X’S INDEFINITE QUALITY impacts a major concern of our time: the unthought-of scale and impact of environmental degradation, paired with new forms of LatinX displacements and transitions. The intensity and uncertainty of global climate disruption are canvassed to comprehend ecological crises through extreme LatinX currents including border fortification, rising sea levels, Central America’s drought, disintegrating bodies and landscapes, and Mesoamerican movements. The slow accretions and modifications of what comes into and goes out of existence—our own managing to eke out a living through “contaminated survival” (Casid 2018, 243)—encourages us to think expansively about unpredictable LatinX turning points.
My ideas on these themes come in the form of four sections. The first part begins with “Projections, Extremes, Transitions” and considers perilous scenarios for 2050: altered environments, urgent circumstances for the now, and an unrecognizable LatinXness. Next, I probe a “Transfixing X-ness”: how the topsy-turvies of the present are throwing us headlong into LatinX’s ubiquitous and unfolding patterns and the conceptual language trying to register the new nature of things. The penultimate section—“The X Corridor”—evokes literary scholar Steve Mentz’s notion of climatologically “being in the brown,” an uncontrollable brownness signaling what LatinX is becoming (2013). I wrap up with a rumination on the not-so-sub-rosa X as “The Time of Our Lives,” advancing a reflective understanding of LatinX life in the twenty-first century.
Environmental literary studies, ecocriticism, and representations of nature, pastoral life, wilderness, or protected habitats greatly instruct but do not ground this approach (see Adamson and Slovic 2009; Nixon 2013; Acosta 2015; Solis Ybarra 2016; Wald, Solis Ybarra, Vázquez, and Ray 2019). I set my sights on postulating our LatinX moment and ecocide, as exemplified in other literary and vivid worlds of timely information: nonfiction, chronicles, news items, historical accounts, and online venues documenting the cataclysms of the bewildering and fickle now. These detailed layers—or, environments, if you wish—of human expression, interaction, and investigation are placed at the political forefront. They can be read as unrestrained preludes that help us move through and grasp a range of inchoate feelings, puzzlement, and contradictions.
These clusters of elaboration are told and retold to arrive at, if not rework, tangible orientations on LatinX life and its relationship to biophilia. Paul Lussier, Director of the Yale Science Communications with Impact Network, strategizes to make planetary care palatable to the U.S. public. He finds there is “an enormous opportunity to see and view and treat climate change as nothing but essentially a big, huge house of narratives that we can all connect to” (Halley 2018). LatinX narrative maneuvers meet the environment’s gravity head on—keying into how it is being observed, experienced, and represented at this specific point of human history.
These stories’ relevance dialogue with the world. They take great strides to understand contemporary transitions and vulnerability in a time when many people are living with shorter attention spans. The worth of attention becomes more valuable because it is turning out to be more and more scarce. These anecdotes bring out a speaker’s idiosyncrasies, alongside the human nature of emotions, feelings, fear, and social connections. They can be captured through vernacular practices, what Mexican American writer Sandra Cisneros marshals through the expression, “me desahogué hablando contigo.” Or, as she translates this saying, “I un-drowned talking to you” (Cisneros 2019). Storytelling forces us to listen very deeply and reach across communities. In Cisneros’s words, “We’re telling a story that’s too powerful it comes out of our eyes” (Stasio 2019). They help us “to understand the event,” to comprehend it for ourselves, and “to survive the event” (Stasio 2019). The transcription of X furthering this approach—from the digital to the real life—forges a LatinX subjectivity that circulates in a world as a deracinated LatinX. It is a purposeful house of X events and progressions, and “the spontaneous connections generated” through X users—X chroniclers—as conceptual artist R. Galvan might remind us, “lift it to new meaning[s]” (2017, 190).
This prolegomenon attempts to put the world together through LatinX uncertainty—a speculative mode that is thinking with the day-to-day and my willingness to follow the X’s flow through the risky unknown. One is not literally Latin or X. Yet the X of today and its vagility are doubtlessly tied to a Latino/a future. I strive to make an opening for LatinX’s fuller potential and scales, to be more than just a casual observer, and to construct systems of knowledge through what climate change and the X are doing.
Projections, Extremes, Transitions
Census projections demonstrate the United States is changing into a “Majority Minority Nation” (Taylor and Cohn 2012). By 2050, it is said, the United States will cease having “a clear white majority” (Goldstein 2016). The Latino/a population is expected to compose an estimated 106 million by the mid-twenty-first century—almost “double what it is today”—and grow into the largest U.S. majority-minority ethnoracial group (Krogstad 2014).
But there is another forecast looming for 2050, as border security and migration journalist Todd Miller spotlights in his eye-opening environmental investigation, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (2017). It is an alarming approximation on a global scale. The United Nations (U.N.) calculates that 250 million people will be displaced as a result of unraveling environmental processes such as rising sea levels, superstorms, damaging floods, flood-induced landslides, drought, desertification, drinking water shortages, agricultural disruption, and “multiple ecological factors projected to dislocate unprecedented quantities of people” (21–22).
Hold that thought: unheard-of quantities of climate refugees, or per the U.N., “persons of concern,” from a bevy of geographies engaging in cross-border movement due to escalating environmental destabilization and turmoil (Miller 2017, 22). Not only this, but as Miller also contends, “there is more spending on border reinforcement than ever before in the history of humankind. And as the Donald J. Trump administration takes power in the United States, there is only more of this to come” (24). Anthropologist and theorist Nicholas De Genova underscores that border surveillance and militarization function in a “de facto process of artificial selection.” Under the state’s watchful eye, deadly obstacle routes “sort out the most able-bodied, disproportionately favoring the younger, stronger, and healthier among prospective (labor) migrants, and likewise inordinately favoring men over women” (25). “Unauthorized” migration, De Genova makes known, is recast “into a treacherous, death-defying endurance test, the autonomy and subjectivity of migration is subjected to what is merely the beginning of a long apprenticeship into a lifelong career of arduous exploitation” (25). Following Miller, we should not lose sight of the links among border enforcement, environmental stress, and population movements. In brief: “this is ‘a situation of border fortification in a warming world,’ a warming world where there is no legal protection for families who are suddenly displaced due to climate” (29).
These numerosities of people—a global ensemble and social expansion “proliferating across the world,” to cite Miller’s urgent point—“assault” the Global North with their “illegal” presence and with climate change as an abstract and suspect explanation (2017, 26). Do note this Washington Post headline, bringing this distrustful but pressing topic to the fore: “The U.S. Has More Climate Skeptics than Anywhere Else on Earth” (Erickson 2017). Repudiating environmental deterioration also means rejecting what the rest of the world is living. This national and climatological “browning” will reach its vertex in 2050 and displace not just the “clear white majority,” but everything that has been conceived as “normal.” The apogee of this browning signifies that the Earth is literally changing color. It is entering an era that biogeographer and ecologist Camilo Mora christens as a “climate departure,” indicating that, by 2047, weather conditions “will become like something we’ve never seen” (Toomey 2014). But there is a kind of U.S. departure, too, as segments of the nation are becoming like something we have never seen, and the Earth metamorphoses into an other—beginning anew as something else.
The environmental outlet Grist published that a group of polar scientists have concluded that the Arctic “is now definitively trending toward an ice-free state” (Holthaus 2018). Peter Wadhams’s scholarly undertaking A Farewell to Ice emphasizes that this zone’s shifts are “not just an interesting change in a remote part of the world” (2017, 4). “We have created an ocean where there was once an ice sheet,” he proclaims. “It is Man’s first major achievement in reshaping the face of his planet, and it is of course an unintended achievement, with dubious and possibly catastrophic consequences to follow” (2–3). Wadhams’s findings on the “Arctic death spiral” manifest “a spiritual impoverishment of the Earth,” as “Arctic Ocean sea ice [. . .] once protected us from the impacts of climatic extremes” (4). “Let It Go,” Grist announced, “the Arctic will never be frozen again” (Holthaus 2018). It “is our glimpse of an Earth in flux, transforming into something that’s radically different from today.” The online magazine averred that the polar region’s permutations warrant a new term—the “New Arctic”—highlighting “the ‘huge impact’ these changes [are] having on everything from tourism to fisheries to worldwide weather patterns. ‘What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic—it affects the rest of the planet’” (Holthaus 2018).
LatinX urbanity is facing this impact. Miami, the low-lying “U.S. Capital of Latin America,” as the city is nicknamed, could be perishing as we know it by 2037, due to rising sea levels, a porous limestone foundation, and its topographical flatness (Goodell 2017). Limestone “is sedimentary rock formed from skeleton fragments of marine organisms like corals and mollusks. The ground under Miami is like a giant coral sponge” (Dawson 2017, 18). And “no one can turn a blind eye to the projections everyone uses in South Florida: 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2060” (Bolstad 2017).
It will not end there: sea levels are estimated to rise up to 6.6 feet by 2100, as predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Dawson 2017, 18). There is no place to hide in “Aguatica,” as poet Victor Hernández Cruz would rather call Earth, where there is more water than terra firma (2017). The U.S. descendants of climate refugees—or, the next generation of LatinXs—confront what their families left behind. The X of human-caused disasters is never remote from the U.S. mainland: Latin lives, anecdotes, creations, and urban landscapes may be lost, submerged, environmentally crossed, or X’ed out in such a way that this “new” Miami could turn to a place of forgotten Latinness. Public records, land deeds, historical documents, and Latin special collections may be lost. Research by university archivists and climate scientists shows that material artifacts within the national archival infrastructure—manuscripts, codices, printed books, and so on—are at risk of degradation because of environmental disasters (Yeo 2018). What is the Latin familiar and cultural heritage in this context? The rising tides meet the city’s cultural demands: even the environment requires Miami’s attention.
Another LatinX scene with many stories may surface—a new beginning and remaking of LatinXness, LatinX social networks, and an altering world map that have yet to be known. Jesse M. Keenan, a researcher on urban development and climate adaptation at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, proposed that “climate gentrification” has hit the Latin metropolis. Since 2000, “a correlation between elevation and price appreciation” illustrates an “early signaling of preference for properties at higher elevations and a reaction to persistent nuisance flooding in lower areas” (Schouten 2017). The effects of Miami’s real estate market will spark migration from high-exposure areas and cause displacement, punctuating what can be conceived as the urban borders of climate change. Miami’s Little Haiti—which lies on higher ground, approximately ten feet above sea level, and is less likely to flood—is a center of interest. Keenan states that, “In Miami, it’s the reverse of the process in many other parts of the United States, or even in the developing world, where the poorest people to flooding and sea-level rise often live on low ground most vulnerable to flooding” (Bolstad 2017).
As climate gentrification establishes a firmer stronghold—and makes historically mixed-income areas more exclusive—Keenan upholds that it will be easy to “predict who the winners will be: wealthier people” (Schouten 2017). This struggle for livable space—what eco-criticism scholar Ashley Dawson dubs as an “exclusionary zone of refuge”—exhibits extremes in economic disparity, physical displacement, capacity for survival, and, for those in real estate, entrepreneurial opportunities (2017, 8). As global sociologist Saskia Sassen frames it, “For those at the bottom or in the poor middle, this means expulsion from a life space; among those at the top, this appears to have meant exiting from the responsibilities of membership in society via self-removal, extreme concentration of the wealth available in a society, and no inclination to redistribute that wealth” (2014, 15). It is not so much ethnicity that is marketable in the spatial politics of this “new” Miami, but a private property’s elevation. It cedes, at the ground level, a particular hue: an urban dark “brown for the poor,” to riff off design writer Kassia St. Clair’s reveries in The Secret Lives of Color (2016, 239).
This brown for the poor touches on what little remains, and perilously so, throughout the world and who is accessing those resources. Cape Town, to date, is dangerously close to “Day Zero.” South Africa’s second-most populous urban area is projected to run out of water, becoming “one of the few major cities in the world to lose piped water to homes and most businesses” (Onishi and Sengupta 2018). Its four million residents “may have to stand in line surrounded by armed guards to collect rations of the region’s most precious commodity: drinking water” (Welch 2018). Stricter allocations amidst extinction-level water crises, the New York Times informed, “is a difficult message to convey in one of the world’s most unequal societies, where access to water reflects Cape Town’s deep divisions. In squatter camps, people share communal taps and carry water in buckets to their shacks. In other parts of the city, millionaires live in mansions with glistening pools” (Onishi and Sengupta 2018). On a global scale, more than “one billion people lack access to water and another 2.7 billion find it scarce for at least one month of the year.” The BBC explained that Cape Town is just the tip of the iceberg. Other major cities facing water stress include São Paulo, Brazil; Bangalore, India; Beijing, China; Cairo, Egypt; Jakarta, Indonesia; Moscow, Russia; Istanbul, Turkey; Mexico City, Mexico; London, England; Tokyo, Japan; and Miami, Florida (BBC 2018).
In the historically agricultural region of the Mexicali Valley, farmers are confronting a drought and contesting the one billion dollar production plans and infrastructure project of a major U.S. brewery, Constellation Brands, producer of Modelo and Corona beers (Dibble 2018). The company is threatening Mexicali’s water resources, setting out to consume “20 million liters of drinking water every year: the same amount that would normally quench the thirst of some 750,000 people” (teleSur 2018). Since 2010 Mexico “overtook the Netherlands to become the world’s biggest beer exporter,” and “breweries have sprung up across its arid borderlands” (Agren 2018). The Mexicali manufacturer is scheduled for a 2020 opening—initially yielding “58 million cases of beer each year and go[ing] on to produce quadruple that amount in the future” (Dibble 2018). “The twenty-first century has an analogue,” world historian Raj Patel and sociologist Jason W. Moore remind us. “It’s easier for most people to imagine the end of the planet than to imagine the end of capitalism” (2017, 2).
This could all be giving way by 2050—or, even way before it—to the unavoidable, as Finnish author Emmi Itäranta’s fable conjectures it, to the Memory of Water (2014). This terrifying prognosis can also startle and interrupt cultural events that otherwise help us escape a frenzied daily life and bring us relative pleasure and harmony. Such was the case when I was at a concert by Brazilian American singer Bebel Gilberto, who paused in the middle of a number to pose a question that cannot be downplayed: “You know we’re going to be without water?” (Gilberto 2018). There is no safe moment now, Gilberto intimated, as her music became a part of the background, and as we waited—in our togetherness, in the grand stage of human history and emotions—for what will be thrown our way. We will not survive unscathed.
A 2016 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit environmental policy group, noted that Latinos, Latinas, LatinXs are “vulnerable to climate-related threats,” depending on their U.S. geographies. The account specified that “more than 60 percent of U.S. Latinos live in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, which are among the states most vulnerable to severe heat, air pollution, and flooding.” “Nationally,” NRDC elaborated, “Hispanics are 21 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in the hottest parts of cities, which have a high concentration of heat-retaining surfaces and little to no tree cover. More than 24 million Hispanics live in the 15 U.S. cities most heavily polluted by ozone smog, including Los Angeles, Houston, and New York. In Florida, Hispanics make up about 40 percent of the population in the eight Florida cities (including Miami) that will almost certainly flood during future high tides, no matter how quickly the world cuts the carbon pollution driving sea level rise” (Quintero and Constible 2016, 5).
This climatological browning gives rise to a tension in a twofold way. On the one hand, it is an additive, as in coming into a space and the expanding nature of the LatinX population. And, on the other, this browning is subtractive: meaning, the diminishing fertility and fecundity through climatological change generating, as biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson observed, “browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire” ( 2002, 3). A brownness of devastation—brown water, musty-smelling brown sludge, brown mountains, brown piles of debris, and brown-outs—as seen in Puerto Rico during the September 2017 torrential downpours of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds. Hurricane Maria’s ravage brought about “the largest scale psychosocial disaster in the United States” (Fichter 2017). Living through and surviving these types of superstorms create anxiety and trauma: “diagnosable mental disorders” that are common “among combat veterans and those who live through mass shootings and natural disasters” (Calma 2017; see Holpuch 2018). Human recovery goes hand-in-hand with the ongoing restoration of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure (Fichter 2017). While the location and strength of hurricanes may vary, the words of a Rockaway, Queens, resident who was affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 carry weight: “If you dodge one season, you just don’t know what will happen next time” (Calma 2017).
You just don’t know what will happen next time . . . or how, exactly, you will be hit. In another extraordinary turn of life events, this same storm brought an incredulous transformation for Marvin Rosales Martinez, a Salvadoran landscaper. He was raking “leaves on a Long Island street after Hurricane Sandy” when he hit the jackpot by coming across “a million-dollar winning lottery ticket” (Valentine and Mongelli 2013). The New York State Gaming Commission honored his “Win $1,000 a Week for Life” scratch card. It is ironic that good fortune is masked in the detritus of this deluge, one that is only uncovered by the Salvadoran’s labor. There is astonishment, too, at seeing a Salvadoran presence of fortune rather than misfortune—a warming up, for a brief moment, to a U.S. Central American body. But if the Salvadoran perpetuates the continuous myth of winning, it’s worth recollecting that the lottery houses more losers.
Even so, an arbitrariness emerges through trash, paper scraps, and the New York sweepstakes. The scrappy migrant is no longer figurative rubbish, as the waste he encounters in his routine work produces a miracle story. The LatinX hand with the LatinX eye excavates this LatinX moment. But the landscaper must first go through the trash to change his luck. He receives attention not for his skills, but because his riches, amidst chaos, have turned him into a valuable American. Life has suddenly been made easier. This gathering-zone presents a different “origin” for the Salvadoran migrant, or a new AmericanX remade by—and in—disaster. His AmericanXness and LatinXness have an atypical beginning. A new AmericanX myth and a new LatinX figure are inaugurated through two unwanted U.S. subject matters: climate change and the omnipresent Latino/a migrant. Climatological and American excess produce this odd yet fantastic LatinX occurrence: literal junk and the otherwise “illegal” migrant mute into scattered, unmanageable stuff.
Miller writes that “just as every climate projection show[s] more environmental crisis, market projections for homeland security reveal a world where Big Brother will continue to dominate” (2017, 109). With shrinking resources—and in a twenty-first century planet of “Category 6 winds, ravaging fires, devouring seas, and parched landscapes”—environmental crises, surveillance, and barricaded parts of the world “are poised to become a part of people’s everyday lives in ways that they have never been before” (Miller, 109). The Category 6 designation is used “as an unofficial category given to a hurricane so powerful that it breaks the scale”: it is a label that attempts to grasp “the vast planetary changes” from 2017 alone (Yoder 2017). Border enforcement is the evidence of a browning that is out of hand. The Mesoamerican corridor is on the radar as “a major area of homeland security risk,” because “more frequent severe droughts and tropical storms, especially in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean could increase population movements, both legal and illegal, toward or across the U.S. border” (69).
At the turn of the twenty-first century, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano penned an op-ed titled, “An SOS from the South,” where he avowed, “Central America will soon count its trees like a bald man counts the hairs on his head” (2002). Central America’s Northern Triangle is not generally viewed as the bearer of good tidings and has been facing a severe drought. Known as the Dry Corridor—or, in Spanish, Corredor Seco—this area is mainly on the Pacific littoral and extends from Chiapas, Mexico, to Panama. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are recognized as a central part of this Dry Corridor, housing about 10.5 million people. As Miller resonantly puts it, the Dry Corridor is “ground zero for global warming’s impact in the Americas” (2017, 75). Environmental writers John R. Wennersten and Denise Robbins clarify that “the Dry Corridor is cut off from ocean humidity by mountain ranges in the Caribbean, which create a rain shadow. The region experiences dry seasons that last longer than those in surrounding areas and is vulnerable to drought when its already short rainy season is reduced by El Niño—or by climate change” (2017, 107).
El Faro recounted that the drought made it impossible to grow corn, beans, and rice: the main staples of a Central American diet. Take note of these 2015 figures shared by the renowned Salvadoran digital publication: “In Guatemala, some 300,000 families are affected, in El Salvador more than 100,000 producers, in Nicaragua there’s a water shortage and basic crops have been lost, as in Costa Rica, where hundreds of cattle died in the country’s north and $250 million dollars were lost in agricultural exports.” “We are facing an unprecedented calamity,” is how the Honduran mayor of Texiguat characterized his environment (Leiva 2015). Texiguat is a municipality on the Dry Corridor with 12,000 residents, of which 80 percent live in extreme poverty.
Per the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the region has undergone “one of the worst droughts of the last ten years with over 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance,” a meteorological pattern that will affect food and nutrition security (“Drought in the Dry Corridor of Central America” n.d.). More than that, the Dry Corridor’s area may be expanding. In Honduras, it “has nearly tripled in size over the past three decades,” covering almost 45 percent of national territory, whereas previously the Corredor Seco was “limited to the extreme south of the country, near the Nicaraguan border” (Wennersten and Robbins 2017, 110). Writer Lauren Markham disseminated Central American figures from Climatelinks, a project of the United States Agency for International Development, in a New York Times op-ed. “The average temperature in El Salvador has risen 2.34 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s,” she revealed, “and droughts have become longer and more intense. The sea has risen by three inches since the 1950s, and is projected to rise seven more by 2050. Between 2000 and 2009, 39 hurricanes hit El Salvador, compared with 15 in the 1980s. This, too, is predicted to get worse” (2018).
Journalistic boilerplates of the migrant caravan exodus focused on Northern Triangle individuals who were fleeing, as Associated Press journalist Sonia Perez D. referenced it, “widespread poverty, lack of opportunity, and rampant gang violence as their motivation” (2019). The Guardian zeroed in on another underlying layer—“The Unseen Driver behind the Migrant Caravan: Climate Change”—forcing farmers off their land in countries like Honduras, the world’s third largest coffee producer. Unpredictable weather patterns and the climate change-related roya fungus—or, coffee rust disease—have impelled farmers to “first migrate to urban areas, where they confront a new set of problems, which in turn prompt them to consider an international odyssey” (Milman, Holden, and Agren 2018; Visram 2018).
“A warming climate has allowed the coffee rust to spread to plants in higher elevations” in Honduras, the Washington Post made known, “and farmers have to invest in medicines to keep their plants healthy” (Leutert 2018). It usually takes up to three years for coffee trees to mature, and, for coffee workers, this means not being able to earn income for three years (Visram 2018). Writer John Washington and photographer Tracie Williams delineated that besides Northern Triangle migrants, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Somalis, Cameroonians, and Brazilians, among others, were joining the U.S.-bound exodus and seeking asylum (Washington and Williams 2018). Given the projected numerosities of climate refugees by 2050, “a new international framework will be needed to accommodate them”—one that centers on “the needs of displaced people, rather than their exact reason for leaving” (Milman, Holden, and Agren 2018).
Farmers—campesinos, or “earth workers,” who “survive exclusively on the fruits of the earth” (Andréu 2014)—are among the thousands of families “who have to do miracles to eat, to stretch a few eggs, beans, and tortillas” (Peña 2016). Recall here, too, Maya groups like Guatemala’s Mam population, whose elders teach their families and communities how to till their land based on a precise knowledge of the weather. This traditional know-how is becoming more and more of a challenge, as “the climate is dramatically changing,” and small family farms—or, milpas—are turning out to be unproductive (Fernandes 2018). There are no markets in some of these indigenous towns. These families’ daily meals come directly from the milpa, and since “the subsistence farming isn’t providing enough to feed” them, “chronic malnutrition is a grave risk for small children” (Fernandes 2018). A primary school teacher in a Guatemalan village stressed that “learning is a real challenge because many of his littlest students are malnourished” (Fernandes). A Harvard University study cautioned that as climate change worsens, the world’s food supply will be less nutritious due to rising carbon-dioxide levels (Medek, Schwartz, and Myers 2017). By 2050, the scientific research concluded, 1.4 billion people will be in peril of protein deficiency, an estimate that includes “613.6 million people at risk in sub-Saharan Africa, 276.4 million in India, 131.7 million in Eastern and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, 84.4 million in Central Latin America and the Caribbean, and 77.8 million elsewhere in South Asia” (Medek, Schwartz, and Myers).
As Galeano imparted, “The greater the amount of farmland in the world that goes to rack and ruin, the more fertilisers and pesticides have to be used” (Galeano 2002). News stories from a few years back encapsulate these emergencies exacerbated by the lack of rain. A 2014 lead in Reuters bore the headline, “Drought Leaves up to 2.81 Mln Hungry in Central America—U.N.” (Palencia), while a 2016 article pronounced, “El Salvador Declares Drought Emergency for First Time Ever” (Reuters Staff). This drying—pegged as a “silent crisis” (del Rincón 2015)—“could descend into drought-fueled conflicts at any moment” in parts of Central America and Mexico, as a Columbia University ocean and climate physicist put it (Bawden 2015). FAO calculations from 2016 found that 1.6 million people faced food insecurity in the Dry Corridor and that 3.5 million individuals needed humanitarian assistance (FAO 2016). The dry weather—“leav[ing] humanity homeless” (Galeano 2002)—is regarded as the main reason Central Americans are fleeing the isthmus: “because of hunger and a lack of food than over fears of crime and gang violence,” as the Miami Herald summed it up (Welsh 2017). But there is not just literal hunger. Non-figurative thirst arises, too. Drought and hunger-driven migration become “‘the ultimate coping strategy’ [. . .] an option people turn to when they have no other choice” (Welsh).
Central American mobilities can be grasped through a new logic of expulsion, as Sassen deems it (2014). These expulsions can “range from elementary policies to complex institutions, systems, and techniques that require specialized knowledge and intricate organizational formats” (2014, 2). Sassen elucidates, “What marks the specificity of our current period is that we have extracted so many resources from our planet and pushed so many people and whole communities off their land to do so, that this extractive logic is now becoming highly visible. This extractive mode has also generated new types of migrations. And it is not clear to me how this all ends, but it can’t be very good” (Sassen and Torino 2017). The inequalities exacerbated by extractive modes might signify that the acceleration of environmental destruction can have serious implications for those in the Northern Triangle engaged in indigenous land rights.
Honduras, to an exceptional degree, holds the “inglorious ranking” as the deadliest nation in the world “for environmental and land activists, particularly those from indigenous groups” (Lakhani 2016; Watts 2015). Berta Cáceres—a Honduran indigenous and environmental rights campaigner and recipient of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s leading award honoring grassroots environmentalists—was murdered in 2016 for her “high-profile campaigns against dams, illegal loggers, and plantation owners” (Watts 2016). After receiving the Goldman Prize, Cáceres stated in an interview that environmental activists are at great “risk because they are up against powerful political and economic interests who have grown used to exploiting their land with impunity” (Watts 2015).
She added: “These are centuries-old ills, a product of domination. There is a racist system in place that sustains and reproduces itself. The political, economic, and social situation in Honduras is getting worse and there is an imposition of a project of domination, of violent oppression, of militarisation, of violation of human rights, of transnationalisation, of the turning over of the riches and sovereignty of the land to corporate capital, for it to privatise energy, the rivers, the land; for mining exploitation; for the creation of development zones” (Watts 2015). Cáceres’s body stands contrary to the Honduran “natural” order established by the government and corporate goals. Her body, it can be said, is in the way. It is not sufficient to merely expel it from the land. It must be deprived of life itself, much like the land, or, in few words, dead bodies for the Northern Triangle’s “dead land.” To consult Sassen: a surge of foreign land acquisitions means that “more land and water need to be acquired to replace what has died” (2014, 149).
With 2050 close at hand, we are approaching a point—as these forecasts and violence of the present moment attest to—where displacement will continue to become a normal. There is an increasing LatinX population and a decreasing place for it to be. To summon philosopher Thomas Nail’s assertion, “with respect to movement, displacement is not a lack but a positive capacity or trajectory (even if the empirical outcome is not desirable)” (2015, 12). Globality and deracination attend to this other kind of mobility—a cognitive rebooting of sorts that amounts to a “translation” under Nail’s analytic gaze. It is an immediate making sense of the world as people attempt to cast their former understanding of themselves into the current moment more deeply.
The swift emergence of the untidy designation evinces that LatinX is happening—thriving—at this time. Its breakthrough has displaced the U.S. Latina and Latino labels. The otherworldliness of the here and now suggests that Latina and Latino continuity cannot be easily attached to LatinX’s magnitude. Think of it as a constellation of entirely different X ideas making spaces for uncertainties and tensions that are not reducible to ontological bodies. LatinX, as a symbolic nexus, questions conventional groupings of Latin, Latino/a, Latina/o, and Latin@.
To engage with the field of LatinX Studies is to observe and tackle a series of unfolding transitions precisely through that X: a shape-shifting X. This X is not so much what Latino/Latina/Latin “is,” but what and where it is moving toward, what it may become, and what it could inhabit. X as a transition—as a different genealogy—for this “Transition Era.”
This is a contemporary transition period that, environmentally speaking, dovetails with our X-ness of the now and that has not been properly or vividly captured by extant vocabulary—at least according to the President of Oxford Dictionaries. He explained that during the 2017 “Word of the Year” season, there was a scarcity of terms regarding environmental changes. “News cycles brimmed with coverage of permafrost and glaciers melting, the never-ending debate over climate change, and the devastating effects of hurricanes that battered islands and coasts alike,” he expressed. As their Word of the Year “process got underway we scoured the language corpora for a 2017 coinage giving voice to Mother Nature’s anguish and wrath. Alas. We may have talked until we were arctic blue in the face, but we found no evidence of a new or re-emerging word that embodies what’s happening to the Earth. Consider this a call to arms to all you self-styled neologists out there: coin that new word for ‘Mother Nature’s wrath.’ We need it!” (Grathwohl 2017). Do we have a crisis in meaning? Are we lexically unprepared and lack the inventiveness to brainstorm, sculpt, or synthesize into a unified entity this catastrophic moment (or, to formulate and culturally represent it in a way that merits the Oxford Dictionaries’ attention and recognition)? But even if this word is devised—and we engage with that exigent term—we may be bringing forward problems that we may be unwilling and psychically unready to grapple with.
Uncertainty about the business of living may dictate one’s trepidation in trying to create a new category for the global inescapableness of “Mother Nature’s wrath.” Sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard has tracked down how Norwegians who are knowledgeable of global warming distance themselves from its disastrous impact to evade the unsettling reactions emanating from this dark matter. Some in this Scandinavian country construct “boundaries of thought” and a “sense of normal everyday life” (2011, 5–6). The Norwegians interviewed—in Norgaard’s efforts to forge a nexus among thinking, feeling, and the process of emotion management vis-à-vis environmental information—“described fears about the severity of climate change, of not knowing what to do, that their way of life was in question, and that the government would not adequately handle the problem. They described feelings of guilt for their own actions and the difficulty of discussing the issue of climate change with their children” (9).
A “production of denial regarding global warming” turns up in Norway, whose population is “among the most educated and environmentally minded people in the world” and “especially attuned to their natural environment” (Norgaard 2011, 10, 14, 21). Norgaard noticed that reactions to global warming brought about “tensions between vulnerability and security in daily life.” This Norwegian community shed light on “a particularly pronounced tension between the known, ordered, safe universe of the town and the larger world around it. There was a desire to keep change out, including climate change, but nonlocal problems were sometimes hard to ignore” (21). That vibrant word pursued by the President of Oxford Dictionaries—whose perfected vocabulary will direct us to a new etymological narrative—may materialize anywhere. But perhaps the point in question is not that a word for “Mother Nature’s anguish and wrath” is out of the realm of one’s imagination. The vital concern may be that what is coming, in earthshaking extremes, is not clear. It may remain unfathomable to our current language, and we may not necessarily want to find out (see Beeler 2018).
Still, this era of formation through climatological anguish and wrath already exists. The global-scale and enduring transformations to the Earth’s prevailing state of affairs are being framed through the moniker Anthropocene—from the ancient Greek words anthropos, for “human being,” and kainos, for “recent, new”—which replaces the Holocene. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, and biologist Eugene F. Stoermer proposed this term in 2000. The Anthropocene signifies that the present geological era of degradation is one triggered by humans. The environmental outcomes on the Earth system are marked by human imprints on the planet, affecting “the world’s climate and biodiversity . . . its very geological structure, and not just for centuries, but for millennia” (Scranton 2015, 18). These key turning points are commonly grasped from the advent of the Industrial Revolution onward. The Anthropocene’s precise start date is much contested, and alternative references have been proposed. For Jason W. Moore, colossal ecological crises need to be tied to the violence and inequality produced by capitalism, what he dubs “Capitalocene” (2015). Yet as a “geopolitical event,” the Anthropocene is a resourceful concept for environmental shifts as it attempts to capture the role of humans in the natural world—excavating, as historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz assert, “how we got to this point” and “what is to be done” (2015, 24, 49).
The Anthropocene has antecedents. Theories of ecology, evolution, and biogeography have circulated as far back as the nineteenth century, or earlier—and with LatinX America as a stimulating naturalistic site (see Jackson 2009). German scientist, explorer, naturalist, and polymath Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769–1859) insightful acuity conceptualized ecological relationships where climate was deemed an interconnected tapestry of landmass, altitude, weather, and oceans (Toomey 2016). Von Humboldt’s expedition from 1799–1804 throughout Spanish colonial territories (today’s Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba)—“penetrating deep into lands where few Europeans had ever gone before”—molded his idea of the web of life, or more generally, a vision of nature as we know it (Wulf 2016, 7). “When nature is perceived as a web,” science-writing biographer Andrea Wulf proffers, “its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel” (6).
Von Humbolt created a metaphoric unity between natural architecture—the web—and the environment writ large. Conceptual artist Mark Dion, recognized for his use of scientific presentations in his installations, maintains that von Humboldt instigates the notion “of the importance of moving through the landscape as a way of knowing” (Bilger and Rangel 2014, 101). His unified view of nature was bound by local and global scales—or, “global vegetation and climate zones”—laying down defining components that “helped create modern environmentalism” (Toomey 2016). Von Humbolt’s approach, for Dion, makes him “‘Scientist as everything’: scientist as storyteller, scientist as adventurer, scientist as cosmologist, scientist as celebrity, scientist as educator, etc.” (Bilger and Rangel 2014, 94). Present-day “ecologists, environmentalists, and nature writers rely” on his outlook, “although most do so unknowingly,” as Wulf notes (2016, 9). Von Humboldt’s charting of biological terra incognita is based on the “understudied” LatinX (see Rebok 2014). Unwittingly, this is a LatinX “beginning” through foreign material, distant landscapes, and life forms. LatinX is working through an understanding of nature as nature—or, rather, through our spiraling catastrophic relationship to nature, a simple survival instinct.
Climatological changes and LatinX spaces propel us to find a vocabulary for the unprecedented events of our time. Transitional processes, different in magnitude, are marked by changes that, as 2050 signals, range from minority to majority, from green earth to brown earth, from one space to another, from a complete body to a vanishing one, from Latino/a to LatinX. Transitions can occur suddenly and with little preparation: the Xs of exits, entries, and reentries. Transitional Xs are passing by and passing through Latin constellations. Transitions convey textual and cognitive movement. They proceed from one meaning to another, tracing ongoing thoughts in transition, adrift, perhaps, but on their way to becoming substantive expressions of thought.
This salient X could very well be the most powerful conceptual point of our moment, a matrix offering a way to tinker with the unfathomable and the unfamiliar. While on the subject of the “familiar,” how does ontological brownness for U.S. Latinas and Latinos transition at this moment in time? Is ecological devastation releasing us from a brownness that is primarily summoned as representative of the Latin body? Climatic change is a more sophisticated understanding for the transitions that are happening to the environment—turning things, nations, and thronging masses into something unintelligible, or something else.
Whereas once we may have been thinking merely of migrations and increasing populations, we now have complete dislocations of “Latinness” and “Latin” individuals: an unrecognizable LatinXness. What does LatinX look like through climate change? We can no longer point to Latin America as the source and supplier of Latinness—or, to the United States as another provenance of Latinness—if Latinness, as we know, localize, and ground it, may no longer exist.
Environmental uncertainty presents a situation where deracination is taking over in a powerful and bone-chilling way. The “-ness” suffix in LatinX—shaping and advancing an abstract noun that denotes a quality and state of being—gets it just about right. The unsettledness behind LatinXness points us to whether or not we have an appetite—or, desire—to investigate what we ascribe meaning to. LatinX is not about how squarely, how “rightly,” and how convincingly one fits into the Latino/a ontological category, but it is instead a marker of how one navigates the world.
LatinX’s profundity and unknowableness is our shared contemporary situation. The gender-neutral denomination germinates from online communities, an internet connectivity that circulates in everyday life and that simultaneously necessitates a physical space in the “real” world as well as the scholarly field of Latino/a Studies. I want to seize the implied obscure semiotics of the embraced “X” at the end of “Latin” and deliver it to other assemblages: the X of the unknown quantity of dark brown people hailing from the “Latin” world that is Central America’s Northern Corridor. It is an X trying to come to terms with this new Central American age. This slippery and restless X is, and is not, ontological. The Northern Corridor’s X-ness codes these X-bodies, one where the denial and rejection of global warming, the condemnation of the immigrant, and the abjection and socioeconomic inequality of the Central American all converge. Surveillance must be magnified for these omnifarious Xs—a vigilance indexed by Miller as “militarized borders, armed guards, [. . .] incarceration, and forced expulsions” (2017, 90).
These Central American migrants are, in a manner of speaking, discursively disfigured bodies in dangerous opposition to the U.S. citizenry’s public welfare. A climatological disfigurement affects, if not alters, laboring bodies under extreme heat in humid areas. Approximately 20,000 inhabitants, whose métier lies in farming, sugarcane fields, fishing, or construction, in El Salvador’s Bajo Lempa region, for instance, have been diagnosed with a new form of chronic kidney disease spreading through Central America and southern Mexico (Palmer 2017; see PBS NewsHour 2018). An article from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health expounded that El Salvador “has the highest overall mortality from kidney disease in the world (with Nicaragua and Honduras also included in the 10 highest countries)” (Ramirez-Rubio et al. 2013, 1). The cause of this kidney failure is undetermined, science journalist Jane Palmer highlights, but it is noteworthy that “the areas that have the highest solar radiation and heatwaves” coincide with “the places right where the epidemics are” (Palmer 2017).
The “unusual phenomenon,” as National Public Radio described it, is also occurring in India and Sri Lanka. Cecilia Sorensen, who teaches at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said that “It’s very difficult to prove direct attribution and say this person is sick because of climate change. But what we can say is that this disease is occurring in parts of the world that are experiencing unprecedented warming, which we can attribute to climate change.” Sorensen notes while there may be “multi-factorial” causes, “this form of kidney failure is only happening in places that are hot and muggy—and getting hotter” (Beaubien 2019).
Heat stress and dehydration damage the kidneys. Climate experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, find that this “may well be one of the first epidemics because of global warming.” They “predict the kidney is going to be one of the prime targets as heat increases” (Palmer 2017). As Carson advanced in Silent Spring, “human health [. . .] ultimately reflect[s] the environment’s ills” (Lear 2002, xvi). The Dry Corridor’s agricultural workers are not just ailing bodies: they are “melting.”
These LatinX fragments have ostensibly adapted to this environmental temporality—a not so subtle hint of their present and future displacement. “This is really a silent massacre,” is how a Salvadoran kidney specialist described it (Palmer 2017). Central American bodies expose that to be in the Earth—and in this time—one is not a complete person, even as one tries to pick up the pieces of one’s life. They force us to think about the sacrifice that may go into this kind of translation and mobility of the everyday—its starting point, sequence of journeys, and no definitive return—a course that tries to recover from the devastation but may be at the point of no return.
The X Corridor
Central America’s “silent crisis” and “silent massacre” bring into being what we might understand as an X Corridor. Central American invisibility conjoins with the illusive climatological browning of the Earth that reinforces silence and an isolation of events. Perhaps more daunting is the possibility of a nearing silence activated by a contingent desertion of “all living things,” to purloin from Carson’s magnum opus ( 2002, 3). This X springs forth from disintegrating landscapes, human lives and bodies, and everyday existence: the poignant X of the Dry Corridor’s barrenness and desolation.
“The contemporary,” philosopher Giorgio Agamben posits, is one who perceives the darkness of one’s own time—a darkness that “never ceases to engage” (2009, 45). But this almost imperceptible X of “thick darkness” defies stagnancy, as the X being solicited is never fixed and may be “perpetually voyaging toward us” (46–47). “Our time, the present, is in fact not only the most distant: it cannot in any way reach us,” Agamben emphasizes. “Its backbone is broken and we find ourselves in the exact point of this fracture. This is why we are, despite everything, contemporaries” (47). The X’s unrest, all in all, “pulses . . . in the present” (50). Central America’s disruption demands a line of sight, an analytic capacity to see dark things that are far from linear and neat. The interference that X problems generate are getting larger and larger. The X has sundry intersections, cycles, and lives of its own.
LatinXs in Mesoamerica’s Dry Corridor are tackling new life forms. That X veers here to the Earth’s browning problem, which exceeds national borders. Consider the pseudonymously christened Flores twins, unaccompanied minors who flee their fictionally named Salvadoran hometown of La Colonia because of gang violence and death threats, as portrayed in Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers (2017). Markham amends the siblings’ names and Salvadoran neighborhood to protect their family from violent gang-related retribution. The identical brothers—“with their duplicate faces of fear,” with “the same problem and the same face” (115, 119)—narrowly escape, the narrative suggests, drought and food insecurity. Yet their new geography’s landscape—Oakland, California—paradoxically connects them to their farming family in Central America. Aboard public transportation one day, a sibling scrutinizes how the Oakland hillsides are “balding from thirst—the same drought, he knew, that was afflicting his family back in El Salvador” (221).
The twins’ father informs them that “sometimes there was no rain; sometimes the rain came at the wrong time,” and he goes out, now and then, “to the land to pray” (Markham 2017, 249). Mr. Flores reports that his summer tomato crop from 2016 “was bad, due to a problem he’d never seen before.” The tomatoes were “pallid in color, their skin a mottled orange-yellow” and “seen from far away, they were easily mistaken for citrus. He couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong” (249). The brownness of the earth had dulled the vegetable’s vibrancy, making it foreign to the Flores patriarch’s eyes. The thing once so common and within his control is now peculiar. From far away, the husbandman may recognize the tomato, but only as something else, just as from far away—farthest away, even—the brothers and their father are now more comparable to being LatinX.
Mr. Flores cannot fathom what his efforts have yielded. The problem is so big he cannot recognize it, despite the fact that he’s in the middle of it, and the evidence of the tomatoes’ edges is in front of him. It is the farmer who is wrong, not the earth, when it is humans who have now made the earth “wrong.” More daunting still is what may be happening to the Flores tract of land—or “dead land,” as Sassen propositions. “Once land cannot be used anymore to extract natural resources,” she bids, “it becomes invisible, even though it has a very visible material condition” (Sassen and Torino 2017). Ironically, the family’s last name, Flores, meaning flowers, appears as a surviving memorial of something past: a plant life that once blossomed.
The twins may have fled their nation’s gang violence, but the seemingly identical uncertainties in the climatological fluctuation of this brown stretch—of what comes with the brown earth—follows them to the North. As the Flores brothers attempt to navigate California, they endeavor to maneuver the Golden State’s brownness, one that is not too remote from El Salvador. This browning, at this juncture, is one’s home. A home of the unknown.
Literary scholar Steve Mentz writes that “we need brown but do not like looking at it. It is a color you cannot cover up, that will not go away.” He goes on to say, “A color you cannot see through, brown captures a connecting opacity at the heart of ecological thinking. It comes at us from both sides of our world, the living and the dead. Brown marks the fertile soil that plants consume and the fecal waste that animals reject” (2013, 193). The dark brownness coming at us signals an enmeshed Central American corporeality and environment that are not separated. They are paradoxically yoked through an ecological “living potential and dead excess” (207). “To be ecological is to be brown, disturbingly,” details Mentz (193). This brownness is not about being brown in a Latino or Latina sense as much as “being in the brown” (200). Being in this kind of brown means existing inescapably and almost uniformly in an assertive state of claiming the human and the world, when both seem beyond its bounds, and when one is invariably caught off guard by the increasing environmental crises at hand. Being within the brown is an out-of-control brownness, an earthly hue that is not so abstractly intimating what LatinX is becoming. When brownness will point, in 2050, to the desolation of the Earth, how does one handle brownness?
Being in the brown is—and is not—out of reach, as California’s 2017 massive fires exhibited, turning some of the Golden State’s neighborhoods into “piles of soot and concrete” (Chavez 2017). “What was once a paradise was like a war zone,” Jeannette Frescas, a Ventura, California, resident, told CNN. “At midnight, I woke up with a flashlight in my face,” she relayed. “I looked out my window and there were flames that were like, a hundred feet, all around us” (Chavez). In Sonoma and Napa counties, many LatinX undocumented workers that “tend vines, ferment wine, build homes, and feed tourists” were “among the worst hit by the fires that scorched over 190,000 acres and destroyed more than a dozen wineries.” Reuters confirmed that there was “a huge flood of Latino evacuees to the coast” (Randewich and Henderson 2017).
Undocumented LatinXness must, once again, take flight. A Sonoma County resident commented that Latina and Latino “folks just went right past those shelters and they tried to get, I think, as far away from the fire as possible, but also beyond institutional help, on purpose.” LatinX lives—being exigently in the brown—are beyond institutional recognition and assistance, for, in the end, what is the progression and the promise of a shared LatinX planetary life? The magnitude of LatinX activity is marked by inexhaustible capacity to start over and over.
X: The Time of Our Lives
Bengali Indian author Amitav Ghosh advances that climate change breaks up the distinction between the human and the natural. “What we see now,” he contemplates, “is an environment, a nonhuman world, which is completely animated by human actions. It’s the stuff we put into the atmosphere that is actually creating these incredible perturbations all around us, like Hurricane Sandy. They are not something that we could call ‘natural.’ They are something on which we have left our own fingerprints and they’re coming back to visit us in these ways” (Paulson 2017). Ghosh speaks of animation by human action: the impact it will have on ever-growing numerosities of people. What does a landscape look like when it is simulated and enlivened by humans?
LatinX gives us a preview of this transitory state of being—the direction where bodies are moving—and the spaces they occupy. To understand the natural we must use, as well, the unnatural—or, as Ghosh has it, employ a language or retrace “something that we would call ‘natural’”—something natural like.
Or maybe it is something like “Subject X,” a matter referencing the perceiving subject that “owes nothing to what we otherwise know about the world” and that recreates and reconstitutes “the world at each moment” (Merleau-Ponti 2012, 214). LatinX is pointing us to an explicit direction, where climate change, climatological migrations, and LatinX human existence all bombard us. They are vital to the activation of a LatinXness falling in and out of the ongoing new starts in life that this contemporary moment demands.
The browning of the Earth and the browning of the population are asymptotically approaching each other. They may never need to touch, but these two things are manifesting a meeting space: they are planetary residue, a lens for 2050 from where we can see a natural world through LatinX subjectivity. LatinX does not eclipse anything. It emerged at the dawning of the twenty-first century, spreading to this abrupt present when Latina and Latino conventional ways of being no longer seem viable and extend to an X-ness of being where abstract notions of the unnatural are concretized so that we can begin to apprehend what the natural is. Or can be.
From the World Wide Web to the Webs of Life, LatinX links a subjectivity. X is our inseparable axis, our periodizing logic. The X of adaptation, of proximity: not so much of “a coming together in time, but of times” (Cox and Lund 2016, 11). X as the world that we live in, that we wait for, that we struggle for.
The X of the unexpected. Changing the course of life events. X on the fly. Transmundane X. X as an unknow-it-all. Marking what we can or cannot assimilate. X bodies of thought thinking the unthinkable (see Scranton 2018; Trouillot 1995).
X as a helix ushering in the methodologically experimental. LatinX research of and in the moment, revealing how and what we process today. X of writing, rewriting, and reflecting. Giving substance and texture to this analytic yet irresolvable exploration.
X as your trajectory.
X as ___ .