Tag Archives: Susan C. Méndez

Latina/o Futures, Literatures, and Necessary Tensions

April 15, 2013

"2009-12-04 JJAY -27" by Aloucha from Flickr.

“2009-12-04 JJAY -27” by Aloucha from Flickr.

by Susan C. Méndez

Recently, I attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s 1st Biennial Latina/o Literary Theory & Criticism Conference entitled, “Haciendo Caminos: Mapping the Futures of U.S. Latina/o Literatures.” The conference organizers Richard Perez and Belinda Linn Rincón did a phenomenal job of arranging provocative keynote addresses by Ramón Saldívar, José Esteban Muñoz, Mary Pat Brady, and Silvio Torres-Saillant. They also assembled two days of panels on Latina/o literatures. For a conference-goer such as myself, who always has a hard time finding the one-to perhaps-three panels that actually pertain to what she researches and/or teaches at every literature conference she attends, this event was a veritable cornucopia of literary insights. As a former co-chair conference organizer for MELUS 2010, I could especially appreciate all the hard work and dedication that it took, on the parts of Perez and Rincón and their support staff, to pull off such an endeavor.

Now to turn to the ideas presented at the conference; first, let me state a disclaimer that these summaries derive from my personal and admittedly incomplete notes as a single conference participant. Please forgive any unintentional inaccuracies. Ramón Saldívar set the tone of the conference with his key note address which examined the role of speculative realism in the future of Latina/o literatures. He offered a framework for understanding how the past and the future are more intimately connected than we may think. Saldívar asserted that for Latinas/os, our relationship to the future should be to realize the history not made. Speculative realist texts can act as a set of alternative thought experiments in order to create a new imaginary for the Latina/o community.

The next day, José Esteban Muñoz and Mary Pat Brady delivered powerful meditations linking politics and art. In their presentations, there was an uneasiness stated about hyphenated identities and other identity labels such as “Hispanic” and “Latina/o”; subsequently, Muñoz suggested returning to the label “Brown.” According to my notes, Muñoz explains that in “Brownness,” there is no ranking of “Brown” individuals or conditions; there is just the grounded experience of being “Brown” based on a shared sense of harm and yet flourishing as well. I particularly liked this idea about identity because it seemed to fit so well with feminist organizations like MALCS, where we have always stressed an non-hierarchical, heterogeneous inclusion of all women who share in the grounded experience of being from or connected to the Latina/o or Latin American community or world regions, and this experience is often rooted in a history of political and social oppression but is also marked by cultural flourishing and expression as women. Aesthetic practices and places can serve in the rehearsal of this identity, allowing Latinas/os to be who we want to be in the world. For Brady and Muñoz, this led to a consideration of recent reflections on “failure” by Halberstam and others, as well as recent discussions of “negative aesthetics in art” for understanding queer Latina/o literature and performance.

Lastly, there was the closing keynote address and conversation where Silvio Torres-Saillant posed the following questions to authors Helena María Viramontes and Ernesto Quiñonez: How does one study Latina/o literature without relying on literalization? Do critics do enough to emphasize the art of literature? How do we get students to do the artistic work? These questions caused quite a stir for the panelists and the audience. Several scholars contested the implied sentiment that current scholar-teachers are not getting their students to appreciate Latina/o literature as art. The writers, including author Angie Cruz from the audience, expressed interest in the feminist and other readings of their work by literary scholars. Sadly, I missed how the chaotic stir of discussion at this last session concluded; I had my own stirring chaos to contend with in visiting my dad and brother that last night in New York before I had to return home early the next day.

Putting the rich ideas of this conference aside for a moment, this last session emphasized the types of heated yet productive discussions that happened throughout the conference. These moments seemed to happen for two reasons: generational and gender gaps. In one roundtable conversation, a senior Latina/o literature scholar took offense with the assertion that critical studies of Latina/o literature did not flourish until the late 1980s, a perspective that overlooks earlier critical work. In another instance, following a reading of Pedro Monge’s “Lagrimas del alma” (a short play about the aftermath of the flight of Pedro Pan for one Cuban-American family), another debate occurred over what language the play should be performed in: English, Spanish, or a mix of both. Many audience members expressed the view that use of both languages seemed to be realistic and audience-friendly. However, one participant, an older gentleman, favored a seemingly purist view of language: a play by a Cuban man about Cuban history should be in Spanish. At still another panel, a scholar took issue with the frequent teaching of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) as a feminist text. The rich discussion on all sides of this issue among the audience included more than one participant explaining how Oscar Wao is about much more than Yunior trying to score “pussy.” It escaped these audience members’ attention that by using words such as “pussy” in their discussion, they were not doing much to advance their assertion of feminism in this text. In this way, my feminist training, which is reinforced daily through my work with MALCS, reminds me of the importance of not only what I am talking about but also of how I am talking about the subject-matter at hand. “Pussy” only invokes a colonial and patriarchal legacy of violence that reduces targeted women and their communities to be mere objects and not the true subjects that they are. “Pussy” does little to flesh out a study of feminist agency, collaboration, and societal transformation in almost any work.

The take-away from all these passionate discussions is the need to keep having these important conversations about the history of Latina/o Literary Studies, language, and gender. We need to have these arguments, to be reminded of the importance of this history and these concepts, amongst our own community members engaged in Latina/o Literary and cultural production. Asking these questions of each other in our continued work and study should be a first and foremost concern for everyone involved. We need to keep each other honest and knowledgeable about our work always and most significantly before we present our work in more general venues and conferences. In this way, the new ideas, arguments, and theories presented at conferences such as this one are not the only benefit to be had; these other meaningful discussions maintain the field in a healthy state of self-awareness. Hence, conferences devoted to any facet of Latina/o Studies are crucial, should be strongly supported, and the organizers of such events deserve to be recognized for their substantial service to the professional community.

Susan C. Méndez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English & Theatre and the Department of Latin American & Women’s Studies at the University of Scranton. She teaches courses on Multi-Ethnic American Literature and Women’s Studies. Primarily, she conducts research on novels written by Latino/a authors. Méndez is a 2011-2013 At Large Representative of MALCS.

Another (Reauthorization) Act to Follow

December 3, 2012

Photo: "Human Trafficking" by Leonard John Matthews from Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo: “Human Trafficking” by Leonard John Matthews from Flickr/Creative Commons

By Susan C. Méndez

There seems to be no end to the potential human collateral that can be caused by the United States Congress’s inaction. Along with the delay in renewing the Violence Against Women Act, recent news coverage has focused on another delay in reauthorizing the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.” According to a news article by Mounira Al Hmoud in the Times Argus online, more than 2,500 alleged incidents of human trafficking were filed between January 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. About 82% of these reported incidents involved sex trafficking: more than 1,200 incidents involved adult sex trafficking and 1,000 incidents involved child sexual exploitation. And these are just the reported cases for this time period. Notably, human traffickers largely target women and children of color. As such, those who have rose up to speak on this issue are tied closely to this community. Recently Jada Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow Smith made the news with their appearances in Washington, D.C. to talk to government officials about this issue. Reportedly, more than 2,500 alleged incidents of human trafficking were filed between January 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. About 82% of these reported incidents involved sex trafficking: more than 1,200 incidents involved adult sex trafficking and 1,000 incidents involved child sexual exploitation. And these are just the reported cases for this time period. Pinkett Smith founded an anti-trafficking group named “Don’t Sell Bodies” and sang a song in Spanish entitled “Nada,” whose video highlights the story of a young woman being trafficked by a love-interest and is directed by Salma Hayek. It is no coincidence that these key actions which stress the issue of human trafficking have come from members of the larger women of color community; such actions and participants are good indicators as to who should be paying attention to human trafficking.  Pinkett Smith and her daughter’s most recent actions include participating in the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking. Their advocacy on this issue has brought much needed attention back to the fate of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA).

This act, also known as the largest piece of human rights legislation in the United States, was the first federal law to address comprehensively trafficking as a crime on both the international and domestic fronts. According to Polaris Project (a non-profit, non-governmental organization that fights modern day slavery and human trafficking), the TVPA is composed of three aspects: “prevention through public awareness programs overseas and a State-department led monitoring and sanctions program; protection through new T-visa and services for foreign national victims; and prosecution through new federal crimes.” This legislation was significant because it created an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, whose task it is to rank other countries based on their efforts to halt human trafficking (and the President of the United States may choose to impose sanctions on countries that do not meet the minimum standards to end trafficking); established the temporary legal status of “continued presence” and the new T visa which allows survivors of human trafficking to stay in the United States temporarily and to apply for permanent residency after 3 years; and made trafficking a federal crime along with the new crime of forced labor (individual and corporate employers are the ones liable to be charged with these crimes). The TVPA of 2000 (P.L. 106-386) was an astounding act of humanity and compassion; it was reauthorized in 2003 (H.R. 2620), in 2005 (H.R. 972), and in 2008 (H.R. 7311) easily. Its renewal is purposefully scheduled every two to three years in order to address that fact that traffickers change their modes of operation periodically. Each time this act was reauthorized, improvements were made that enhanced the original bill’s approach to end human trafficking.

Although various academics, journalists and activists may have differing perspectives on the impact of human trafficking and the methods and language used to convey assistance to those who are trafficked, the impetus behind this act appears to be extending offers of help to those who find themselves to be survivors of exploitative practices. Consequently, the need for this act still is apparent and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S.1301) began its renewal process on June 29, 2011 when the act was introduced and referred to its committee led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Initially, this Reauthorization Act had 42 Senatorial co-sponsors (it now has 52). According to Leahy aides, when this committee turned to the House of Representatives, there was a need to strike a deal and that need has delayed renewal. The Act expired on September 30, 2011. Mounira Al Hmoud reported for the Times Argus online that for the past fifteen months, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 has been referred to five different committees of the House, has undergone significant revision, and has Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) as its sponsor. An editorial piece in The New York Times, dated March 21, 2012, explains how these revisions have not always been beneficial. For example, one revised aspect is the moving of financing for survivors’ services from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice. This shifting makes little sense as the Department of Justice, in comparison to the Department of Health and Human Services, is not equipped to deal with the multi-faceted experiences and needs of survivors. Besides ill-conceived revisions, another detrimental aspect to the stalling of passing this reauthorization act is the inaccurate application of language used to discuss human trafficking to prosecute undocumented immigrants in states such as Arizona where anti-immigrant fervor is strong.

So what does this act look like now? Where does it stand and what does it have to do with the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking? The aforementioned editorial in The New York Times also details how in October 2011, a Senate bill to renew this act through 2015 cleared the Judiciary Committee, yet has not come to a floor vote. The bill for this act’s renewal cuts appropriations to 130 million but increases “victim” assistance to $25.5 million. It also has strengthened enforcement measures. The Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking is co-chaired by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Robert Portman (R-OH). They aim to engage caucus members in agreeing upon common goals and creating policies to achieve these goals in the quest to end human trafficking. There are 13 Senators on this caucus, and it is fitting that Blumenthal and Portman are co-chairs because in June 2012, they sponsored the End Trafficking in Government Contracting bill. (In this bill, these two Senators hoped to change pending defense fund legislation in order to stop funds for government contractors who employed trafficked laborers.) It is suspected the work and attention that this caucus will garner can only bring the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 back to both public and governmental discussion. The caucus has already begun productive conversation as Jada Pinkett Smith has expressed her hope that the caucus will establish an advisory council of survivors that can help the government comprehend the various complexities of human trafficking. It appears good results can come out of this caucus.

Recent news reports have restated the need for this act, along with the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, to pass Congress before the end of this year. However, with much needed attention and work focused on the “fiscal cliff,” the renewal of these crucial acts seems doubtful and such a delay would be disastrous for those seeking assistance. The same editorial in The New York Times describes recent successful efforts made to reach out to survivors of human trafficking. These efforts include: “a new trafficking hot line, financed through a grant by health and human services, for instance, [which] has taken more than 49,000 calls, connected 5,770 potential victims with services and provided more than 2,155 law-enforcement tips.” Such services are not plentiful and whatever resources exist to help people who find themselves to be survivors of exploitative practices like human trafficking should be maintained if not expanded.


Blumenthal, Richard. “Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking.” n.p. n.d. Web. 16 November 2012.

Hmoud. Mounira Al. “Leahy Seeks Action on Two Upcoming Bills.” Times Argus. Times Argus, 12 November 2012. Web. 12 November 2012.

Polaris Project. Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act (TVPA)-Fact Sheet. Washington: Polaris Project, 2008. PDF file.

“The Fight Against Modern Day Slavery.” Editorial. The New York Times 21 March 2012: A30. Print.

“Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011.” Govtrack.us. Civic Impulse, LLC, n.d. Web. 16 November 2012.


Susan C. Méndez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English & Theatre and the Department of Latin American & Women’s Studies at the University of Scranton. She teaches courses on Multi-Ethnic American Literature and Women’s Studies. Primarily, she conducts research on novels written by Latino/a authors.


Sara Ramirez    December 13, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Thank you for your post, Prof. Méndez. I voted in California last month, and Prop. 35 had to do with human trafficking and penalties. Like most voters uninformed on this measure, I unquestioningly voted YES for increased penalties on those convicted of human trafficking crimes. I soon learned from my progressive colleagues that I should have voted NO. Do you know about this measure and how it affects people of color?