Roswell, New Mexico and the Dead Futures of Latinx Speculative Fictions / Renee Hudson

“Liz at ICE Checkpoint.” Roswell, New Mexico, 2019

The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

On January 15, 2019, the Roswell reboot, Roswell, New Mexico, premiered on the CW. The core of the show remained the same: Liz (surname Parker in the first series, Ortecho in the reboot and the original book series) falls in love with an alien, Max Evans, who is an orphan along with two other aliens, Isobel Evans and Michael Guerin. All three aliens were part of the 1947 Roswell UFO incident, but they emerged from their pods much later, making them about the same age as Liz. There were also a few changes to the show, including aging the characters up from high schoolers to adults in their late twenties. Within this new time frame, Liz, who is now a biomedical scientist, has been gone for ten years and returns to Roswell after losing a research grant. In one of the major changes, Liz has an older sister, Rosa, who seemingly dies in a car crash ten years earlier in 2008. The plot of the first season revolves around Liz learning more about her sister’s death and, in what initially seems like a separate plot line, investigating a serial killer in Roswell. In yet another significant change, which is my focus here, Liz is the U.S.-born daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants.

With the predominance of Chicanxs in Latinx speculative fictions as the impetus behind this cluster, I want to consider how Latinxs are represented in popular culture, especially when the creators of such Latinx characters are not Latinxs themselves. Turning to popular representations, I contend, acts as a litmus test for how Latinx issues are widely perceived as well as how these concerns are perpetuated within popular media. The Roswell reboot, Roswell, New Mexico offers one such instance as both the showrunner, Carina Adly MacKenzie, and Melinda Metz, the author of Roswell High, the show on which the series is based, are not Latinxs. I turn to Roswell, New Mexico to examine the possibilities for futurity at a time when all Latinx futurities are threatened as, in Trump’s rhetoric, Mexican comes to be a metonym for all Latin Americans and people of Latin American descent. More specifically, I read the alien landing in Roswell as an allegory for Central American immigration and an example of how Central Americans are erased and subsumed under Mexican immigration. The foregrounding of Liz’s position as the daughter of undocumented immigrants exemplifies this erasure as she does not represent our contemporary circumstances, where there has been an uptick in women and children seeking asylum from primarily El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the U.S.-Mexico border. While the Trump administration refers to an “immigration crisis” and even an “invasion” at the border, news outlets point out that immigration to the U.S. still remains on the low-end compared to the late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century.1 Further, as Jean Stokan reminds us, the rise in immigration from Central American countries is a result of the U.S.’s support for oppressive regimes in the region, beginning in the 1950s and continuing to today.2 Finally, while there are more Mexican immigrants to the U.S. than Central American, the latter are generally deported at much higher rates.3

That said, I read both this erasure and foregrounding as indicative of Obama-era policies rather than the Trump regime, even if the show references the latter several times. In other words, by casting Liz as the daughter of undocumented Mexican parents, I suggest that the show is actually addressing an outmoded form of discrimination rather than the complexities of the present. The failure to account for Central American futures and to attend to the present immigration crisis leads to the dead futures of my title. By dead futures, I mean something related to, but distinct from Reinhart Koselleck’s idea of former futures. If former futures name the futures we imagined in the past that never came to be, then dead futures name futures reliant on a nostalgic view of the past that ignores present circumstances. In other words, dead futures are those that hope to resurrect a former future possibility without realizing that such a future is already obsolete and cannot lead to real possibilities in the present.

While I argue that Liz’s Mexican background is part of a pre-Trump understanding of immigration, I also consider Liz’s background within recent critiques that latinidad tends to emphasize Mexican American experiences over other Latinx groups, particularly Central American-Americans.4 As Karina Oliva Alvarado points out, in reference to the controversial term “Mexican hegemony,” as it pertains to Central American-Americans, “Mexican American culture can be experienced as hegemonic within a Latina/o context as it is simultaneously marginalized in the context of American hegemony” (383). While Alvarado is at pains to point out how Mexicans and Chicanos have supported Central American-Americans, she importantly notes that Mexican Americans can still act hegemonically even if they are subject to racism within a broader U.S. context. Further, as Arturo Arias and Maritza Cárdenas point out, within immigrant groups, Mexicans hold a relatively privileged position, with the former arguing that “the US sees Mexicans as ‘preferred undesirables’” (“Invisibility” 179) while the latter notes that the U.S. Border Patrol uses the acronym OTM (Other Than Mexican) to distinguish between Mexican immigrants and everyone else. As these scholars show, while Mexicans may make up the majority of the immigrant population from south of the border, they are also, as the OTM designation demonstrates, the standard to which all other immigrants are held.5

At the beginning of the pilot, both Liz’s vulnerability and relative privilege as a person of Mexican descent are brought to the fore as she must go through an ICE checkpoint on her way to Roswell. Once there, Liz tells the officer who approaches her car, “So you let the Joneses and the Jenners through but you’re going to stop the Latina and tell me this is just a DWI checkpoint. I know Roswell is well past the 100-mile border zone, vato, so I will have the ACLU so far up your ass you’ll be reciting the tenth-circuit Venzor-Castillo verdict in your sleep.”6 Within the first few minutes of the show, then, Liz highlights racial profiling by noting that she is stopped while white drivers are not and displays her knowledge of her rights by pointing out that Roswell, as a city past the 100-mile border zone, is not subject to the searches the government currently allows ICE agents to conduct. She further demonstrates her knowledge by pointing out that she knows who to complain to and sites a court case that arose in New Mexico in which the tenth circuit decided that border patrol agents did not have reasonable cause to search Rodolfo Venzor-Castillo’s car. Liz’s response, while admirable, also demonstrates that she does not fear ICE. In this way, her lack of fear reveals her relative privilege while also foreshadowing that the show is operating on an older immigration model rather than one that reflects our present, where even U.S. citizens can be deported.7

Beginning the show with an ICE checkpoint and highlighting Liz as the daughter of Mexican immigrants emphasizes Liz’s unique status; she is what Trump pejoratively calls an “anchor baby.” Within this context, the series would seem to be taking on current political events in an insightful way. If the first Roswell series used aliens as a metaphor for growing up, then the reboot plays with the derogatory term “illegal aliens” to explore legality and what it means to be an alien as Liz’s father’s undocumented status means that, lacking citizenship, he also lacks national belonging. Meanwhile, the citizenship and national belonging of Max, Isobel, and Michael is never questioned because they are white-presenting. Yet, as Danette Chavez observes in her review of the reboot, Roswell, New Mexico references, but fails to incorporate New Mexican history into the show, thus demonstrating a missed opportunity to discuss the complexities of Mexican immigration to the U.S. on land that used to belong to Mexico. Historically, the U.S. has disenfranchised Mexico by, for example, not admitting it to the Union until well after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. As Chavez observes, while this history is somewhat alluded to in the show, it remains largely unexplored. Rather, the show reinforces the “new arrival narrative” by depicting Mexicans in New Mexico as undocumented immigrants.

This new arrival narrative suggests a story of immigration deeply tied to the U.S. mythos as a nation of immigrants who bring their fresh perspectives and hard work with them to follow the American Dream. However, as Roswell, New Mexico makes clear, this narrative can quickly turn into one of an alien invasion, especially if the immigrants are not from European countries. If we read Max, Isobel, and Michael as allegories for Central American immigrants, albeit a generalized Central Americanity, this new arrival narrative resonates with the alien invasion narrative of the show. In the beginning of the series, the rhetoric linking discussions of alien invasion with immigration from the U.S.-Mexico border is heavy-handed. At the end of the first episode, the town paranoid and owner of the UFO Emporium, Grant Green, says, during the podcast he records at the Crashdown Café, “Aliens are coming. And when they do, they’re gonna rape and murder and steal our jobs!”8 Of course, Green’s comments echo Trump’s June 16, 2015 presidential announcement in which he used similar language to describe immigrants crossing the border, with Mexicans standing in for all undocumented immigrants. Also in the first episode, Max talks about the violent media representations of aliens, noting, “We grew up watching movies where aliens abduct people, violate them, and blow up the White House.”9 In Max’s telling, aliens emerge as terrorists, further linking together alien and immigrant rhetoric.

Yet, while Roswell, New Mexico is at pains to demonstrate that aliens are different from their media representations, Noah, Isobel’s husband, is the alien serial killer whose arc spans the first season. Significantly, Noah is the only visibly brown person in the group – Max, Isobel, and Michael all appear to be white in the show and the difference in Noah’s skin color is never explained. The only difference between Noah and the other aliens is that the latter emerged from their pods decades later while Noah’s pod was broken in the crash, preventing him from returning to his pod. Noah’s brownness even stands out in contrast to Liz, as Jeanine Mason, the actress who plays her, is a light-skinned Latina of Cuban descent. In the final episode of the season, Noah, played by the Indian American actor Karan Oberoi, is mistaken for Mexican by a white Roswell resident. Noah comes to signify the immigrant Trump describes – an undocumented “Mexican” criminal. Like Central American immigrants, Noah’s actual place of origin does not matter for Trump and his supporters; what matters is that Noah signifies a false narrative that Trump has promoted and enforced throughout his presidency. However, in making Noah adhere to this narrative, the creators of Roswell, New Mexico reinforce harmful narratives about immigration as Noah is, in fact, an alien invader and a murderer. Further, as a synecdoche for Central American immigrants, Noah represents their erasure as a Roswell resident, like Trump and the OTM designation, only sees Mexicans when faced with a brown person.

Aliens Killed Upon Landing, Roswell, New Mexico, 2019

In the penultimate episode, Noah tells Liz, Max, Isobel, and Michael how their ship came to earth. He describes the journey and its aftermath: “We left behind a war-torn desolate planet in search of a better place to call home. We were refugees, together. But the ship was hijacked, driven into the ground by a stowaway. We crashed in foreign land, trading one kind of violence for another. I listened all night as humans slaughtered our comrades, our families.”10 In leaving behind a war-torn planet, Noah’s tale parallels that of Central American immigrants who are often leaving their home countries as a result of war and its aftermath. In calling himself and the other aliens “refugees,” he draws yet another parallel with Central Americans as “[d]uring the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, many Central Americans fleeing the region due to violence were classified by U.S. law and immigration criteria as ‘economic immigrants’ rather than ‘refugees’” (Cárdenas 141). In refusing to acknowledge Central Americans as refugees, the U.S. consigned asylum-seekers to deportation and further violence. Similarly, in viewing Noah and his compatriots as aliens rather than refugees, the U.S. viewed them as creatures subject to violence rather than humans (or human-like beings) with rights. Additionally, Noah’s description of the slaughter he hears all night, which is visually echoed by scenes of humans searching among the wreckage for aliens and shooting them, recalls the death squads that would torture and murder entire indigenous communities in Central America. Rigoberta Menchú’s famous testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983) details the horror of such death squads. Finally, in referring to his people as “comrades,” Noah raises the specter of communism as the war against communism is what led the U.S. to intervene in Central America in the first place.

Noah in hiding, Roswell, New Mexico, 2019

With its frequent references to Trump – which often happen without naming him explicitly – Roswell, New Mexico would seem to offer a critique of our current moment. For example, in episode one, Liz reveals that her lab lost funding “because someone needed money for a wall” while in episode three she prevents Kyle from reporting Max to the government by saying, “so the president can sick the space force on our local bookworm?” Meanwhile, in episode four, Max references throwing paper towels at an issue to highlight its futility. And yet, no structural critique or solutions emerge from the show. Yet, rather than shrugging off this lack of a structural critique by noting that it is a show on the CW, after all, I contend that the inability of the show to offer such a critique stems from its refusal to name Barack Obama as the architect of Trump’s current immigrant policies by, for example, tripling ICE’s budget and dramatically expanding the reach of Operation Streamline, which criminally prosecutes those who cross the border.11 Indeed, Liz’s experience at an ICE checkpoint seems more in line with a response to Obama-era policies. In my reading, this refusal emerges most prominently in the strange 1990s nostalgia that permeates the show as if Roswell, New Mexico wants to see a return to Clinton-era policies, rather than acknowledging Obama’s debt to the policies developed by George W. Bush, such as Operation Streamline. This nostalgia manifests in the episode titles, each of which features a title from a popular 90s song – “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” “I Saw the Sign” – as well as the show’s frequent references to the 90s by way of Rosa, Liz’s dead sister who loved the 90s. While on the one hand, this might make sense given that the first Roswell television show premiered in 1999, Rosa’s death – the event that sets off all the other events that follow in the show – happened in 2008. Within the realm of the show, it is as if Obama was never president.

By refusing to name any policies or events after the late 1990s, but still referencing Trump, Roswell, New Mexico suggests that Trump emerged out of the ether, seemingly from nowhere. In this way, it fails to account for how the past two decades have shaped the now ubiquitous anti-alien, anti-immigrant rhetoric that finds its conclusion in massacres and concentration camps. The failure to acknowledge the specific historical circumstances that gave rise to Trump means that Roswell, New Mexico also fails to imagine more liberatory futures; instead, we are left with dead futures. In Roswell, New Mexico, the show looks to the past via the 90s but, rather than resurrecting a viable former future, chooses to pass over the intervening years.

In ignoring the time period that set up Trump’s deportation machine, the show culminates in a foreclosed future that can only end with concentration camps because rather than substantively addressing our dystopian present, the show nostalgically looks to an imagined past that seems better. In doing so, the show also fails to account for shifting immigrant demographics. By making Liz and her family Mexican without the context of the Obama era, the series fails to imagine a future for Chicanxs. Only in accounting for our history can we project a future. Further, by casting immigration as a Mexican issue, the show also fails to imagine both a present and a future for Central Americans in the U.S. In this way, the show inadvertently echoes the MAGA slogan by romanticizing the past at the expense of the present. As long as Latinx speculative fictions continue to only focus on Chicanx speculative imaginaries, rather than examining how all our fates are tied together, they consign us all to a dead future.

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Many thanks to William Orchard for reading an earlier version of this piece.

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Previous: Shelley Streeby, “Latinx World-Making, Queer Futurities, and Spaces of Change in Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams”

Endnotes

  1. Micah Luxen, Jessica Lussenhop and Rajini Vaidyanathan. “Is there a crisis on the US-Mexico border?” BBC News (July 11, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44319094
  2. Jean Stokan. “A Border Crisis of Our Own Making,” Common Dreams (May 1, 2019), https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/05/01/border-crisis-our-own-making
  3. For this information, compare removals by country of citizenship with “The Profile of the Unauthorized Population: United States. For example, while 141,045 Mexicans were deported in 2018, the number of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. is estimated to be 5,944,000, which means 2.3% of undocumented Mexicans were deported. In contrast, 50,390 Guatemalans were deported in 2018 out of a total estimated population of 525,000, which means that 9.5% of Guatemalans were deported. See U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Fiscal Year 2018 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report,” https://www.ice.gov/doclib/about/offices/ero/pdf/eroFY2018Report.pdf and Migrant Policy Institute, “Profile of the Unauthorized Population: United States,” https://www.migrationpolicy.org/data/unauthorized-immigrant-population/state/US
  4. Regarding this phenomenon, scholars such as Vielka Cecilia Hoy refer to latinidad as “Mexicentric” (426) while Horacio Roque Ramírez, in referring to the invisibility of salvadoreños in Los Angeles compared to the experiences of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, describes an “overwhelming mexicanidad” (8).
  5. In this way, “Mexicanness inadvertently enters as a type of regulatory ‘ideal,’ since this schema creates a quick shorthand for how to read racialized subjects, particularly those imbued with ‘Latin looks,’ as Mexican (or Mexican American) until proven otherwise” (Cárdenas 122-123).
  6. Roswell, New Mexico, episode 1, “Pilot,” directed by Julie Plec, written by Carina Adly MacKenzie, aired January 15, 2019, on CW.
  7. Matt Ford. “Trump’s Cynical War on American Citizenship,” The New Republic (July 30, 2019), https://newrepublic.com/article/154558/trumps-cynical-war-american-citizenship
  8. Roswell, New Mexico, episode 1, “Pilot,” directed by Julie Plec, written by Carina Adly MacKenzie, aired January 15, 2019, on CW.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Roswell, New Mexico, episode 12, “Creep,” directed by Dawn Wilkinson, written by Steve Stringer and Christopher Hollier, aired April 16, 2019, on CW.
  11. Marisa Franco and Carlos Garcia. “The Deportation Machine Obama Built for President Trump,” The Nation (June 27, 2016), https://www.thenation.com/article/the-deportation-machine-obama-built-for-president-trump/