Final Paper

Czareena Dotchev

Professor Alvarez

English 255

25 May 2012

Latino-Jewish Identity: The Complexities of Hyphenated Identity  in Ariel Dorfman’s “From Heading South, Looking North”, Nicholasa Mohr’s “The Wrong Lunch Line: Early Spring 1946” and Kozer’s “First & Last”

An Introduction to The Creation of Hyphenated Identity in Latino Literature

A cynic of hyphenated identity would tell you that the phenomenon of ethnic classification is not something new in American literature but a spillover from the times of colonization. There exists a constant struggle over the argument of who is doing the defining and whether these definitions are harmful or hurtful to the writers that they impact. The question is weather “the post-colonial condition” and the resulting patterns of migration and the definition of national identity “must produce national literature” and if it indeed does produce these works when hyphenated identity exists who has the authority to justify such classification and does this impede writers of Latino Literature? Jacqueline Kaye purports the idea of collusion between the writers and publishing houses’ aim to maximize profits through the works that are published. She writes:

“The creation of hyphen status within American Literature can be seen as a strategy for resisting the subsuming of all English-language literatures into part of the hegemonic group and post-colonial resentment on the part of the oppressed. This alone should make us view hyphen status with caution because it represents a collusion between critic and writer and it is, furthermore, a collusion which plays into the marketing strategies of publishing houses.” (Kaye 60)

The idea that the hyphenated status is a creation allowing minority groups a place where their work can be evaluated objectively is an important factor in analyzing Latino literature. Kaye questions the legitimacy of the field of Latino literature on the basis of its existence stemming from a power struggle between mainstream literature and minority literature. The language similarities show that there is still bias towards the group descending from the colonizing force due to the predominance of hyphenated literature written in English. Hegemony exists, creating a rift between the descendants of the colonial oppressor and the groups who have only recently began to be recognized by the mainstream as valid. The groups are diametrically opposed to each other in their interests but appear to bring about coalition building. This quest from validity by the minority is a product of colonialism. Kaye states that hyphenated identity is a conspiracy. This suggests that one can consider hyphenated identities as illegitimate due to the assimilation required to obtain this hyphenated status.

Ariel Dorfman’s Complex Hyphenated Identity and Its Reflection in “Heading South, Looking North”

A person’s identity is formed on the basis of many factors both internal and external. A person’s parent’s experiences impact the creation of one’s cultural and national identity but life experience does alter this initial formation. The question is then of who is more responsible in creating an identifying category and if this category is based off of one’s self determined identity or the imposition of identity by mainstream society. McClennen analyzes the conflict of hyphenated-identity in her work “The Diasporic Subject in Ariel Dorfman’s Heading South, Looking North” and states the following:

Dorfman’s memoir points to the conflicts that distinguish identity from identity markers. These conflicts between the self and the terms used to define the self are alternatively imposed and desired, external and internal, national and transnational, material and imaginary, fixed and fluid. Identity is not only shaped by the tensions between agency and cultural politics; it is also governed by competing forces of time and space, history and nation. A carefully constructed text that tests the form of the memoir and the boundaries of bicultural identity, Dorfman’s Heading South Looking North requires a reading that moves beyond the many of the traditional critical categories used to understand ethnic, diasporic life writing. (McClennen 170)

Mc Clennen asserts that there is a difference between a person’s identity and the system that brands an individual with a stereotypical identity. Dorfman’s work shows various examples of the dichotomy between his definition of self and the definition imposed upon him by outside factors. McClennen suggests pairings of attributes that contribute to the conflict between self-identification and the imposed identity caused by and outside force. Imposition indicates the existence of a force motivating a change in one’s identity to conform to society based on coercion by driving factors such as the need to use a language because it is the one predominantly used in the environment. While the person learning this new language may also have the reverse when they desire to acquire this new language as their own and proclaim their own identity by associating with the new language. Internal and external factors play a large role in the perception of the transitions an immigrant experiences when he or she is displaced from their homeland. The issue of agency is important because this determines where the allegiances of individual discussed lie. By determining these allegiances the sentiments of the work will show a side of the immigrant experience which either gives the immigrant the power to choose their actions in assimilating or shows outside forces imposing a new identity on these immigrants. Though Dorfman is said to move “beyond the many of the traditional critical categories used to understand ethnic, diasporic life writing” his work still shows the contrasts between the significant pairings McClennen points out.

Analyzing Dorfman’s perception of his mother’s acquisition of English we see his opinion on the difference between imposed and desired changes when an immigrant experiences assimilation. The association between assimilation to the acquisition of a new language at the expense of the removal of an old one suggests an imposed change. The transition of individuals’ use of their native tongue to that of the one of the new nation they live in is a struggle because of the connections between loss of language and loss of culture. Culture exists at the center of a community formation and has significance to the members’ success within the community as well as the community’s success in interacting with outside groups. Dorfman states this paradox in his mother’s experience in learning Spanish while in the process of loosing her native Yiddish tongue:

Paradoxical that it should have been in Yiddish, because the story registers and foretells, the defeat of Yiddish, how kindness forced it to retreat, her offspring’s first tentative independent steps into a world where Yiddish was not necessary. A world that would demand of my mother, as it demands of all immigrant children, that she abandon the language of her ancestors if she wanted to pass through that door those children would soon be trying to slam shut. (Dorfman 1512)

Dorfman tells a “paradoxical” story recounted to him in Yiddish. The irony here lies within the metaphorical killing of a language and its use in telling the story of its own demise. This change appears imposed because of the implication that without the killing of Yiddish there would be no room for the acquisition of the new language. The demands on his mother to learn a new language show the “cultural politics” Mc Clennen is referring to. Success in the school system is not possible for his mother unless she blocks out Yiddish in her lexicon and converts over to the new language, Spanish, the mainstream language of the school system. He highlights how “kindness” was the catalyst of the removal of Yiddish making assimilation the driving force behind this change. Though the pressures were not learning the language or get slaughtered, the pressures to succeed are predominant for a child navigating through a school system. This is still problematic because the pressure imposed by the children who would not accept a person who did not assimilate is a traumatic experience for those forced into it. The experience of learning a language looses any pleasure derived when there is a desire to become more adapt to the new culture. Dorfman shows that language assimilation is not optional but rather something that is “demanded” defeating the statement that kindness motivated the loss of the Yiddish language in his mother’s lexicon. Clearly Dorfman shows the audience that even when the treat of violence doesn’t exist in exchange for the drive to learn a language this does not mean that the transition is simple and motivated by harmless factors. His mother’s disposal of Yiddish proves a lack of a choice for bicultural identity imposed by cultural politics.

On the contrary Dorfman expresses a differing viewpoint on his father’s language assimilation. He describes the experience of his father’s development into a “bicultural identity” when he talks about the difference from his mother’s story that though Spanish was acquired the mother tongue was not lost. Dorfman states:

Spanish received my father with open arms, a smoother welcome than my mother’s. Either because he had already had previous experience with the language as a child or because his parents were polylingual themselves, he was soon speaking and writing Spanish brilliantly, so well that soon after graduating from the University, the Russian émigré Dorfman had published the first history of Argentine industry, becoming his country’s leading expert on the subject. (Dorfman 1514)

Dorfman’s father’s explains the “desired” side of identity and actions of assimilation related to this that are not present in the case of Dorfman’s mother. His father became “his country’s leading expert on the subject” displaying how his father’s easy assimilation was directly related to his nationalism and feelings of patriotism towards his adopted nation and adopted language. Here the “ governed” force at work fuels and inspires Dorfman’s father positively to master an extra language. Dorfman highlights the idea that those who are better off socioeconomically have an easier time in assimilating to a new culture and language when they are in the situation where they have to adapt in order to get ahead. The household of Dorfman’s father was polylingual and spoke sophisticated languages recognized by the modern world. This “transnational” household proved to be beneficial in setting up the foundation for the acquisition of new languages. Dorfman’s grandparents conveniently living in a world with more exposure to foreign languages justify the competing forces of “time and space”. These factors give Dorfman’s father the upper hand in his mastery of Spanish and ultimately a more pleasant experience in assimilation.

Ironically Dorfman by the definition of his parents comes from a balanced combination of experiences that allow him to see both takes on the formation of identity that exists between immigrants, however; he is more complicated because he brings his own experiences to his work. As McClennen writes:

So, while it may seem that Heading South, Looking North suggests a bicultural identity, a binary between north and south, culturally Dorfman is far more hybrid: he is North and South American, Jewish, thrice exiled, a survivor of trauma, and a writer well-versed in world literature. What is the most vexing for the scholar of his work, though, is that he draws on these multiple cultural influences throughout his text, while also, still, reinforcing the notion that dualities, especially that of north versus south, English versus Spanish, hold particular identitarian purchase. (McClennen 173)

Dorfman possesses life experiences that define him as a hybrid person between North and South America but his religion, traumatic experiences, historical family exile and scholarly qualities. McClennen sees this diversity within Dorfman as problematic to scholars who aim to study a dichotomy when looking at hyphenated American’s and their literary works. Though Dorfman is a diverse man his works have the ability to highlight all of his listed diversities as if they are the central defining factor in his identity. Identitatian ideas suggest that a formation of one’s own identity is off the basis of cultural experiences and forces. Dorfman’s work highlights the problems created by cultural forces that drive the immigrant experience towards positivity or negativity. Essentially Dorfman’s ability to portray polar conditions while explaining the cross cutting complexities of variation allow the reader greater understanding of the immigrant experience in finding his or her new life and forging the path to hyphenated identity.

Dorfman recounts an instance of his family’s exile and the effects that trauma had on his perception of the memory in his work. Immigrants in a new country are faced with many challenges on their journey and their adjustment to their new environment. Sometimes the journey is so complicated that the images of their own experience become blurred or even disappear completely, either on purpose or by accident. Dorfman speaks of his family’s experience when he says:

Our family had descended from the train onto the platform in Grand Central Station, and there was no one there to greet us but the cold. We had crossed the South of the United States during the night. I have no memory, again, of that trip, except years later, when I read Thomas Wolfe and his long, shattering train ride home toward which the angel was fruitlessly looking, the home he said you could never return to, I felt a shudder of acknowledgement- I had been on that train, I had crossed the U.S. South leaving my own Latino South. So I do not remember the moment when I stepped for the first time in my life onto the concrete of the North, there in New York, holding my mother’s hand. (Dorfman 1518)

Dorfman’s traumatic experience of being unwelcome as an immigrant impacted his memories of the event in his life. He did not experience a warm welcome upon immigrating to the country. The stark contrast in the image of immigration that was existent in his mind prior to leaving his home country and the realities were disconcerting to him. He explains his feeling of being misplaced by the stealth of the night journey with his family and how this made him feel disoriented to the point where his story emerged from the similarities in the voyage of the many other immigrants’ stories. He describes the experience as something he has no memory of by rather something he has created a memory for. By taking the combinations of his sentiments after his migration with those of Thomas Wolfe, Dorfman has created a common theme in the migration story. In retrospect when all things tend to be clearer, for him it is the creation of his own journey that empowers him to write this passage. He writes “I felt a shudder of acknowledgement” suggesting that for him the experience was surreal and unacceptable until the reality of a cold welcome upon his exiting grand central station finally set in.

Dorfman embodies the experience of migration when he draws the connection between his personal experience and the stories of others to create a greater theme that underlies the immigrant experience as a whole. Dorfman goes on to discuss how his new nation did not greet him welcomingly but also posed difficult challenges to people who found themselves as foreigners in a strange land. Dorfman writes:

That was the place, the house of death. That’s where I caught pneumonia one Saturday night in February of 1945, when my parents had gone out by themselves for the first time since we had arrived in the States-and I carefully use that verb, to catch, aware of its wild ambiguity, still unsure, even now, if that sickness invaded me or if I was the one who invited it in. But more of that later. To save his life, that boy was interned in a hospital isolated in a ward where nobody spoke a word of Spanish. For three weeks, he saw his parents only on visiting days and then only from behind a glass a partition. (Dorfman 1519)

Dorfman portrays his relationship with his new home as unpleasant. He refers to the “house of death” as one of the memories that shaped his sentiments to the new land forced upon him by migration. His lack of the mastry of the language in this new land added to his discomfort. The focus on the ambiguity of the new language highlights the need for assimilation in order for survival in the United States. It is a barrier that must be overcome so that problems that he experienced would no longer hold him back. He elaborates by talking about his uncertainty of how he became sick in the first place expressing his frustration and unhappiness about this new world. His negative experience in the hospital is exacerbated by the physical wall that the hospital created around him as a sick child but also the emotional wall that the lack of a mastery of english created when he was unable to communicate his feeling with the medical staff that spoke english. His frustrations with a facility become translated to the frustrations he faces as a non English speaker in an english speaking world.

Dorfman’s disaporic subject is at one and the same time attentive to the binaries that structure identity while simultaneously moving beyond a dualist ontology. Such a notion of the subject creates a multi-layered self that remains true to the complexities of subjectivity, especially for those who have experienced violent dislocation. To present the self as a hybrid pastiche would eradicate the material history that separates north from south, English from Spanish, life from death, agency from victimization, the individual from the collective, life before from life after September 11, 1973. (McClennen 185-186)

Diaspora, which has several meanings in modern usage, covers the exile of Jewish populations as well as similar pattern of migration amongst different groups. The dispersion of a group of people from their homeland is something that creates conflict both within the group as well as with the interactions other groups has with the displaced individuals. Mc Clennen argues that Dorfman recognizes the complexity in his justification of his own identity and because of this offers different subjective perspectives in this writing that shows an understanding of the concept that outside actors such as the mainstream culture will have a different perspective on the immigrant assimilation experience. If the term “hybrid pastiche” is defined from the context McClennen provides it becomes obvious that Dorfman’s work is a combination of the two definitions of the word. The former meaning that Dorfman’s work is an artistic imitation of sorts of past experiences and a medley strung together to evoke a comprehensive understanding in the reader the and the latter meaning suggesting much more confusion and the jumbling of experiences. Dorfman’s work is therefore not dichotomous and should not be seen as structured in that way just as in the same token the gradation of hyphenated identity varies amongst individuals and their experiences.

Hyphenated America: The Question of Who Is Assimilable?

Assimilation through the lens of the immigrant is shaped by experiences and self-perception of the act as having positive connotation or negative connotation. Howerer, even when an individual chooses assimilation in order to adapt to his or her new environment it is not always the case that they are accepted. In the video “Through My Grandfather’s Eyes – A Story About American Immigration and Hyphenated American” the idea that hyphened-identity is condemned as a detriment to both the individual and American Society. The video tells a story of immigrants from Europe craving the title of “American” because of its connotations of freedom and opportunity. It goes on to say that later immigrants have not had the same sentiments of wanting to be “American” but rather have aimed for the hyphen as an excuse to maintain their own culture.

The question then arises if assimilation has two components, the first being the actions of the immigrant and the second being the reactions of society. The issue then becomes of what groups can fully achieve the latter and what that means for these individuals and their experiences with discrimination in the United States. As Gloash-Boza explains:

Some Latinos/as are holding onto their national origin identifiers and refusing to hyphenate themselves, even in the third generation. Others are taking on a hyphenated American Identity and still others are assuming the pan-ethnic label. Which path these individuals take depends on their experiences in the United States. Those Latinos/as who appear “white” and do not face discrimination are more likely to assimilated into U.S. society and become unhyphenated Americans. They, like immigrants from Europe, can disappear unnoticed into the melting pot, if they so choose. However, those Latinos/as who face discrimination and who are not perceived to be white are less likely to be viewed by others and consequently by themselves as Americans. Yet, even if Latinos/as born in the United States are not Americans they are also not Mexicans or Cubans, since they are also viewed as foreigners in Mexico or Cuba. Latin Americans and their descendants in the United States have responded to this denial of full citizenship by fostering a new ethnic identity that recognizes their shared experiences of discrimination and exclusion in the United States. This new identity is that of Latino and Latina Americans.(Golash-Boza 52)

The hyphenated American is derived from society’s inability to accept all assimilated people as “Americans.” In the case of Latinos individuals are making decisions to hold on to their culture for prolonged periods in comparison to other migrant groups, sometimes even into the third generation. There is no real choice in the perception of who is an American when it comes down to skin color. In the United States the immigrants from Europe who had a Caucasian appearance set the standard for and “American” . For Latinos this creates an issue because in the diversity of skin tones existent. The choice to blend in and “disappear unnoticed into the melting pot” is unavailable for a Latino of darker skin tone no matter what level of cultural assimilation he thinks he has obtained. Even three generations will not be able to change the preconceived notion that a person who appears “black” can be a Latino without connections to the longstanding American history of brutality towards slaves and later African-Americans. The problem of assimilation goes further than within the borders of the United States because a person assimilated to American culture will not be able to fit into the culture of his ancestry therefore making him a person with no real nationality. It seems as if no choice is left but to create the hyphenated American when such powerful forces constantly compartmentalize people by their skin tone and what they look like. The “denial of full citizenship” is a problem for these individuals because they constantly battle not being able to totally fit in American and in the land of their heritage. This leads to the questions of how discrimination works. It appears that people being discriminated have no real options in preventing themselves from being discriminated because agency is in the hands of the beholder who can take one look at a person and pass a judgment regarding nationality.

Nicholasa Mohr is able to show how the agency is in the hands of the beholder when nationality is at stake. A simple scene showing children and adults explains how appearance determines who can assimilate. The actions and manners in which a person carries them self are perpetuated by the associations with different groups of people. At times these labels become stereotypes that other groups or individuals use to classify people they do not associate as their own. They use these labels to determine who they are in relation to the “others.” Nicholasa Mohr addresses this when she depicts the scene of how children, less prone to arbitrary grouping while adults impose their close-minded views in the most fundamental ways such as segregating a lunchroom by religion and ethnicity. Mohr writes:

“What’s the trouble?” asked the other teacher. ” This child,” the woman pointed to Yvette, “is eating lunch here with the Jewish children, and I don’t think she’s Jewish. She doesn’t- I’ve seen her before; she gets free lunch alright. But she looks like one of the-“Hesitating, the woman went on, ” She looks Spanish.” “I’m sure she’s not Jewish,” said
the other teacher. “All right now,” said the first teacher,
”what are you doing here? Are you Spanish?” “Yes.”
”Why did you come over here and get in that line? You went on the wrong lunch line!” Yvette looked down at the tray in front of her. “Get up and come with me. Right now!” (Mohr 1058)

Mohr highlights the objectification of Yvette when she shows one of the teachers pointing to her and referring to her as “this child” rather than asking Yvette her identity. The teacher then states the assumption of Yvette not being Jewish without any inquiries. The statements made by the teachers suggest that Jewish and Spanish students may both be qualified to get free lunch classifying both groups as poor but inherently different therefore disregarding the existence of miscegenation in the Latino population since the Spanish colonization. Note that the teachers attempting to place Yvette in her designated lunch area never ask her if she’s Jewish but rather rely on their own preconceived notion of what a
”Spanish” person is. The second teacher asserts ” I’m sure she’s not Jewish” writing off any potential for an error in her judgment. This shows the narrow view that exists in the perception of Latinos and creates the idea that people that are “Spanish” or “Jewish” can not assimilate even on the level of food consumption. Both groups get free lunch, lowering them to a status that allows the teachers to create systems to enforce their lower socioeconomic status by enforcing the rules that would separate the two groups from eating with one another. When the teacher says “You went on the wrong line!” she implies that Yvette is not smart enough to know her place in society and should be punished until she understands that she must be subordinate to the arbitrary system that has been imposed on her with regards to where she can sit because of her appearance.

Multiculturalism is the concept that a level of tolerance should be used when living in a society with a diversity of cultures. It promotes acceptance of new ideas rather than the force of assimilation. When the video “Andrew Klavan: Multiculturalism Explained” suggests that multiculturalism has failed because of the immigrants coming from “hell holes” a sentiment of negative attitudes towards non-assimilated persons is perpetuated. The problem of racism between who can be viewed as assimilable and who is a forever minority can not be resolved when a supremacy of one culture, in this case “white culture” oppresses other cultures both indirectly and directly.

Conclusion: How does “whiteness” work and when will hyphenated Americans be the new “white”?

The “white” race, though socially constructed has had tremendous influences in the Americas at the expense of the exploitation of other races. By positioning all other races as inferior, achieving power is now directly related to being white. As Eichstedt writes:

While it is useful to find ways to deconstruct the myth of whiteness, it is somewhat disingenuous to claim an ethnic identity that is supposed to be used to supplant the “racial” location that whites, as a group occupy-particularly since “white,” thought a fiction, is socially meaningful in terms of life chances. To disavow one’s white identity is to miss the point of how legal, economic, political, and social systems in the United States have operated to advantage people on the grounds of being white, not on the grounds of being Polish, Irish, and so on. (Eichstedt 453-454)

In the political and social structures of the United States the precedent has been set that whiter is better. When groups migrated from Europe they were initially distinguishable but over time those traits that have distinguished those groups have diminished. The diminishing of these idiosyncrasies between the groups leaves American society with a diversity of white people who now have an opaque view of their heritage and can not hyphenate themselves as other immigrants do. These people may not want to hyphenate themselves either because it has become common belief that the removal of the hyphen has translated into success by first being defined as a “real American.” Success has been measured in ones ability to assimilate to the point where the individual no longer associates to their ethnic background. This set up is especially problematic for Latino immigrants who do not appear white but also affects those who can disguise their heritage and assimilate and loose their ethnic identity.

José Kozer writes about his lack of allegiance to one nation because of the movement of his parents and then eventually his own movements. Revisiting this passage it is interesting to think of how he is perceived seeing that his parents immigrated to Latin America from Europe. Kozer writes:

My parents came from Poland and Czechoslovakia, at twenty I ousted myself from my country, foreseeing that the nation would take on something like the air of a general prison; that wasn’t to my taste ( I would come to learn that the whole planet is a general prison): I was born in Cuba, where I left no progeny and I will not return: I am the first and last Cuban generation.(Kozer 1243)

Kozer expresses a similar predicament to hyphenated Americans when he talks about being Cuban while not being able to truly embrace his nationality due to the country’s problems and inner turmoil. These issues force him to leave his country with a sentiment that it was never even really “his” country at all. He can’t associate with the nationalities of his parents because he has not connection to those lands in the societal sense. This reasoning leads him to conclude that his children will not associate with Cuba just because he spent time living there nor does he see his children associating with Poland or Czechoslovakia for the same reasons he can’t. Kozer explains his apathy and dismay with Cuba by comparing the nation to a prison. Hyphenated Americans see their status as an in between ethnicity compartmentalizes them in the same way Kozer feels in this passage. What we do not know from this passage is how his race affects his feelings while in Cuba but from what Kozer explains his assimilation to the United States will be one of options to become “American” or adopt some other form of self identification.Future research should address the complexities of cases like Kozer’s with regards to the perception of the individual based on their race and assimilation in context of what society deems is “American.”

Works Cited


Dorfman, Ariel. Heading South, Looking North. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. By Ilan Stavans and Edna Acosta-Belén. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. 1508-520. Print.

Eichstedt, Jennifer L. “White Identities and a Search for Racial Justic.” Springer 16.3 (2001): 445-70. JSTOR. Web. 20 May 2012.

Golash-Boza, Tanya. “Dropping the Hyphen? Becoming Latino(a)-American through Racialized Assimiation.” Oxford Journals:Social Forces, University of North Carolina Press 85.1 (2006): 27-55. JSTOR. Web. 20 May 2012.

HaltTheHyphen. “Through My Grandfather’s Eyes – A Story About American Immigration and Hyphenated American Identity.” YouTube. YouTube, 06 Aug. 2010. Web. 25 May 2012. <>.

Kaye, Jacqueline. “If Jesus Was Supposed to Be a Jew, How Come He’s Got a Mexican Name?” Modern Humanities Research Association 24 (1994): 59-66. JSTOR. Web. 20 May 2012.

Kozer, José. “First & Last.” The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. By Ilan Stavans and Edna Acosta-Belén. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. 1243. Print.

McClennen, Sophia A. “The Diasporic Subject in Ariel Dorfman’s Heading South, Looking North.” MELUS 30.1 (2005): 169-88. JSTOR. Web. 20 May 2012.

Mohr, Nicholasa. “The Wrong Lunch Line: Early Spring 1946.” The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. By Ilan Stavans and Edna Acosta-Belén. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. 1056-059. Print.

Pajamasmedia. “Andrew Klavan: Multiculturalism Explained.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 25 May 2012. <>.

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