Renato Rosaldo, "Cultural Citizenship"

Renato Rosaldo

The presence of Latinas/os in the United States challenges the notion of the citizen monosubject, a person who speaks English only and lives only in relation to an "Anglo" heritage. Alongside other groups, Latinas/os belie the notion that the United States must be made up of one bounded territory within which people speak one language and have one culture. Why otherwise do bilingual people, fluent in both English and Spanish, threaten Anglo groups? The response to a sense of threat involves marginalization and the outright exclusion of Latina/o groups in the United States. At the same time one must consider the everyday cultural practices through which Latinas/os claim space and their right to be full members of society, a process I call cultural citizenship.

Cultural citizenship in the United States rests on a seeming paradox. It involves the simultaneous claim to one's cultural difference and to the right to be a first-class citizen. Rather than accepting the dominant ideology that posits difference as a stigma or a sign of inferiority, cultural citizenship asserts that even in contexts of inequality people have a right to their distinctive heritage.

The term cultural refers to specific notions that convey a sense of human worth, such as dignity, respect, and trust. Put another way, cultural refers to the subjective evaluations people have of their situations. An outsider has no tools to judge, for example, whether a person is respected or not. After all, the very definition of what counts as “respect” may vary from one group or individual to another. I have found that people are often quite articulate about such matters as what counts as respect.

Citizenship includes not only legal definitions or documents (which one either does or does not have), but also the extra-legal (vernacular) elements of citizenship that we recognize in ordinary language phrases and which acknowledge matters of degree, such as first-class versus second-class citizenship. In a democracy one wants to minimize second-class citizenship and aspire to first-class citizenship for all. Such a notion affirms that citizenship happens both in relations of citizens to the state and in relations among fellow citizens, whether they be in neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, workplaces, or voluntary associations. These questions of citizenship include a sense of belonging, of having a voice and being heard.


Renato Rosaldo teaches Anthropology at New York University. He received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He was President of the American Ethnological Society, inaugural Director of Latino Studies at NYU, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.