“Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism” Renato Rosaldo

arizona-citizenship-lawIn “Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism,” anthropologist Renato Rosaldo examines the distinction between citizenship as a legal category that allows one to participate in the meaning and scope of the community in which one lives. In other words, legal citizenship pertains to one’s relationship to the state–the government. For Rosaldo, cultural citizenship means having a place and a voice in the public sphere (the nation) and claiming rights and recognition in relationship to other citizens.

Rosaldo responds to the class-based elements of citizenship, drawing attention to the disparity between “the formal level of theoretical universality from the substantive level of exclusionary and marginalizing practices” (27). In connection to contemporary theorists who emphasize the role of the public square in fostering democratic citizenship and equality, she points out the barriers to participation in the public sphere, including lack of resources and visible markers such as race and gender that align with the original exclusions in the Constitution (28-29). He thus shifts the focus from citizenship as based on legal rights to citizenship based on participation in a “discussion, and a struggle over, the meaning and scope of membership in the community in which one lives” (Hall and Held, qtd in Rosaldo 30). In this way, cultural citizenship is defined by the struggle for those in subordinate social positions to gain access to resources and recognition of their voices in the public square (30, 38).

Rosaldo’s argument focuses specifically on the position of Latinos in the United States, but it has pertinence for others as well. In relationship to the public sphere, he writes, “One must consider categories that are visibly inscribed on the body, such as gender and race, and their consequences for full democratic participation. The moment a woman or a person of color enters the public square both difference and inequality come to the surface. It is difficult to conceal differences of gender and race, and given the prejudiced norms under which we still live, inequities will come to the surface” (29). In this way, there are certain visible barriers to cultural citizenship, even for people who may have the full legal rights of citizenship.

Also of note in this regard is Rosaldo’s argument about the way that the terms “alien” or “illegal” impact the citizenship of all Latinos in the United States as “by a psychological and cultural mechanism of association all Latinos are thus declared to have a blemish that brands us with the stigma of being outside the law. We always live with that mark indicating that whether or not we belong in this country is always in question” (31). He further asserts that the term “illegal’ suggests that undocumented workers live outside the law when in reality for the most part they are more law abiding because of fear of deportation. Finally, the “icon of the Latino illegal alien” creates the impression that all Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants. He cites the phrase “No cruce la forntera, la frontera me cruzo a mi” (“I did not cross the border, the border crossed me.”) to explain how many Latinos, especially in the Southwest, are indigenous to this country.


Rosaldo draws on Stuart Hall and David Held to think about how citizenship has evolved, “expanding claims to rights and entitlements to new areas” (30). He notes that “the new social movements have expanded the emphasis on citizens’ rights from questions of class to issues of gender, race, sexuality, ecology, and age. In effect, new citizens have come into being as new categories of persons who make claims on both their fellow citizens and the state. For Hall and Held, the rights of citizenship have expanded in a quantitative sense, but I should like to note that the shift is also qualitative” (30).

Rosaldo says this happens in two dimensions: 1) the redistribution of resources and 2) recognition and responsiveness.

He uses the example of gay and lesbian rights, claiming that with the redistribution of resources (i.e. through benefits) were taken care of, issues of bias and unfair treatment or recognition may remain.

Border Violence

“The U.S.-Mexico border has become theater, and border theater has become social violence. Actual violence has become inseparable from symbolic ritual on the border–crossings, invasions, lines of defense, high-tech surveillance, and more.” (33)


“The vote is the citizen’s most sacred right/rite” (33).


Rosaldo critiques Richard Rodriguez’s opposition to public bilingualism in Hunger of Memory saying “he claims that racialized ethnic culture can thrive only within the domestic rather than the public sphere” (32). He further claims, “The segregationist ideology of white supremacy is speaking through Rodriguez, and  one should not blame either the author or the Spanish language. A day in Mexico, elsewhere in Latin America, or Spain should suffice to make it clear that the linguistic limitations Rodriguez experiences are built into social arrangements not the language. If the United States has placed a taboo on the use of Spanish in public life, it derives from prejudice manifest in legal and informal arrangements and not because of language. In Mexico and Puerto Rico Spanish is the language of both the heart and the mind, domestic and public life” (32-33). ZING!

Rosaldo, Renato. “Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism.” Latino Cultural Citizenships. William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor, eds. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

2 thoughts on ““Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism” Renato Rosaldo

  1. Pingback: Comps Notes: Theories of Citizenship & Nation | Ph.D.s and Pigtails

  2. Thanks for this, very helpful and the border quote is more relevant than ever.
    I however disagree that the public sphere is linked to the nation as it seems Rosaldo means having ones voice heard / ideas represented in society through public activity!

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