University of Minnesota Students, Faculty, Staff, and Her Campus Readers,
Anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx rhetoric has figured prominently in the current presidential election. This speech was recycled in the University of Minnesota’s annual “Paint the Bridge” event when a registered student organization adopted Donald Trump’s slogan, “Build the wall.” We write to express our outrage at this xenophobia. We are advocates of freedom of speech, but we consider this statement to reflect more than just a preference for one political candidate over another. It is a barely covert racist message that explicitly targets Mexican nationals. Stated as a command, it does not represent free speech so much as it creates a threatening and hostile environment for immigrants (documented and/or undocumented), anyone of Mexican descent, and anyone subject to racial profiling. This incident reflects growing anti-Latinx rhetoric and is arguably an example of hate-speech.
While some may see the “build the wall” rhetoric as simply a policy position, history bears out that the notion of “illegal alien” invented in the twentieth century was applied using long-standing anti-Mexican sentiment that also justified segregation and other forms of systemic exclusion. The targeting of this and the larger Latinx population continues, as according to the Pew Research Center in 2010, 97% of all unauthorized immigrant removals are from Latin American countries even though these migrants make up only 81% of the undocumented population. These removals have historically led to the expulsion of U.S. citizens of Latin American descent—many of them children—and uprooted families to impair the broader Latinx community that consists of a diversity of statuses including citizens, documented residents, and undocumented.
The Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota joins in solidarity with students, departments, and offices speaking against this public message. We feel it is important, particularly as faculty and instructors of Chicano and Latino Studies, to name these speech-acts as inherently violent and to speak against that violence. The field of Chicano and Latino Studies emerged at the University of Minnesota from protests by students, faculty, staff, and community leaders fighting for culturally relevant curriculum and research. Our disciplinary tradition insists on a social justice framework and commitment, both locally and nationally. It is in this spirit we are compelled to address this issue, bringing awareness to our local community.
President Kaler’s statement about this incident dismisses this rhetoric as free speech, but given the current state of race relations, it is (and was meant to be) incendiary and as such requires that it be addressed by the university through substantive discussion and action. The university’s response fails to recognize the inherent violence within this slogan. This is at least the second incident in the past couple of years coming from white-dominated student organizations (please recall the “Galactic Fiesta”) and signals an increasingly hostile environment for our community as well as other communities of color. This incident, like the Galatic Fiesta, was held within an officially sanctioned university event/project. The university should ensure that the campus is a safe and welcoming place for Latinx students, faculty, and staff. These racial micro-aggressions take a great social and emotional toll upon our Latinx faculty, staff, and students. They are damaging an already underfunded and understaffed department. It is incredibly wearisome to constantly fight for basic respect and dignity, especially under a racial climate that is anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant. Latinx faculty find it increasingly challenging to teach a white student majority that has shown to be antagonistic to our very presence.
The ignorance and hate encapsulated by the “Paint the Bridge” mural reflects the dire need for further support of the work we do and thus emphasizes the importance of continued investment in Ethnic Studies departments, and Chicano and Latino Studies in particular. We believe open political discourse is critical for the democratic process. As scholars and activists on and off campus we encourage our students to engage in healthy and respectful debate. However, the racist and xenophobic language on the mural discourages open communication and generates a climate of hatred precisely in the educational space where we would most expect fruitful argumentation. These incidents further highlight the necessity of Ethnic Studies and social justice oriented curriculums.
We demand that the University do more than speak out, but actively take responsibility for the racist and xenophobic climate that is being fostered in this public space. We live in a heightened hostile and racist climate in which hate crimes against Latinx, Muslims, Sikhs, and other people of color, not to mention LGBTQ people, have increased during this year’s presidential election campaign. This speech is an incitement to violence. While free speech is an important value at the University, it is not the paramount value of the University of Minnesota. In fact, the University has stated its commitment to being an institution committed to diversity and equity. In stating its support for racist rhetoric in public spaces without any actions to counter the climate, the University has failed in its responsibilities to uphold values other than free speech. It has abstained from taking responsibilities for the cost of free speech. The subsequent hostility will be borne by Latinx students, staff, and faculty, by immigrants and refugees, and generally by people of color on campus; many of us will spend endless hours trying to ameliorate the degraded conditions of the University. We also must ask, “free speech for whom”? Exclusionary speech in a highly unequal context – when framed as “free” – amounts to protections for the powerful in the course of inciting symbolic violence. There are many actions that the University could do instead of sitting on the side and letting hate speech dominate. Where is the support for Chicano and Latino Studies? Where is the teach-in or forum about immigration? Where is the support for Latinx students, staff, and faculty from the entire University? Where are the buttons, banners, and statements of support for those who are the targets? Instead, we received a statement and inaction which in effect supports the harmful speech. When will the University take responsibilities for and action to support the values, besides free speech, it espouses?
Latino Faculty and Staff Association
Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted by the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies on behalf of all of the authors and allies listed above. If you would like to share your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding the “Build The Wall Mural,” please do so here.