The External Creation of Latino Others. Online Discussion Communities and Latino Cultural Citizenship in San Diego.

Ken Henriksen,

University of Aarhus, Denmark

In the spring 2006 many immigrants and their supporters took to the streets in larger cities throughout United States to protest against the draconian HR 4437 bill, which among many other punitive provisions would make felons of immigrants staying in the country without documents (Chávez 2008). Many people saw this bill as an unjust and exaggerated criminalization of undocumented immigrants, and they argued that it was part of a general pattern of exclusion and segregation of immigrants, especially of those of a Latin American background. The aim of the marches was thus to symbolize the important contributions immigrants make to U.S. economy and society, and to make general claims for recognition, inclusion and citizenship (Chávez 2008:152).

However, in this study I argue that the present struggles for citizenship of the Latino[i] Immigrants take place in a political and cultural environment, which in many ways is unlike the context of earlier manifestations. Even though only the Secure Fence act was signed into law, the HR 4437 bill is a clear indication of this unprecedented political environment (Henriksen 2007). This bill, titled ‘the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Act’, symbolizes the ideological marriage of two issues, which have traditionally been treated as separate: immigration and terrorism (Henriksen 2007). This does not necessarily mean that people of Latin American background are confused with potential terrorists, but the integration[ii] of Latino immigrants is today marked by a new spirit of national alertness and cultural pessimism. A sign of this are the apprehensive fears of loss of national security and identity that are often expressed in media and public discourse in the United States

The aim of this article is to examine local expressions of this trend. The article analyzes the public debate that emerged in the northern part of San Diego County, California, in the wake of the formation of a local human rights organization. This organization, named El Grupo (The Group), was formed in August 2006[iii] to tackle immigrant rights issues in North County.[iv] As a coalition of representatives from various civil and Latino rights organizations, El Grupo was formed after a series of setbacks for the Latino and immigrant community in North County, including a municipal proposal to ban landlords from renting to “illegal immigrants” in the city of Escondido (Sifuentes 2008). Taking the point of departure in the study of the local debate that emerged on online discussion forums of the local newspaper North County Times, the article sets out to explore how Latino citizenship and local belonging have been affected. Has ‘the war on terror’ given rise to new discourses of disrespect and discrimination, and ultimately to new forms of exclusion and segregation of Latino immigrants? And do such practices eventually leave the Latino population in a new state of disempowerment and incomplete citizenship?

It is a basic contention of this article that the Latino population’s feelings of belonging to the local community is marked by such major issues, and that the constitution of Latino subjects results, in part, from such a debate. One of the goals of El Grupo, for example, is to increase political participation, citizenship and voter registration of Latinos living in North County. But the coalition does not work in a vacuum. The mobilization for belonging and integration of the Latino population is constrained by discourses and categorizations sustained by Others.


The external construction of Latino cultural citizenship

In this paper I understand the notion of cultural citizenship broadly as membership in a community. The notion of cultural citizenship was initially developed in the 1980s and 1990s to study rights-claiming agency of Latinos and other subaltern groups in the United States (Flores & Benmayor 1997). The concept was used to examine Latino civic participation in the claiming and negotiation of cultural space and rights (Flores 2003). William Flores defines cultural citizenship as a concept which refers to:

[T]he various processes by which groups define themselves, form a community, and claim space and social rights. Cultural citizenship encompasses a broad range of everyday activities as well as the more visible political and social movements. A key aspect of the concept is the struggle for a distinct social space in which members of the marginalized group are free to express themselves and feel at home. (Flores 2003, p. 297)

Acknowledging the importance of Latino agency in the struggle for recognition and feeling of belonging to a distinct social space, I argue that the formation of such a social space is not merely a matter of internal agency. Recent research on social representation and categorization has demonstrated that identity and belonging cannot be separated from the processes of being constructed as Others (Moloney & Walker 2007). This article therefore views cultural citizenship as a process of being-made by power relations that produce subjects through schemes of surveillance, discipline, control, and administration (Foucault 1977). Members of the Latino community must daily negotiate the lines and principles of difference established by the state and by dominant groups in society. Membership in a community is, therefore, also contingent upon how existing members look upon, represent, and categorize the group (Chávez 2008).

Using this definition the problems arise over defining who is entitled to membership and who is not, and, thus, over drawing the line between citizens and non-citizens when it comes to the allocation of rights and privileges. For many immigrants in the United States, especially those who are in the country without documents, the lack of formal status becomes a key factor in this framing of citizenship. However, much writing on citizenship has focused on the legal aspects of citizenship, pointing to the formal procedures through which people are either allocated or denied rights and entitlements. Such approaches deny the subjective and often contradictory processes whereby people are made into subjects, and whereby their membership of this community is negotiated.

Taking a dynamic approach, this paper therefore addresses some of the processes of external categorization by which people are made into citizens and non-citizens (Ong 1996: 737-38; Jenkins 1997). This means that citizenship is viewed as an ongoing political and cultural process whereby feelings of belonging to a community are, in part, made “from without” by members of the larger society. Becoming a citizen, thus, depends not only on formal relationship to the state or on the right to make claims, but also on views, values, and ideas held by dominant groups in society. It follows that discourses of inclusion and exclusion play a critical role in the constitution of citizens and non-citizens.

For this reason the emphasis will be on the role of dominant discourses in the construction of Latino identities. By dominant discourses I refer to the external Anglo-representations of Latinos as they are expressed in local media. Their domination stems from existing power relations in United States, but also from the intensity of the representation. Here I agree on Leo Chávez point that through repetition, ideas become taken for granted set of assumptions, for example about the inability and unwillingness of Latino immigrants to become part of US society (Chávez, 2008:26). The notion of hegemony, the centrepiece of Gramsci’s analysis of capitalism, provides a way of understanding how domination is achieved through the cumulative mutual reinforcement of the same assumptions. Although always an ‘unstable equilibrium’ hegemony refers to “domination across the economic, political, cultural and ideological domains of society” (Fairclough, 1992:92). According to this definition, domination is most effective when ideas and ideologies become naturalized and achieve the status of common sense. The control of resources and the monopolization of discourses play an important role in this achievement of hegemony. Monopolization of discourses means that Anglo representations acquire the position to make their categorizations count disproportionately in the social constitution of Latino identities. To put it shortly, what it means to be Latino is in part a consequence of what the Anglo population has made it mean.

This has ramifications for understanding the role of individual texts in the construction of Latino cultural citizenship, and also for how to interpret postings on the online platform of an English language newspaper in the United States. Each utterance is consequential, and it is necessarily an intervention in the social world of the Latino population, even if the Latinos themselves do not read or hear the text itself. Each text responds to and reaccentuates past texts, and, in so doing, contributes to wider processes of social and cultural change, as well as anticipating and trying to shape subsequent texts. Online platforms, therefore, play a role in the in the construction of systems of knowledge and belief, and in the strengthening or restructuring of existing conventions in society. Such conventions, I argue, impact the identities of individual Latinos although the position that an individual Latino takes to the conventions is off course mediated by his or her personal experience.

The Setting

For various reasons the case of San Diego North County provides an interesting point of departure for studying Anglo-American representations of Latinos. First, the cities in North County have experienced a dramatic growth since 1970, with most of the city areas developed into middle-class single family home tracks.[v] However, the area is ethnically diversified, and in some of the cities whites are today under half the population (Griswold del Castillo 2007). Especially the Latino population has undergone a boom, and makes up about 35 – 40 % of the population in many cities (Kiy and Woodruff 2005).[vi] The economy is based on tourism, high tech and agriculture, and agriculture is an important source of income for many Latino families, especially for those who stay in the country without documents. The area is known to be the home of many undocumented immigrants from Oaxaca and other poor states in the southern part of Mexico (Runsten 2005). Perhaps for this reason, local members of the Minutemen project and other anti-immigration people have begun to stake out day-labor sites and to harass farmers and employers into never hiring again. North County, thus, provides a case for the study of Anglo-Latino relations in a context with high levels of immigration, and with emerging conflicts between inhabitants of Latin American descent and immigrant unfriendly groups.

Second, for a combination of different but overlapping reasons immigration policies are today being decentralized from federal to sub-national levels of the political hierarchy. One reason is the neo-liberal trend of devolution and deconcentration, which implies a general transfer of responsibility for implementing programs to private actors, NGOs, or to local governments. A related reason is the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reforms. Consequently, despite the fact that the federal government has exclusive authority over immigration in the United States, many local governments across the country, including the city councils of many of the cities in North County, have adopted ‘own’ immigration policies. In these cities there has thus in recent years been a general increase in local immigration bills and city ordinances, which restrict driver licenses, health care, housing, and other services to immigrants (Versanyi 2008). Although the constitution pre-empts many local anti-immigration initiatives, local citizenship for immigrants of Latin American origin is seriously affected by this combination of anti-immigration policies and the devolution of responsibility. With the series of law enforcement initiatives and a general spirit of alertness among many local residents, North County provides an interesting case for the study of how Latino cultural citizenship is negotiated in modern United States. There are of course huge differences across the country, and many cities have proclaimed themselves as sanctuary cities with immigrant friendly policies (Vázquez-Castillo 2008). However, there are today a large number of indications in the United States that immigration laws are being more aggressively implemented. The Bush administration, for instance, directed its efforts with respect to unauthorized immigration into more vigorous enforcement along the border and in the workplace. In part for this reason, it has been argued that immigrants have become scapegoats in a time of heightened security (Little & Klarreich 2005).

Taking inspiration from critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1992) I will now analyze the ways in which Latino cultural citizenship is constructed in the online discussion platform of North County Times. The point of departure is the discussion that emerged in the wake of the resurrection of El Grupo.

Debating the Resurface of El Grupo

As alluded briefly to above the El Grupo coalition was reborn as a response to signs of growing anti-immigrant sentiments in North County, among those a number of events and initiatives affecting mainly immigrant communities of Latino origin. El Grupo can thus be viewed as a civil rights organization whose primary focus is to create local citizenship and belonging for the groups that are excluded by anti-immigrant practices. The organization defends the victims of the punitive and xenophobic actions. In 2008, for example, El Grupo protested against a parking restriction ordinance and against frequent driver’s license checkpoints in the city of Escondido. Both initiatives were criticized for targeting undocumented immigrants and for encouraging them to move to another city (personal interview with spokesperson Bill Flores May 9, 2008). El Grupo is thus just one among many Latino organizations based in San Diego, which in the last decades have engaged in direct and indirect forms of political action (Griswold del Castillo 2007). According to Isidro Ortiz much of the Latino political activism in San Diego has been a response to oppression, and it has produced accomplishments and achieved influence beyond the boundaries of San Diego (Ortiz 2007:130). Yet, the capacity of El Grupo to forge Latino membership and participation depends in large part on dominant discourses and other practices in society.

I therefore take the public debate that emerged after the resurface of El Grupo as a starting point for the examination of Latino cultural citizenship in San Diego North County. In August 2007, about a year after the leaders had announced the return of the coalition, North County Times printed a number of articles focusing on El Grupo. Many of these articles were also posted on the webpage of the newspaper, where readers have access to commenting on the articles. This study scrutinizes the comments posted as a response to one article titled “El Grupo making a name for itself”. The article was posted on the webpage late evening on August 26, 2007 (Sifuentes 2007), and because this date is the coalition’s first anniversary, the article makes an appraisal of its accomplishments. The author reports the viewpoints of members of the coalition, and of one Escondido Council member known to be critical of El Grupo. The reported voices talk mainly about two issues: First, whether the organization is needed or not, and, secondly, to what extent El Grupo is a legitimate representative of all the Latino community in North County. Not surprisingly, there is disagreement. Whereas the council member argues that El Grupo does not deserve much credit, another reported voice states that El Grupo has “provided a needed voice for those without a voice”. In a final section, key members of El Grupo are asked to reflect upon the role of the coalition as a local advocacy organization and upon communication and structure of the activities.

Importantly, whereas the reported voices reflect the viewpoints of members of the coalition as well as members of the political establishment, positions of ordinary residents are not reflected in the article. Perhaps for this reason, 145 short comments were posted on the newspapers website in the 6 days following the publication of the article. 114 of these comments express explicit anti-El Grupo and/or anti-immigration sentiments. Only a small minority (10) of the texts articulates sympathy with the organization, or voiced concern for the human or civil rights of the Latino population.[vii] In conclusion, the large majority of the messages posted convey antipathy with the Latino population in North County, and because of the disproportionate number of unfriendly postings, it can be argued that the messages constitute an online discussion community, which is constructed on overt anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiments.

But, how are these anti-Latino sentiments transmitted? What identities and subject positions are constructed in this unfriendly online community? What relationships between discourse participants are enacted and negotiated? How is Latino (non)-membership and (non)-agency constructed? Is Latino agency and responsibility made explicit or left vague?

Representing Latino Immigrants on Online Community Platforms

In what follows, I will address these questions by concentrating on online postings as a particular type of human activity and communication. Although it is a relatively new type of communication compared to ordinary “letters to the editor”, for example, there are reasons to argue that it is today an expression of a particular literary genre. Here I draw on Norman Fairclough’s definition of a genre as language use associated with a particular social activity (Fairclough 1992: 125-26). But how should we define the thematic, compositional, and stylistic characteristics of this type of activity? And what is the impact of these characteristics on the constitution of Latino subjects?

As part of the development and dissemination of modern information technology, newspapers have become interactive media, and the usual distinction between writers and readers has become increasingly blurred. Modern webpages of newspapers, where readers today have access to commenting on the articles, are themselves a clear indication of this. Some would argue that readers’ commentaries have always been a feature of American newspapers, and that “letters to the editor” have been a key fixture of most papers’ opinion pages. There are, nevertheless, a number of important generic differences between such letters and the activities associated with online community discussion platforms.

Most of the letters submitted to the editor by conventional mail (or e-mail) are mostly about issues of general concern to the readers of the newspaper. Only in some occasions letters actually comment on individual articles printed in earlier issues of the same newspaper. This means that the “readers’ comments” genre on the newspapers web-pages to a larger extent facilitates communication and debate about the particular issues dealt with in the individual articles. In addition, access has become much easier, and messages are therefore posted on a frequent and repeated basis, and the same reader may often post multiple messages commenting on the same article. Also, only a small percentage of conventional letters to the editor is actually printed, but the majority of the comments posted on the web-page will actually be screened, even if they are submitted anonymously. In the case of North County Times posters may not include contact information or last names as the paper cannot guarantee the identity of the author.

The establishment of online community discussion platforms has thus facilitated dialogue between readers, and these platforms have given voice to more people in local and national debate. Moreover, since a large number of people actually get their daily news – not from reading printed versions of the newspapers – but from visiting their webpage, there are reasons to argue that the readership of online comments is becoming larger.[viii] This also suggests that readers commenting on the online platforms reach a larger public and that online discussion platforms support the distribution of common knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers. In a recent publication Anne Gentle has emphasized the positive features of online communities:

By joining a community, being a community member, and looking for places where you can either contribute or motivate others to contribute, you are empowering collaborative efforts unlike any seen in the past (Gentle 2009: 104-5).

In a similar commendatory fashion, Yochai Benkler states that online platforms contribute to the democratization of society:

This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere (Benkler 2006: 3)

In addition to the points quoted here, it can be argued that the online discussion platforms on the webpages of local newspapers become a medium for advising or pressuring local politicians, especially at a time when (immigrant) policy is increasingly devolving to the subnational levels. Consequently, online communities are rapidly becoming a popular way to organize people, exchange opinions, and build shared meanings and advocacy.

However, in the same way as civil society is not always home of the good and enlightened (Henriksen 2008), online members are necessarily not writing morally righteous postings. Online platforms and other social media may in fact facilitate the availability of potentially damaging messages (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010). In a study of restrictionist discourses and their impact on immigrant communities in Los Angeles, Hinda Seif argues that grassroots anti-immigration mobilization is transforming and expanding via new media and information technologies:

The revolution in information technologies and accelerated consolidation of capital is transforming media and grassroots networking, communications, and organizing. These changes, along with Latino reactive formation against political restrictionism, have altered the forms and scope of waves of immigrant and anti-immigrant activism (Seif 2008:8)

She goes on asserting that sensationalist weblogs multiply and that subtle forms of hate speech against Latinos have become commonplace. Despite their unique potentialities, the online discussion platforms also constitute an expanding source of anti-immigrant mobilization. One of the reasons is undoubtedly that easy access to the discussion communities facilitates the participation of angry and furious voices. Readers with more moderate views on the issue, however, are not likely to take part in a heated debate, which does not invite lengthy articles with more nuanced types of argumentation. Instead, the genre encourages readers to post brief, vigorous, and often emphatic comments, and because the comments are posted anonymously, one could argue that the genre facilitates the dissemination of irresponsible and disapproving utterances. [ix] It is for example unlikely that the following condemnatory note would be printed in a traditional letter to the editor: “I want to rob banks! Support me ok, El Grupo??” (Aug 27, 2007, 8:48 AM). The obvious message to the reader is that El Grupo defends and supports criminals, and since El Grupo is a coalition that works for the integration of the Latino community in North County, this utterance claims that Latinos in general are unlawful.

In addition, posting online messages seems be an activity in which many distinct varieties of language use co-exist. The statements and posters quoted above suggest that informative messages intermingle with more deliberative speech genres. The deliberative statements aim at persuading the readers about what the author perceives to be the true story about Latino presence in the community, and in most posters it is that they are a threat to national and/or local security and identity. However, perhaps because of the “vague” and permissive control of incoming posters, many comments, which make use of language styles known from everyday parlance, and which have a “written-as-if-spoken” style, slip through. In a heated debate on (illegal) immigration with many infuriated voices, this results in a vivid usage of “vulgar” and offensive language. The result is an epideictic speech genre[x], which is loaded with accusations and indictments, and which blame the Latino population for all types of social evils:

Foreign Nationals do not have the right to invade the US and reside here without consequence because they claim some civil right violation. That is a perversion of civil rights, and if allowed to continue, may result in tyranny imposed by foreign invaders (Aug 27, 2007, 7:10 AM).

Another illegal alien with TB discovered in Florida. He wanted to cut and run back to Mexico, but thankfully was stopped and isolated before it could spread it around. It is problems like this that El Grupo does not help with their open borders mentality (Aug 27, 2007, 11:26 AM).

Apparently, the two postings quoted appear to transmit very different conceptions of incoming immigrants. Whereas the former produces a metaphorical construction of immigration as an invasion, the latter pays attention to immigrants bringing contagious and dangerous diseases. Both statements, however, bring about a sense of insecurity, and construct immigration as a phenomenon beyond human control. But this defensive concern with loss of control of the boundaries is taken out on the Latino population. Drawing on Norman Fairclough’s notion of force as the “actional component” of language use and, thus, as speech acts that are performed in language use (Fairclough 1992:82), it can be argued that the posted comments posted threaten, intimidate, and scapegoat Latinos. In this way Latinos are constituted as blamable objects responsible of social disintegration.

The construction of Latino scapegoats is accentuated by the vivid usage of categorical modality[xi] and rhetorical questions in many of the statements. Whereas rhetorical or closed questions impose tight limits on the readers answer, categorical modality is a powerful way of limiting openness to struggle and more nuanced positions. Both techniques, thus, tend to project own perspective as a universal truth. Read for example the following two posters:

Maybe El Grupo can help Americans secure the border so we don’t have the terrorist who doesn’t care if you are Mexican or American, they just want to kill all of us! Or is El Grupo part of the terrorist plot? (Aug 27, 2007 6:19 AM, bolds are mine)

Until you guys stop labeling yourselves as Mexican Americans or some other foreign nationality/Americans you will always be looked upon by legal American citizens as outsiders. Learn English, come here legally, work legally, pay into the system & enjoy the American dream. Is that a hard concept to understand? (Aug 27, 2007 11:19 AM, bolds are mine).

In both messages, the categorical modality accentuates the propositional meaning of the text, which is that El Grupo is a threat to national security (first example), and that Mexican Americans are illegal beings, and, by this vice, a source of social degeneration (second quote). In the case of the two questions posed, the writers have taken control of the readers answer. Despite the dialogical nature of many of the messages posted (see also below), there is no indication that the writer expects a reply. Instead the questions encourage the reader to reflect upon what the implied answers would be, and whereas the first quote functions as a rhetorical affirmation where the writer actually asserts the propositional meaning, the second question appears to be a persuasive denial. In both cases, the protagonists of the narratives told, El Grupo and Mexican Americans, are constructed as unlawful, criminal Others threatening US society.

However, contrary to everyday face-to-face encounters the writers only have an abstract, indefinite sense of who is the interlocutor of their messages. Obviously, the use of deictic pronouns such as “we”, “they”, “us” and “them” reveals something about the intended or perceived readers (as in the two examples above). In a few posters, the intended addressee seems to be the (illegal) Latino reader or members of El Grupo. In these cases the actional dimension exhibits little ambivalence:

“Why would a legal U.S. citizen (Flores [the spokesperson of El Grupo]) want to help someone break the laws of the United States? Illegal people come in all races. We are trying to keep America from becoming a 3rd world country. If it is the law, then it’s the law. If you can’t live by U.S. laws, then go home” (Jack Aug 27, 2007 11:05 AM, bolds are mine).

The message to the unlawful Latino reader is that he or she is a source of regress, and in an aggressive language style he or she is ordered to leave the country. The interpersonal meaning of such speech act is one of hierarchic division between a modern “we” and a degenerated “you”, and because of this degeneration illegal Latinos are constituted as dangerous and deportable aliens.

Yet, in many other messages, the direct addressee seems to be the non-Latino population. In these cases the ambivalence of force is more extensive. Now the Latinos are apparently perceived not to be participants in the act of communication, but reduced to represented objects of an exclusive Anglo conversation. Latinos are talked about as if they had no place in the ongoing debate about their position in the society:

“Let’s see… an illegal alien has the right to cross our border at will, even if previously deported, spread TB, give birth to children at government expense, have their children educated at government expense, receive welfare benefits for their children have government agencies deal with them in their native languages, and be left alone as if no crime has been committed and no harm done to this country (Patriot, Aug 27, 2007 12:51 PM, bolds are mine)

There are reasons to expect that the presumed absence of Latinos in the act of communication would reduce the frequency of the derisive utterances and weaken the inveterate contempt expressed. Why blame Latinos if they don’t read the messages? However, the indictments and the ingrained anger are also expressed in comments where Latinos are constituted as non-participating “Others”. This suggests the presumed indirect presence of a Latino audience, or, more precisely, the passive participation of local Latinos – not as primary addressees – but as hearers of the conversations between Anglo writers and Anglo addressees. Here I draw on Faircloughs definition of hearers as “those not addressed directly, but assumed to be part of the audience” (Fairclough 1992:78).[xii] The point I want to make here, thus, is that the Latino population face a double exclusion.

On the one hand the propositional and actional content of the messages constitute the Latinos as blamable Others and as unsocial evils.

On the other hand they are degraded to non-actors and (mis)treated like objects in a discussion to which they are not invited. Importantly, in this particular online discussion forum, with a potential participation of 35 % Latinos[xiii], only very few writers explicitly identified as such and no one as either illegal or (Latino) immigrant. There are many explanations for the absence of identifiable Latino participants. One is that they are uninvited. Other reasons are associated with the ethnic composition of the readership (although many writers accused the paper for catering too much for the Latino population), inaccessibility to computers, (perceived) lack of language skills, and, perhaps most importantly, security matters. In a situation where the cost of (visible) participation is possible deportation, a common strategy among mainly illegal Latino immigrants is to live a hidden life, to conceal their identity and their status, and to stay out of sight of the authorities (Kearney 1998; Flores 2003). For these reasons, Latinos in general are constituted as passive onlookers and undesired Others in an Anglo dominated debate on immigrants and their role in society.

Finally, the social identities and relationships between Latinos and Anglos set up in the online debate are accentuated by the dialogical nature of the comments. The individual utterances or comments posted on the homepage can be viewed as isolated statements with their own message and ideological content, but many comments are not merely comments posted as a response to the original newspaper article. The debate develops a life of its own, with many comments posted as rejoinders to previous comments. This means that many postings are linked to one another – often through an assertion and agreement structure (or on rare occasions through an assertion and objection logic). The comments posted, thus, form a dialogical and sequential structure, where some comments often have explicit intertextual references back to previous utterances. This was for example the case in this discussion between some readers about rights to citizens and to illegal immigrants:

“No they don’t have the right to be here and yes we have the right to deport them. What bothers me are posts like McD [commenter’s pseudonym] at 7:33AM and What Rights [commenter’s pseudonym] at 8:09 AM. Both say they have no rights. I disagree. They have many of the same rights as citizens. Not all, but many of them (What?. Aug 27, 2007 9:52 PM).

“To: What: If they are here legally, they have rights. As illegals, they don’t have the RIGHT to be here…. NO RIGHTS!! (To: What, Aug 27, 2007 10:12PM)

The intertextual links between the readers’ comments, as well as the explicit dialogic relations between many of the comments, contribute to the creation of a common semantic domain, by which the writers selectively assimilate the discourse of others, and develop a common discursive community. This discursive assimilation seems to function as a powerful way of setting and policing the agenda. Minority viewpoints or other messages, which do not fit easily into the dialogical relationships established, are thus unlikely to be posted, in part because the author does not have a sense of belonging to the community. The fact that more than 79 % of the comments posted (and accepted by the mediator) conveyed explicit anti-immigrant views underlines the power of the anti-immigration messages over more nuanced postings. There are thus two interconnected set of positions represented on the platform. One which is occupied by the writer of each comment posted, and another occupied by the common discursive communities formed through the intertextual chains. In the case of local immigration debate, these communities become the flip side of the new discussion platforms. Occupied mainly by writers with nativist sentiments, who are concerned with loss of control, wealth, security, and identity, the communities contribute to reinforcing existing boundaries in society: those excluded by the interpersonal messages in the posters are also denied membership in the online communities established.

Constructing Latino Others – continuity and change

In his recent book “The Latino Threat Narrative. Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation”, Leo Chávez is concerned with how the same myths about Latinos as people who cannot and will not become part of US society have become a powerful social imaginary (2008). Constructed as space invaders and out-of –the place identities they have for many years been seen as a threat to national identity, he argues. They therefore exist as illegal and deportable aliens in the eyes of the dominant society.

Chávez is particularly concerned with the historical depth of what he terms the Latino threat narrative. Through the comparison of older and newer anti-immigrant discourses, he finds that a pattern has been formed. This pattern, he argues, began to take shape in the 1920s, and because of endless repetitions, the image of the dangerous outsiders has now become common sense and taken for granted knowledge in the US society (Chávez 2008). The result is that exclusion has been progressively ingrained in the structure of the US society.

I do agree on Chávez general point that Latinos have been constituted as an undesired homogeneous mass. This is also the conclusion put forward in a large number of studies on the same subject (O’Connor & Nystrom 1985; Scmidt 1997; Berg 2002; Lytle 2003). Although more ‘positive’ – but not less stereotypic – images of, for example, the romantic and emotional Latin(a) lover are sometimes produced, existing research seems to agree that Latinos are mostly ignored or negatively stereotyped.

However, I find it useful to highlight some of the discursive transformations that have actually taken place, especially in the wake of larger contextual events such as the war on drugs, and, latest, the war on terror. Chávez does mention that an economic boom in the late 1990s caused an increase in demand for labor, and that, for this reason, the alarmist discourses were for a time superseded by more moderate views on immigration (2008:34). In an interesting section he does also highlight the post 9/11 images of the border with Mexico as a gateway for terrorist and as a homeland security issue (2008:36-40). Despite the reference to these important changes, Chávez’ interpretive framework is primarily concerned with demonstrating the discursive similarities that exist across time. This leads him to the conclusion that the pattern established has been successful in constituting the Latinos as a ‘threat’ and a ‘danger’ to the nation through “simple binaries of citizen/foreigner, real Americans/’Mexicans’ or real Americans/’Hispanics’” (2008:41).

These similarities do exist, and it is important to point them out. I do, however, argue that post-9/11 discourses have added new layers and tropes to the already established representations, and that this has produced a qualitatively different narrative. Because (Latino) immigration has been subsumed under larger issues of war, terrorism, and security the Latino threat narrative of today reveals a spirit of national alertness, cultural pessimism, and vulnerability, which is radically different from previous offensive images of the submissive and manageable Latino (Henriksen 2007).

The Image of the Docile and manageable Latino

There exist a number of studies done on data collected before the war on terror began. This research has focused on the categorization of Latinos in audio-visual media (Berg 2002), in popular culture (Johnson 1980), in history textbooks (O’Connor & Nystrom 1985), in jokes (Schmidt 1997), and in public and official discourses (Schmidt 1997; Lytle 2003). There are of course differences depending on the type of media and the genre. But it is interesting that that these studies do not highlight the image of the dangerous Latino who is a threat to North American society. Latinos are seen as peoples with little cultural and economic sophistication, and, thus, as inferior or pathological Others. But, even if the Latinos remain stigmatized at the negative end of the social pyramid, there are only few discourses whereby Latinos are explicitly represented as identities that might endanger North American society. In many of the postings presented and discussed above, there was an explicit concern with the border as a loophole for potential terrorists, and Latinos in general were seen as a source of social degeneration. This sense of fragility and vulnerability has not always been present.

Some labels, however, have identified the Latino with a criminal. In these cases the Latino is a dishonest, immoral figure with a proclivity towards violence (Berg 2002:39). But, although this figure might be a source of anxiety and fear, he is mostly dangerous to individual persons, and rarely to the North American society as such.

The criminal Latino is a well-known stereotype in many (Hollywood) films. In such films, this figure is mean and a source of fear, but because of his ignorance and lack of sophistication, he becomes eliminated in the end. The image of the Latino easy to defeat fits well into Kelly Lytle’s argument that the dominant discourse in the United States has traditionally depicted legal and illegal Mexicans as “obedient, docile, manageable, and temporary” (2003:4). The underlying rationality is that U.S. is mighty and Anglo Americans intellectually and technologically superior. The online community on the webpage of North County Times was not built on such rationality. Rather than perceiving the Anglo community in terms of an all-mighty superpower with an indefeasible capacity to obviate any difficulty, many of the comments exposed a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

In California, Texas, and other states in the south-west, the business community and in particular the agribusiness employers, who hire Mexicans and other Latinos as cheap labor, have previously contributed to enforcing the notions of Latinos as docile and temporary. Rather than a source of fear, they have been seen as a needed resource. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the global competitiveness of the agro-industry depends on low cost labor force and, thus, on large numbers of legal and especially illegal Latinos willing to take the jobs offered – even if the wages are low and the work is hard. But, as Michael Kearney has argued, the Latino labor force is first and foremost seen as a commodity and their labor desired, “but the persons in whom it is embodied are not desired” (1998:125). Publishing this article in 1998, about 4 years before The White House declared the “war on terror”, Michael Kearney observes that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was one of the most underfunded and mismanaged agencies of the federal government. Despite the sophisticated high-tech surveillance program, thousands of undocumented Latinos were able to defy the control every day. He therefore argued that the basic rationality of the fence and other border protection technologies was not to make the border impermeable, but to discipline immigrants to work hard and accept low wages (Kearney 1998:128). The point here is that the border protection measures were part of a number of ways of creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity (among the Latino population), which served to create a reliable and hardworking immigrant labor force willing to accept the often hard conditions offered at the workplaces.

In this light, the absence of any discussion about Latinos’ contribution to society on the online platform is conspicuous. Some postings did state the Latino immigrants are an economic burden, or that Latinos exploit the social welfare system, but in general economic discourses receded into the background. Instead, the dominant ideological work that constructs Latino immigration to the United States as a national security problem or as a threat to the local community was overrepresented.

Nationalism on the defensive

More than once it has been pointed out that the terrorist attack on September 11 of 2001 has split time into a “before” and an “after” (Mattingly et al 2002). For immigrants, in particular, things have changed. Life has been harder, law enforcement has been tightened, more undocumented have been arrested and deported, and anti-immigration sentiments are now more often expressed in public (Little & Klarreich 2005). Moreover, since terrorism has now been added to the debate many immigrants in post-9/11 United States feel more distressed than before.

In a previous study I have argued that the war on terror has given rise to a new alarmist discourse (Henriksen 2007). This discourse is in no way a breakdown of previous constructions, but it encapsulates and articulates a serious of self-protective dimensions unprecedented in previous more aggressive narratives. The most important indication of this shift is the disappearance of the image of the submissive Latino immigrant. Instead Latino immigrants are (un)-identified as a faceless tide that threaten to destroy the nation, not so much through tangible criminal activities as through mere presence. At the heart of this new defensive nationalism is an ideological marriage of two themes, which have traditionally been depicted as belonging to two different semantic fields: Latino immigration and national security (Henriksen 2007:330). Immigration and border crossings have thus been subsumed under larger issues of war, terrorism and national security.

The postings on the webpage of North County Times confirm this hypothesis. As argued above, the online community constructed Latino immigration in terms of an invasion that was beyond human (Anglo) control. Importantly, rather than identifying tangible dangerous activities, the comments represented Latino presence in North County (and in the US) as an anonymous collective threat. It is not so much their activities as their mere presence, which is seen as a source of social deprivation. On this online discussion platform, built on a combination of fear and anger, Latino marginalization is reinforced by their position as passive observers in a gathering to which they not invited.

The main point that I want to make here is that Latino cultural citizenship is today marked by a new spirit of national alertness and cultural pessimism, which is qualitatively different from the old triumphant images of the proactive and untouchable Anglo selves. I argue that this is a sign of new powerful ideology, which I term a nationalism on the defensive. This ideology is built on apprehensive fears, and on a sense of exposure to the loss of national security and identity. Not unlike the anti-immigration xenophobia that is now common in many West-European countries, this ideology is mainly driven by a belief in the inability to absorb and integrate peoples of ‘alien’ cultural backgrounds and by presumptive moral claims to a national and local territory.

The mobilization of people around ventures such as the Minutemen project and the English-only Campaign adds a social dimension to the defensive nationalism. Whereas the English-only campaign constructs bilingualism as a menace to American civilization (Schmid 2001), the Minutemen Project is an organization of ‘patriotic’ volunteers whose goal is to monitor the border with Mexico in the hope of locating and eventually ‘arresting’ undocumented border crossers (Chávez 2008). As mentioned, in 2006 volunteers in many local chapters throughout California and other south-west states began to target immigrants on day labor sites, and in businesses believed to hire illegal immigrants.[xiv] The majority of the day laborers are unauthorized immigrants (Versanyi 2008), but in their efforts to defend United States against what the members perceive as an invasion they might as well harass legal residents and U.S. citizens. I argue that this shift of focus away from the border to ordinary cities across the country contributes to a new type of segregation, where many people are denied a sense of belonging to society. Just like online community platforms constructed among mainly hostile natives of Anglo descent, parts of the population are denied access to social space, understood as both a geographical site and the social possibility of engaging in action. They redefine local citizenship, and they restrict rights and access to the city and to modern discussion platforms for immigrants of Latino origin.

Accordingly, the heightened sense of defensive-ness does not imply the evaporation of aggressive measures and attitudes. On the contrary, it pursues a hostile politics of identity that defines the Latinos as incomplete Others, and keeps them culturally and spatially segregated from the rest of the population. This ideology, which I term nationalism on the defensive, does not only result in the reinforcement of the international borders, it does also lead to the creation of social and cultural borders within national territory.

Final remarks

It has often been asserted that citizenship is not the passive acquisition of an arbitrary and limited set of rights. Rather than seeing citizenship rights as something bestowed by the simple act of birth, we must view citizenship as an active process of claiming rights, it has been argued (Flores 2003). I do agree on this point, and that active political and social movement is a key factor in generating a sense of belonging or building community.

However, in this article it has been argued that the struggle for rights and recognition does not take place in a vacuum. If cultural citizenship refers to processes whereby people claim rights and entitlements, it is also important to pay attention to the opposite processes by which social groups are denied rights, membership and recognition. Exclusion is itself a practice and, thus, a dynamic force which often take new forms.

In this article I have argued that the online discussion community established on the homepage of North County Times is a platform for new exclusionary practices. The exclusion of the Latino population is performed along two lines: first, Latinos are not part of the discussion group, and thus reduced to blamable objects in an immigrant unfriendly environment. Second, the offensive and xenophobic language use constitutes the Latino population as a group of unsocial beings and as dangerous Others.

I view this exclusion as part of a new ideology, which is taking shape in the United States, one that I call a nationalism on the defensive. This ideology constructs the Latino population in ways that differ from previous more offensive perceptions. Negative and aggressive representations have always dominated, but the image of the docile and manageable Latino has been replaced by sense of fear and anxiety. The Latino population is thus constructed as a sort of enemy who threaten to destroy the nation.

In this cultural and political environment the mobilization for rights and recognition is often countered by nativist and hostile voices, which makes any attempt to create citizenship and forge inclusion a thorny task.


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[i] In this article I use the ethnonym Latino to generally describe membership in a Pan-Latin American community. I do this acknowledging that the national, ethnic, and racial diversity of this population makes it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to adequately depict the group in one homogenizing term. Nevertheless, I prefer this term rather than alternative demonyms such as Chicano or Mexican American, which are mainly used to refer to people of Mexican heritage. Latino has been coined as an alternative to the official term Hispanic, which lacks legitimacy in part because it accentuates a connection to Europe. Most people of Latin American heritage I have talked with during my stays in San Diego self-identifies as Latinos. This observation tallies with Vélez-Ibáñez and Sampaios assertion that Latino is a ”term of cultural recognition and positive designation of social space” (2002:2). Also, I use the masculine form Latino rather than Latina or Latina/o, acknowledging that it renders invisible a large group of female Latinas as well as existing gender inequalities in society.

[ii] My usage of the terms inclusion and integration does not convey a one-way movement into mainstream Anglo-American society, neither does it imply absorption or assimilation into dominant national culture. Inclusion and integration are often contrasted with multiculturalism, which implies the extension of equitable status to distinct national, ethnic and religious groups. In this article the terms integration and inclusion are not opposed to the constitution of cultures of difference. They are used more broadly, referring to the achievement of membership, recognition and belonging.

[iii] El Grupo first appeared in 1998, but as a result of internal disputes the organization dissipated a few years later.. However, according to Bill Flores, the spokesperson of the coalition, some of the former members decided to announce its return in 2006.

[iv] North County is the local expression referring to a region in the northern portion of San Diego County.

[v] Although definitions of North County vary, most agree that the county includes the cities of Escondido, San Marcos, Vista, Fallbrook, and Encinitas.

[vi] In the more affluent coastal cities the Latino population is smaller

[vii] It has not been possible to make any reasonable assessment as to the position of the remaining 21 comments. Many of these messages deal with issues that are not related to the reappearance of El Grupo or the Latino population in North County. Moreover, many other postings were directed to the comments editor, who removes messages that violate the editorial policies of the paper. In fact, one of the remaining 21 messages was posted by the mediator himself, who wrote: “Please stop sending in comments that do not fit into the political bias of this publication, my delete button finger is getting carpal tunnel syndrome” (comments editor Aug 27, 2007). Although I am unable to provide with any documentation there are reasons to assume that the comments deleted had an anti-El Grupo or anti-Latino content, and that this was expressed in a very offensive and defamatory language.

[viii] However, traditional letters to the editor submitted by conventional mail or by e-mail probably continue to have a larger built-in audience, but I argue that the “readers comment” genre is gaining importance, also from a quantitative point of view.

[ix] However, a moderator will not only remove messages with contact information but also posters with “offensive language, defamatory statements, personal attacks, or with other questionable content” (

[x] An epideictic speech genre is a genre of rhetoric that seeks to praise or blame someone. Epideictic discourses are usually written or spoken on occasions to commemorate or revile. My usage, here, refers obviously to negative utterances venting anger and fury.

[xi] Modality refers here to degrees of determination or commitment in an utterance. Categorical modality is realized when the producer of the text categorically asserts or denies a proposition, or when the producer indicates a high degree of ‘affinity’ with the propositional utterance (Fairclough 1992:158). The modal auxiliary verb ‘must’ is one important means of realizing categorical modality (e.g.’Latinos must leave the country’), but according to Halliday ‘tense’ is another way of categorically asserting something (e.g. Latinos are dangerous) (See Halliday 1985:85-9).

[xii] Latinos can be hearers either as readers of the posters or indirectly through the gradual dissemination of the messages and discourses expressed in the comments.

[xiii] As mentioned above, the Latino population makes up about 35 % of the population in North County