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Settling accounts: Latin American rage reaches the US

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Thursday, 28 August 2008


Despite the best spin on the benefits of neoliberal accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by sections of the US press, large numbers of Mexicans and Latin Americans have been illegally heading north due to poor employment opportunities at home.

In 2004, after ten years of the NAFTA agreement, open unemployment in Mexico "reached an all-time high" according to one expert, while "there are more illegal immigrants pouring into the United States than ever".

Likewise, the US has had to deal with the ramifications of having backed numerous brutal right-wing military dictatorships in Central America from the 1960s and 1970s, through to the early 1990s.

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Largely composed of war refugees’ children, the 1990s saw an explosion of violent Hispanic gangs - commonly known as “maras” - throughout the United States; a situation that was further aggravated once harsh immigration laws saw their deportation to Central America.

From 2000 to 2004 alone, the US deported about 20,000 young Hispanics with criminal records to Central America while in 2005, US authorities place membership of the maras at 70,000 to 100,000.

One voice which has captured some of these developments is the Afro-Peruvian Hip Hop artist Felipe Coronel - a.k.a. Immortal Technique. Born in Lima, Peru at the end of the 1970s, Technique and his family eventually fled from their war torn country. Growing up in Spanish Harlem, like countless youths Technique became involved in street violence and was incarcerated at the end of the 1990s.

After legally defeating a potentially long prison stretch, the man that emerged from penitentiary made the world notice his rage.

Releasing Revolutionary Volume 1 in 2001, Technique was described by The Source magazine as one of the most talented rappers to be unsigned by a major label. With songs like "The Poverty of Philosophy", the rapper questioned the inability of some Latinos in the United States to envision their native countries as prosperous, independent of US intervention and with elites of European heritage whose power has been stripped:

You see, most of Latinos are here because of the great inflation that was caused by American companies in Latin America. Aside from that, many are seeking a life away from the puppet democracies that were funded by the United States; places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Republica Dominicana, and not just Spanish-speaking countries either, but Haiti and Jamaica as well.

As different as we have been taught to look at each other by colonial society, we are in the same struggle and until we realize that, we'll be fighting for scraps from the table of a system that has kept us subservient instead of being self-determined. And that's why we have no control over when the embargo will stop in Cuba, or when the bombs will stop dropping in Vieques.

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His second album, through an independent label Revolutionary Volume 2, condemned the Bush administration's “war on terror”. And earlier this year, he again went on the warpath releasing his third album The 3rd World. Again, he does not hold fire:

I’m from where the gold and diamonds are ripped from the earth
Right next to the slave castles where the water is cursed
From where police brutality's not half as nice
It makes the hood in America look like paradise
Compared to the AIDS infested Caribbean slum
African streets where the passport's an American gun
From where they massacre people and try to keep it quiet
And spend the next 25 years trying deny it.

As with all of Technique’s work, The 3rd World presents provocative political-social commentary while prison life, although explicitly described, is hardly glorified.

Last year in the United States, another Hispanic tried to remind that society of some of its legacy in Latin America. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the author Junot Díaz writes about the tribulations of a poor immigrant Dominican family in Paterson, New Jersey whose past has been devastated by Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship.

Using humour, sarcasm and cross cultural references to cover numerous themes, Díaz, like Technique, is not afraid to use colourful and explicit language to indite Washington's record in the Dominican Republic, his country of origin.

Whether poor Hispanics in the US will ever mobilise to the point of seriously challenging many injustices in their current society - as millions are starting to in Latin America through the election of numerous leftist governments - voices such as those of Immortal Technique or Junot Díaz are attempting to, as we say in Spanish, rendir cuentas (settle accounts).

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First published in ABC's Unleashed on August 20, 2008.



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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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