Finding and Building Ivy Home(lands) - Salvador Herrera

Family was my first home: two hardworking and loving parents who put a roof over my head, and helped me distinguish my “ears” from my “eyes” and “nose.” My younger sister arrived four years later, a month before my Star Wars-themed birthday. We later got a puppy. He is a small Yorkshire terrier with more personality than the average college student. When I think about home, these are the initial images that my mind draws up.

But how might we have come to be, and what is “home” exactly? My ancestral roots appear as a tangled mess when I try to trace my way back to Puerto Rico and Mexico. My own memory only started collecting stories at the end of the 20th century. These imperatives beget another set of questions: from where exactly do I hail? What titles do I bear, and how do I align with or stray from the legacy of my forefathers? What does my mixed-blood signify, if anything? The truth is that I may never know, as family trees stop short for people like me — I can only offer the fable-less tales of a hybrid nomad as I spin the story of my creation and being. I am neither Boricua nor Chicano. My sister and I called each other Mexiricans growing up. During the summer, we would head over to la frutería and buy a few cans of Kola Champagne y elotes from the cart outside. If I did well on my report card, my father would buy me a luchador mask from another vendor on the corner. My mom was always uneasy about letting us go to Humboldt Park for the annual parade.

The city was my second home: I was born and raised in Chicago. Don't call it “ChiRaq,” because you probably wouldn't know a war-zone from a scuffle. The land I was born in is rooted in a history of racialized geopolitics that have segregated the city, and driven today's violence to its modern heights. My home was purposefully fractured before I was born, formerly inhabited by the Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomie, Ottawa, Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo nations. It is a microcosm of the entirety of American history; the untold stories of this land are waiting to erupt on the revolutionary scene, “crystalized as a monad,” in the words of Walter Benjamin.[1] Media reports of violence only scratch the surface of this cursed gem as they highlight gang nations to the level of their notoriety. Inside the city lies so much beauty and culture shared between the various nation-neighborhoods that the Chicagoan populous has formed.

My third home was school: opportunities, determination, good fortune, and caring teachers propelled me from an underserved elementary school to the top high school in Illinois. I was then accepted into the diverse, challenging, and exciting climate of an Ivy League institution. At Cornell University, I had to quickly learn how to adapt to various systems, working within them to advance myself and others like me. These tests fed my drive and desire for knowledge. Quite frankly I have been blessed, as fate would allow me to write my story as an exercise of agency.

I open with points of narrative origin to complicate the very idea of “home.” “Home” does not end at a door's threshold, and it is not restricted to one's closest kin. Not everyone has good memories of “home,” and many people are displaced by forces outside of their control. In our current political climate, the promise to build walls is a move to further delineate who may call America their home(land) with physical and ideological borders.[2] The desire to narrow the scope of categories of national belonging along racial lines has incited the latest rendition of warfare. Physical acts of violence related to these conflicts have manifested in Charlottesville, VA, as yet another tragic node in a much larger network and historical legacy of power struggles. If two sides must be articulated, this fight is quite simply between Euromerican White supremacy and the West’s “Other.” While they occasionally borrow political tactics from each other, the beliefs, values, and ideas that each group fights for are mutually exclusive.

When Jordan, the founder of IvyUntold asked me to write this article, I saw it as a profound opportunity to pass on the story of how I got to where I am as a journey from home-to-home. But I realized that telling that story is far from simple, as it can take as many iterations as there are audiences. It is hard for me to even pick a home to start with. The response to my national or racial identity depends on who I am talking to, and whether I fail to meet one criterion or another in a series of subtle tests. The narratives that comprise national imaginaries mask the fact that the nation must also pick you, and I have never quite fit the mold established by categories of belonging. As a multiethnic Latino male growing up in the United States, I am neither Black nor White, rich nor poor, liberal nor conservative, but always something in the interstices. I can understand Spanish but fluency evades me, and to top-off the irony I decided to become an English major my sophomore year. I have always occupied what Homi Bhabha would call an “in-between” space: a realm of uneasy and subversive “ambivalence.” [3] This space is conceptually similar to Anzaldúa’s borderlands of national and racial hybridity, where self-determinacy is desired and dialectically negotiated for. [4] One must be equipped with knowledge of one’s homeland as tied to identity in order to navigate such spaces, or else create a mythical homeland through literary imaginaries. Over time, I have learned to strategically and consciously move between a myriad of identity categories through space and time, as I refuse to let one define me entirely.[5] That is, our identities tend to shift as we move throughout the world, and as we create worlds of our own.

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For these reasons, some of the analytics that drive my intellectual curiosity are the desire to belong, ideological constructions of home, and societal navigation for subaltern or minority subjects. A question I have been grappling with is how can one forge a home, where it seems that one cannot be found?  With regards to the study of literature in particular:

  • How do narratives affect the way we perceive and evaluate evidence, make judgements, and imagine ourselves in relation to the rest of the world? How do ideas affect our experiences, and vice-versa? This is the fundamental basis of narratology.
  • How do theories of space, time, history and identity affect the way we move through society? Theory is essentially a set of amendable stories about how the world works, stories that we can use as tools for change. I believe that theory can be applied to narrative experiences in order to strategically map and navigate society.
  • How might conflicting narratives inform our understandings of power relations and knowledge production? This idea is in the spirit of Foucault's concept of power-knowledge and regimes of truth: what constitutes truth and valid evidence is relative to a given sociohistorical context, and said paradigms are often instituted by relations of domination. [6] Truth is what we accept in lieu of evidence to the contrary; truth is scientific, not science per say. As we so often understand the world through social scripts and syllogisms, the ability to tell one’s story and challenge prevailing narratives is a powerful one. In these ways, we may begin to speak truth to power.
  • Whose stories are not being told, and whose are being misrepresented? How might the subaltern's voice be elevated and heard?[7] How might decolonial epistemological frameworks be deployed to alter the course of history with the power of a new narrative imaginary?[8]

Put simply, I see my role as not so much telling my story, but the stories of those who go unheard — a new story of the world, including unconventional nations and home(lands) of which to belong. I plan to fulfill this role by road-mapping the stories of local geopolitical territories in the context of a globalized world. The very idea of “home” is intricately tied to the formation of the nation-state, with ideological roots as old as Aristotle. Every nation has its literature: the set of codes, metaphorical testaments, and moral guidelines that form enforceable imaginaries. In America, we sharply diverted from the Bible to the Constitution at our nation’s founding, but it seems that neither of those narratives have functioned as promised when put into practice. As a country entrenched in Christianity and slavery, “One nation under God,” our father speaks truth to the traditional structure of the American nuclear family, as well as the national socioeconomic organization of America that has been enacted for centuries. That is, the norms and rules encoded by biblical texts and rule of law simultaneously mirror and shape the nature of our social ontology. While we have certainly progressed as a nation, the structures we are integrated in have long favored the rights and privileges of men and Euromericans over others.

The idea of home is also bound to the ownership of private property and land through conquest, with the subsequent erection of borders and linking of chains. However, the enclosure of the commons and the institution of slavery were not simply the result of a natural will to power, but of the very ideological concepts of who has the right to call a space “home,” and who can maintain complete agency over their own body. This right is determined by the narrative of the nation as an ideological set of delineations. Most walls create barriers that prevent the dialectical relation of difference as a “raw and powerful connection.”[9] This is especially true if these structures remain too stringently fixed and are unwilling to make productive changes as the makeup of American citizenry changes. Those who can alter and control the narratives that encode these structures wield immense power. One must understand how these narratives function in order to transform, defend, or defeat them.

I could only have access to the knowledge that inspired the questions and hypotheses above through my education. Both institutions of higher learning and my peers have had a profound impact in shaping my worldview. Despite these opportunities and the efforts of administrators, I did not immediately feel at home my freshman year. The town of Ithaca is an isolated world compared to the bustling city, but it is a multifaceted world, nonetheless. For a while, I doubted that I even belonged. Questions of belonging are not remarkable ones. The trope of self-discovery in college is a privileged right-of-passage. It marks the beginning of a delirious journey, as one transitions from the throws of adolescence into the responsibilities of adulthood. Students walk away with the bildungsroman products of the corporate-American education system and its commodification of the “self.” Even as I write this I am fashioning my identity and a specific image of you, my audience. I am in so many ways enthralled in a bitter song of myself. I have become the resentful archetype of films such as The Graduate (1967) or Into the Wild (2007). That is, only by applying what I have learned to the real world can I testify to my preparedness for life.

However, to paint such a bleak postmodern portrait would be dishonest. I felt trapped like a rat in a maze during my brief stint as a pre-med student, but that experience made me resilient and sharpened my ability to navigate unfamiliar spaces. To cope with the stress, I joined a Christian youth group and found faith for a few months. I then joined the Puerto Rican Students’ Association, and learned about my ancestral history and current political issues. I also joined a fraternity on campus and gained a whole family of brothers. My sophomore year, I was accepted into the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Program. This tremendously affirmed my confidence in my scholarly abilities. Through mentorship and structure, the program helped me realize that home is work. Home is what and where you make it. Junior year, I had the opportunity to literally build a house with an internationally renowned installation artist.[10] Humans have this uncanny ability to shape the world around them and build structures to call home. We should use that power for good.

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As the completion of my bachelor's degree draws near, I can sense the anxiety-culture of Ivy League college campuses ramping up like never before. Groups continue to herd into career fairs and flash their resumes at recruiters, each telling similar stories. I'm the kid across the street, watching them compete. They would probably run me over on Wall Street and make five times my salary, but money for me has lost its meaning. I find it more fruitful to pave new paths and map the world for others like me, so that they can tell their stories.

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Salvador Herrera (soh26@cornell.edu)

Cornell University Class of 2018

[1] Walter Benjamin et al., Water Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 4 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996), 396.

[2] Monica Brown, Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizens in Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Chicana Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 6.

[3] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 2, 83-89. 

[4] Gloria. Anzaldúa, Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera, Fourth edition, 25th anniversary. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012), 272.

[5] Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 58.

[6] Michel Foucault and Colin Gordon, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1980), 109-133.

[7] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, by Cary. Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 292.

[8] Emma Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 3-13.

[9] Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 112.

[10] As a student in Professor Ella Diaz’s course Decolonial Poetics and Aesthetics, I was able to work with artist Pepón Osorio on his project Side by Side (2017).