Taking its cue from Emmanuel Levinas's notion that the “nudity” of the face creates the possibility for ethical encounters, this essay considers the face of the Latino and Latin American migrant in the United States at a seemingly contradictory moment. On the one hand, this is a time of intensified deportations, border militarization, and congressional posturing on immigration reform; the undocumented migrant is no longer the anonymous dishwasher or nanny in hiding but rather appears as the highly publicized face of the “illegal alien.” On the other hand, this is a time of increased integration of Latinos—both indigenous to the United States and newly arrived; Latinos are claiming the United States as home in unprecedented numbers. In both instances—that of policing and of belonging—subjects interact intimately, face-to-face, creating the possibility of friendship, community, desire, all generated by the vulnerability of face-to-face contact. Yet vulnerability produces both compassion and rage, says Levinas, and hence the question: if the openness of the face calls one both to compassion and to rage, why compassion by some and rage by others? Hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise, for example, while at the same time, the New Sanctuary Movement has revived the 1980s' faith-based activist network that provides shelter to refugees in danger of deportation. Both compassion and rage rely on proximity to one's home, in all senses of the word: familial, local, and national. When does the face-to-face encounter produce new configurations of home: communities that are open to redefinition based less on strict boundaries between us and them and more on the dissolution of those boundaries so as to enable the face-to-face encounter? When does the encounter prompt communities to police the border of community and nation, foreclosing possibilities generated by mutual vulnerability? I argue that definitions of community/sanctuary based on the experience of economic and political suffering are more likely to sustain compassionate interactions than notions of community based on identity and familial politics.
Skip Nav Destination
Jane Juffer; Compassion and Rage: The Face of the Migrant. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 January 2009; 108 (1): 219–235. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2008-030
Download citation file: