Lisa Flores, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has a forthcoming book that takes a close look at the United States’ rhetoric around the Bracero program. In February, she came to UWM and delivered a talk titled “The Promise of Race and the Whiteness of Nation: Rhetorical Dynamics of Immigration” in which she framed her rhetorical analysis of this time period.
In 1942 the United States signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement with Mexico, an agreement that basically categorized Mexican farm laborers as imports. This series of laws is known and remembered as the Bracero program. It was originally intended to fill the gap that opened in the labor force during WWII but the US continued to “import” Mexican laborers until 1964, long after WWII ended.
Before I summarize her argument, I want to point out the importance of Flores’ research and how it intersects with the work we’re doing in our course. All semester long, implicit and explicitly, we have read, noticed, and discussed the violence English has participated in with colonization. This violence can be seen in the history of “manifest destiny” wherein the US literally stole land from indigenous people with barbaric force, but it can also be seen in the way we deploy English-only laws, standardized curriculums, and the stigmatizing and criminalization of Splanglishes. This violence can also be seen, quite literally, in the way the US’s current administration talks about Mexican people. The current US president was born 20 years before the Bracero program was terminated. The effect of the rhetoric Flores studies is alive and well in the US, pumping more violence and imperialism into contemporary American discourse and politics, further colonizing and dehumanizing our Latinx populations.
Lisa Flores analyzed American ad campaigns soliciting Mexican laborers. Advertisements appealed to laborers, yes, but they also appealed to businesses and “citizens” to comfort them. Ads targeted to Mexican men offered promises of prosperity and good living conditions. Ads appealing to business owners showcased Mexican laborers as happy and hard-working contributions to their enterprise. And ads appealing to “citizens” promised the sustenance of nation and, also, showcased Mexican laborers as happy neighbors, here to help in the enterprise of building a nation.
This is where Flores’ analysis takes shape. She borrows from Sara Ahmed and argues that the US characterized Mexican laborers as “happy objects.” Ahmed explains her concept of “happy objects” in her book The Promise of Happiness—the similarity with Flores’ talk’s title is noteworthy. For Ahmed, a happy object contains the promise of a happy future. If it makes your skin crawl for people to refer to other people as an object, you’re not alone. But, ultimately Flores argues that the US’s rhetoric treated Mexican laborers as “happy objects” to uphold notions of white supremacy and nationalism. To dehumanize is to gain rhetorical power.
Where do we see that happening today?
The US is currently in a crisis wherein we can’t decide how to protect and support people who want to live here, who regard this soil as home. Our Latinx people, our Dreamers, our DACA recipients are not given the full category of citizenship. This violent term continues to be used to dehumanize and colonize populations on US soil. American discourse about our Latinx population has gone from “happy objects” to dangerous criminals and Lisa Flores’ research shows how the one ultimately led to the other.