Hyphens and Spaces

In “Does That Come with a Hyphen? A Space?” Kency Cornejo examines the systemic exclusion, and subsequent erasure of Central American artists from Latino art discussions and exhibition spaces. Cornejo highlights that the invisibility of the Central American artists reflects the larger stigmatization of Central Americans as marginal, less-than, and dangerous others which ultimately led “many to veil their identity so as to go undetected and unquestioned” (Arias in Cornejo 191). Central Americans, Cornejo argues, can this masking and negating veil if given the opportunity to articulate their identity as Central Americans (191).

To Cornejo, the ability to claim the “hyphen” or “space” in Central Americans is simultaneously an affirming acknowledgement of their shared identity, an epistemic category that allows the individual to know themselves in relation to history and community, and “a physical and intellectual ream of possibilities in which to think, create, and be” (191). The majority of the rest of the essay is dedicated to an illustration of what Cornejo envisions; she spotlights and analyzes the work of artists from Central American countries in order to demonstrate how their images unveil collective and individual histories and experiences.

While Cornejo’s examples do point to the power and creativity of Central American artists, I was left wondering about the nature of the hyphen/space metaphor. Cornejo initially differentiates between these two concepts, saying Central America could be “a geographic space of seven countries” or “a hyphen of acceptance denoting a US-recognized group and presence” (191). While these two definitions are different in some regards, they both actually define this identity political terms—the first is a geopolitical definition; the second is a socio-political label. Is Cornejo here not running the risk of making Mirzeoff’s mistake of conceptually anchoring her ideas in the very practices that caused invisibility to begin with (Noble 221)?

I believe this issue is illustrated in the text itself. Cornejo opens the section on artists with, “An analysis of artworks reveals themes common to the history and contemporary experiences of US Central Americans” (192). While earlier Cornejo used simply Central Americans, here she shifts to US Central Americans, in effect defining the group in relation to the dominant power. As we considered with Machida’s work, is the category of Central American actually affirmative, or does it reinforce extant marginal-central relations? Furthermore, while Cornejo starts by emphasizing similarity, as her analysis develops, we are struck by the plurality of ideas addressed and communicated in these artists’ works. The plurality is so astounding Cornejo in fact closes her examination remarking that “there is no one homogenous experience among US Central Americans” (206). Cornejo herself concludes that these artists are addressing “each Central American country’s unique geopolitical position and relation to the United States” (204). Do we, then, not miss their point by examining their work through the monolithic Central American lens?

This last quotation illustrates what I think is the major distinction between the situation of Asian American artists described in Machida, and Cornejo’s work with Central American artists. In Machida’s narrative, Asian American artists themselves formed art collectives, independently working together to create a shared visual language and elaborate a unified identity. I am not sure that is what is happening in “Does That Come with a Hyphen? A Space?” It seems to me that Cornejo is the one crafting a shared mission and vocabulary for these artists. I am not convinced this top down approach does not replicate the very power dynamics it tries to undo.

The changing borders of Central America: