“We tend to discuss the latter as separate issues or as only affecting certain communities, but the history of immigration in the United States and the ongoing issues this process brings to bear are very much linked to other struggles for greater diversity, inclusion and equity,” she said.

This is Padilla’s second book. Her first, Changing Women, Changing Nation: Female Agency, Nationhood, and Identity in Trans-Salvadoran Narratives, was published by SUNY Press in 2012.

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