7 Embracing Nepantla Amidst Midwestern Borderscapes in the Time of #45

Published on Latinx Talk on October 24, 2017

Gabriela Spears-Rico

Sign reading Resist Hate at 2017 March.
Photo credit: DC Women’s March by Liz Lemon. January 21, 2017. CC0 1.0

“The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” – Gloria Anzaldúa

Now more than ever, we the racialized, the bodies constructed as “illegal,” the undesirable children, the grotesquely fertile mujeres, the bad hombres, eternal aliens to a country we helped build and have sanitized with our sweat, we the field-workers to the population we feed, the servile class which manufactures commodities we can’t afford — we feel the herida abierta. 2017 has been open season to racially profile Latinxs as “suspiciously illegal.” In February when #45’s deportation efforts commenced, 680 people were detained across twelve states.[1] Among them were people who were checking in with immigration authorities, DREAMers, mothers and fathers without criminal records – folks who fit the mold of the “good immigrant.” This violence feels eerily familiar – it is like pouring salt on the herida abierta. We see, you #45! Feverishly competing with President Obama’s deportation machine, racing for the title of Deporter-In-Chief.

The xenophobia that provoked #45’s election has not been unknown in the U.S. Our mestizaje is the stuff that white supremacist nightmares are made of. Anti-Latinx racism, which relies on the perception of Latinxs as foreign, racially mixed “illegals,” is a driving force behind the deportation regime and behind inhumane immigration policies.[2]

Fear of the mongrel “Mexican race” has historically fed the hysteria about Latinx people tainting the WASP American racial fabric.[3] The language fueling #45’s victory with a sector of the white working class and white women demonstrates that the racialization of Latinxs that began with Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century persists today.

And it is more than ever apparent that none of us are safe. While la migra may have warrants for specific people, we are all being policed by both the deportation regime and by domestic white supremacist terrorism. This year’s deportation attempts shows us that our liberation is intertwined no matter our status. In 2017, DACA recipients and Latinxs who are U.S. citizens were arrested and held in ICE detention. Even Latinxs who supported #45 like Oceanside minister Jorge Ramirez are facing deportation.[4] As long as we’re racialized as a group, neither the status symbols we may have attained nor the strides we’ve made for social justice will spare us from being criminalized by ICE or help us appear more human before this administration. #45’s abhorrent response to Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria demonstrates that our racialization outweighs our humanity to this administration –even when we are U.S. citizens.[5]

As a dark-skinned Mexicana, I know as I navigate the Twin Cities and our adjoining suburbs that my privileges of having “papers,” middle-class status, and a Ph.D. do not exempt me from the impact of xenophobia and white supremacy. While I’ve typically dressed professionally in university settings, I have been mistaken as service staff at two Midwestern universities. At two Minnesota institutions where I provided customer service, white customers did not believe my answers until my white colleagues repeated the same responses to their questions. White co-workers often exchanged names and shook hands with each other while literally looking beyond me. In the pool of Minnnesota Niceness, I often feel like I’m swimming against the current to prove my humanity.[6]

As a transplant to the Midwest, I know that Minnesota Nice does not keep my family or me safe. I was unable to call upon it for salvation on election night when fireworks celebrating #45’s victory awakened my daughter, and the fear of violence terrified me. And at the performance of West Side Story at the St Paul Ordway, I heard the audience repeatedly laugh at the cast’s utterances of the word “spic” without inclusion of context for the slur or a Latinx critique of the play’s portrayal of Puerto Ricans in the program. Unfortunately, my Chicanx/Latinx students experienced the same unwelcoming treatment last fall when the College Republicans painted the words “Build the Wall” on a bridge that runs through the University of Minnesota.

The truth is that as Latinxs who inhabit predominantly white spaces, we navigate our privilege and our Latinidad with an awareness of the precarity of our inclusion. Ignoring racism can be as psychologically damaging as the overt white supremacist violence that Nathan Gustavson and his three friends inflicted by shooting Black Lives Matters protestors during the 4th precinct takeover caused by the police shooting of Jamar Clarke.[7] I also recognize that as Latinxs, we have made a convenient wager with whiteness, sometimes strategically buying into anti-Blackness as Officer Jeronimo Yanez did when he defended his actions in killing Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and her child.

We must realize that even in a place with a triangulated racial landscape like Minnesota, striking a deal with a whiteness that still views us as others will not spare our humanity. A quick look at the Facebook page of any local news outlet reveals multiple statements against people of color and racist stereotyping of Black, Latinx, Asian, Muslim, and Native people by Minnesotans, such as “concerns” over a Muslim takeover, Black inferiority, and immigrant leeches. These are our neighbors, doctors, teachers, attorneys, fellow bus-riders, and restaurant goers who are as threatened by our presence as Samuel Huntington was when he wrote Who Are We?[8]

In the midst of facing a new deportation regime, we can weaponize our hybridity and mestizaje to resist. For Gloria Anzaldúa, mestizx subjectivity is productive and powerful due to its ability to live in nepantla.[9] The neplanterxs’ productivity can be illustrated by their ability to be border-crossers and bridge-builders. As she states, “Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries…Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of ‘home.’”[10]

In other words, during a time when our bodies are read as trangressively hybrid and criminal regardless of where we live in the country (or what we do), –“to live in the borderlands means you[11] — being 2,000 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border does not allow Midwestern Latinxs to escape the racialization attached to our perceived illegality. I propose that owning our intersectionality as powerful, our mestizaje as cultural capital, and our hybridity as a means to defend our humanity counters the notion that living in/with the herida abierta is crippling. We can use our liminality as mestizx to practice nepantlerismo – to inhabit our privileged spaces as coyote tricksters and scholar-activists who employ the privileges we are granted to limit the deportation regime.

Because we are all targets and it is our neighbors, primxs, tias and friends who are being hauled off, we must not comply with the deportation machine. We must question it at every moment, document its violence and shortcomings, and resist being bystanders. In Minneapolis, we can look towards the admirable actions of Boricua artist Ricardo Levins Morales when he questioned a police officer’s authority to ask a Latino passenger on the lightrail about his immigration status. Morales stayed with the targeted man, recorded the conversation with the officer, and posted the story to social media.[12] In that spirit, I encourage us to be the coyote border-crossers and liminal neplanterxs that defy the borderscapes.

Being deemed as “illegal” during a time when our greatest aggressors are pardoned, while our children are told not to dream, means that we need to intentionally resist. It calls us to become traffickers in freedom, traffickers of la palabra, dealers of scholarship that empowers and exposes during a time of silencing and censorship. As a neplanterx collective, we can limit the racialization that profits from the violence committed against our bodies—one that relies on our construction as racial others and continues to question our humanity.


Dr. Gabriela Spears-Rico is a cultural anthropologist and an Assistant Professor of Chicanx Latinx Studies with a joint appointment in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. A Purépecha/Matlatzinca scholar and poet, Spears-Rico earned her B.A. from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Comparative Ethnic Studies from the University of California at Berkeley.


  1. Elise Foley. “Trump Deportation Raids Pick Up More than 680 People, Government Says,” The Huffington Post, February 13, 2017.
  2. For further reading on the relationship between the racialization of Latinx people and immigration policy, see Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond, (New York: Routledge, 2010); Lynn Stephens, Transborder Lives, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Kelly Little Hernandez., Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010).
  3. See Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).
  4. Kate Morrisey, “Oceanside Minister supported Trump, now he faces deportation,” The San Diego Tribune, June 30, 2017.
  5. After San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz publicized a call for help for Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria, President Trump said that Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them,” called Mayor Cruz "nasty," trivialized the death toll in Puerto Rico after Maria, and threw rolls of paper towels at Puerto Ricans affected by the hurricane. These events and #45’s use of language toward Puerto Ricans are replete with racist undertones towards Latinxs, including stereotypes of our unsanitariness, laziness, and the notion that our deaths (even those of Latinxs who are American citizens) are not as noteworthy as the deaths of others. See Daniella Diaz and Eli Watkins, “San Juan Mayor: I hope Trump Stops ‘Spouting Out’ Comments That Hurt Puerto Rico’s People,” CNN, October 3, 2017; Alexia Fernandez, “Donald Trump Throws Paper Towels At Hurricane Maria Survivors As He Tours Devastated Puerto Rico,” People, October 3, 2017.
  6. For further reading on the Latinx experience in Minnesota, see The Latina/o Midwest Reader, ed. Omar Valerio-Jiménez, Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, and Claire F. Fox, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017).
  7. Brandt Williams, “Jamar Clarke’s protest shooter’s friend pleads guilty,” MPR News, June 12, 2017.
  8. Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, (London: Simon & Schuster, 2005).
  9. a Nahuatl term referencing the space of in-betweeness
  10. Gloria Anzaldúa. “(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Spaces” in This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, ed. AnaLouise Keating and Gloria Anzaldua, (New York: Routledge, 2002),1.
  11. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987), 194.
  12. Janet Moore, “Cellphone Video Prompts Metro Transit Investigation of Officer’s Immigration Query,” Star Tribune, May 20, 2017.