What’s a Puerto Rican doing in Germany?

I may be one of the few people who genuinely like Nelly. She’s my partner’s grandmother and she’s in her nineties now, but don’t be fooled. A prototypically benign granny she is not. Biting wit. Sarcasm. No use for political correctness. These she can boast in abundance. Nelly had something blunt to say about some of our holiday snapshots in Europe, she said, “What’s a Puerto Rican doing in Germany?”

The clear mental picture of a Wagnerian fatherland that sparked her question didn’t appear compromised by the other person in the photograph, my friend Frank (a German of Polish descent). Being a second-generation immigrant herself didn’t seem to matter, either. Somewhere between the PC reflex that demanded to know why it should be unusual to see a Latina outside the stereotypical tropics and my laughter — kind jokes are rarely the funny ones — I got to thinking. Why should I be surprised?

Years later, I find myself returning to Nelly’s question. Ever since the results of the US Census 2000 began rolling out I find myself entirely too enthusiastic about pie charts, tables, and most of all, maps. One map in particular stands out. It depicts the geographical distribution of Latinos of all races in the US. We show up in purple, and a really deep, neon purple if a county claims 50,000 to 4,243,000 (weird range, I know, but not a typo!), and we’re barely off-white if our population is under a hundred. Predictable concentrations of Latinas showed up in places like New York, California, Texas, Florida, etc. But then there were a few dark if not neon purples in Alaska and Wisconsin. Why should I be surprised?

I’d like to think that my reasons for being surprised are different in each case, but I suspect they’re not. To all of you Latinos staking out territory in Alaska and Wisconsin, perdoname. I should know better. There are big explanations for why you’re there, like the flows of transnational capital and accompanying migration patterns that contribute to globalization. There are big, equally complex reasons for why your presence should nevertheless be surprising: assumptions about what the US is like and where you fit into it — or more accurately, what the world is like with us in it.

That’s where ambient Latinidad comes in: the recognition of Latino geographies. The usual places, the unusual places, new or declining — they’re around and we’re in them. From the frontera between Mexico and the US to the Florida Strait, from chat rooms and Lusty Latina porn sites to MTV and the mall, we are our places. What interests me about the ambient, or ambiente, is that in Spanish the word invokes not only environments — the feel of a place — it also involves THE environment, as in the air that we breathe.

This diaphanous quality extends into the design world, as well. Ambient technologies are meant to suffuse our environments with information, gently moving in and out of our attention. Despite their current incarnation as relatively non-intrusive “guy gadgets”, like a key chain that shows up-to-the-minute sports scores, or a glowing orb on your desk to keep you up-to-date on the latest stocks, ambient technologies promise to transform how we experience the world. The theory behind such technology is that human senses engage aspects of the environment that may not be directly noticed. No matter, the ambient “cue” is everywhere, so eventually, it makes an impact.

A similarly ambient Latinidad parallels this weaving in and out of visibility and recognition. The conquests, migrations, and memories of home that gave rise to Latinidad confirm a presence that is felt, if not seen. Perhaps like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, the presence of Latinidad registers at the lower frequencies. Which brings me back to the damned Census.

I made sure to fill in my Census 2000 questionnaire. Knowing full well that the Census would reflect growth in US Latino populations, I was going to add my number! The results came in and with the exception of determining that Puerto Rico is 98.8 percent Hispanic, it appears that this time everyone was surprised. The Census 2000 Brief on “The Hispanic Population” states that, “281.4 million residents were counted in the United States (excluding the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Island Areas), of which 35.3 million (or 12.5 percent were Hispanic).”

So what does that mean? That means the Latino population increased by more than 50 percent since the last census in 1990. Much of this growth is attributed to two factors: immigration from Central and South American, and shifts in the Bureau’s calculation methods. Because Census 2000 highlighted the presence of Latinidad in the US, further studies have been generated. More and more stats shoot forth. Figures on Latinas as business owners, consumers, and Internet users have become big news given that Latinos have “surpassed” African-Americans as the most populous US minority. Some of this strikes me as kind of ridiculous because the results reflect the ability to finally claim multiple racial affiliations, and the whole minority-surpassing-minority discourse irritates me because it deflects attention away from the more important issue: that long-maintained “majority”.

The catch is that I know full well that numbers can be made to show just about anything you want them to show. As a mathematician friend once enlightened me: math is a closed system. Numbers are a pure form of abstraction. Their meaning can be based only on our understanding of other numbers and the relation between them. Think about it. When you hear that more than 800 million people in the world are malnourished or that Bill Gates’ net worth exceeds $40 billion, do you really comprehend those figures in any immediate and meaningful way? Of course not. So how can abstract stats on Latinidad quantify something as complex yet ephemeral as the very real presence of Latino people?

I don’t think they can. Instead all of these numbers, numbers on a massive scale, are saying something about scale itself. In an article called “Contours of a Spatialized Politics” geographer Neil Smith argues that scale “defines the boundaries and bonds the identities around which control is exerted and contested” (Social Text, 1992). For my purposes, the geographies in question are Latina. They’re a consequence of power and place. So what’s the point of all these numbers? Echoing the impact of Latino presence, whether anyone is ready for it or not, they seem to be fumbling over the revelation that it’s time to get used to a new scale . . .

So what is a Puerto Rican doing in Germany? Well, sightseeing, of course!