The systematic study of Latinos in the
United States has its origins in the ethnic nationalist movements
of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Latino university students
caught up in the ethnic pride and identity politics of the era
fought to have ethnic studies included in higher education curricula.
The study of America's Latinos has since been thoroughly dominated
by activist scholars and writers who either once participated
in or who still emulate the ethnic campus politics of a generation
ago. Heavily influenced by Marxism, black separatism and the
colonial independence movements of the day, the early influential
works on the Mexican American experience were steeped in what
one UC Berkeley Chicano Studies professor has called the "good
guys-versus-bad guys" school of history.
As a result, much of contemporary writing on Latinos is, unfortunately,
only peripherally about Latinos. As Mexican American historian
Manuel Gonzales has pointed out, even seminal works in Chicano
Studies, like Rodolfo Acuna's 1972 "Occupied America," were
seemingly less concerned with telling the story of Mexican Americans
(the good guys) than they were with highlighting Chicano oppression
at the hands of Anglo Americans (the bad guys). In other words,
for the past generation, many intellectuals have been largely
concerned with Latinos as mere pawns of external forces rather
than as prime movers in their own evolving stories.
The spheres of Latino activity that have captured the attention
of most writers and scholars have generally been collective
responses to Anglo oppression. Indeed, in this view, Mexican
American identity itself has been largely defined by its opposition
to Anglo America. Activist historians ingeniously--if not disingenuously--managed
to portray contemporary Mexican Americans as a conquered people,
"an internal colony" whose ancient ethnic homeland, the American
Southwest, was being occupied by invading Anglos. No matter
that there were only an estimated 75,000 Spanish speakers in
all of California and the Southwest at the time of the signing
of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, many have rallied
behind the specious notion that "we didn't cross the border,
the border crossed us."
But the truth is that most of us did cross the border after
the Southwest became the United States, and there is no shame
in that fact. Indeed, in California--which by the way was home
to no more than about 7,500 Spanish speakers at the close of
the Mexican War--the overwhelming majority of Mexican Americans
derive from the 20th century's two great waves of Mexican migration.
Indeed, by 1990, two-thirds of adult Latinos in Los Angeles
County were foreign-born, and half of them had arrived within
the previous decade.
In portraying Mexican Americans as conquered people, activists
sought to highlight their ancestral rights to the Southwest
as well as to confer upon them the additional "protected status"
of a colonized ethnic minority. To do so, they had to make the
very real abuses Mexicans have sometimes suffered at the hands
of Anglos the central overriding theme of Chicano history. They
also were obliged to misconstrue Mexican migrants' motivations
for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In "Occupied America,"
Acuna was perhaps among the first to openly declare that Mexicans
did not come to the United States in order to improve their
economic prospects. Indeed, he wrote: "Most Mexicans became
part of the United States either because of the Anglo conquest
or because they were brought here by economic forces over which
they had little control. The uprooted Mexican was torn from
his homeland 'like a nail torn from its finger.' "
In his brilliant 1991 essay, "Nihilism in Black America," Cornel
West outlined two opposing ideological camps in America's racial
dialogue. On the one hand, he writes, there are the conservatives
who talk about behavior, values and attitudes as if political
and economic structures hardly existed. On the other, there
are the "liberal structuralists" who argue that larger economic
and political forces thoroughly dictate both individual life
choices and chances. The study of American Latinos has been
heavily influenced by ideologues of the latter persuasion. The
result has been scores of analyses in which Mexican migrants
were largely stripped of free will or self-propelled motivations.
Yet, as West argues, culture is as much a structure as the economy
or politics, and individual decisions are not irrelevant in
the face of broader forces.
The Marxist leanings of so many of the first generation of
Chicano Studies professors made it even more difficult for them
to admit that millions of Mexicans have come to the United States
hoping to one day finally place their families into the middle
class. Instead, activist scholars and writers have for years
insisted that Mexican immigrants were primarily concerned with
cultural and political "resistance" of the American mainstream.
This assessment has been at the very core of the dominant Latino
analysis. But just as no biographer can understand his subject
without first comprehending what makes him tick, no writer can
adequately explore the dynamics of an ethnic group if he refuses
to consider the myriad hopes, dreams and fears that motivate
The intellectual byproduct of this skewed understanding has
been volumes and volumes of Chicano history by acronym. The
Mexican American experience has largely been interpreted through
the actions of advocacy groups. No matter that surveys find
that Mexican Americans are much less likely to join civic groups
than are, say, Anglos, most writers still adhere to the rule
that the collective, organized minority activity is the only
minority behavior that's worth writing about. No matter how
tiny or even fringe, activist groups were presumed to encapsulate
the entirety of the Mexican American experience. Ironically,
left-wing Chicano history is anything but populist. With few
exceptions, the history of an organized few has obscured the
more revealing story of the lives and daily struggles of the
unorganized mass of people.
In recent years, younger, more independent-minded scholars
have begun to create more nuanced interpretations of the Mexican
American experience. In "Walls and Mirrors," a formidable 1995
study of Mexican American activist attitudes toward immigrants
and immigration, UC San Diego scholar David Gutierrez acknowledges
that evolving positions of advocacy groups do not "represent
a scientific gauge by which to measure precise changes in public
opinion." After a detailed discussion of Mexican American political
advocacy, he also concedes that "militant, ethnic-based politics
held little appeal" to "a large percentage" of Mexican Americans
and that "a great many Mexican Americans continue to subscribe
to some version of the melting-pot theory in their everyday
lives." Such subtle yet important distinctions are evidence
that even the academic study of Latinos may be on the verge
of making a clean break from the ideological orthodoxy of the
Unfortunately, the three books at issue here generally rehash
old assumptions about Latinos, two-thirds of whom are of Mexican
origin. With minor exceptions and precious few points of light,
"Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America" by New
York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, "Magical Urbanism:
Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City" by Mike Davis and "Latino
USA: A Cartoon History" by Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst
College, do little to expand our understanding of the subject
The Gonzalez book is clearly the most earnest of the three.
For this eight-year project, he amassed an enormous amount of
historical information and skillfully reduced it into readable,
comprehensible form. His most imaginative and worthwhile historical
analysis lies in the parsing of the cultural and political development
of both Anglo and Latin America. Eager to highlight the interconnectedness
of the Americas--North and South--and the U.S. role in fostering
mass immigration northward, Gonzalez spends an inordinate amount
of time on the grisly history of U.S. colonialism in this hemisphere.
Indeed, this book is ultimately more successful in exploring
the history of U.S. adventurism and intervention in Latin America
than it is in telling us who U.S. Latinos are and where they're
Predictably, Gonzalez claims that Latinos are undermining the
melting pot theory while never bothering to flesh out his point.
In fact, in his epilogue, the Puerto Rican-born journalist writes:
"No matter what the leaders of this nation may claim about its
immutable Anglo-Saxon character, fresh waves of immigrants arrive
each year, flinging themselves and their customs into the mix,
recombining and redefining, ever so slightly, the locus of shared
memories that make up the definition of America." But isn't
that the very definition of the melting pot theory? Gonzalez
makes the all too common mistake of confusing the Anglo conformity
model of assimilation with the melting pot scenario.
To some extent, the book's ambitious scope--squeezing the histories
of seven Latin American origin groups into 346 pages--is its
fatal flaw. With the exception of his insightful portrait of
Puerto Ricans, Gonzalez's descriptions of each national-origin
group rarely amount to more than sketches. Despite his formidable
historical research, Gonzalez never goes deep enough to examine
the evolution of Latino identity. Halfway through the book he
states simply that Latinos are "a new linguistic subset" within
American society. But what about the millions of latter-generation
Latinos who speak little or no Spanish? "Harvest of Empire"
fails to address such basic questions.
Mike Davis does a better job exploring the nuances of Latino
identity at the opening of his volume of what are essentially
short essays. In an energetic chapter titled "Buscando America,"
he tackles the multifaceted and ever-changing nature of what
he calls "Latinidad." He perceptively concludes that "to be
Latino in the United States . . . is to participate in a unique
process of cultural syncretism that may be a transformative
template for the whole society." Davis is most interesting when
he explores the ways in which Latin American immigrants are
affecting U.S. life and culture. The book's most illuminating
chapter tells of Latinos reinventing and re-configuring the
But most of the book is a sensationalist polemic in which the
lives of powerless Latinos are directed by Anglo bosses making
"Orwellian threats," INS officials who sound like "Slobodan
Milosevic" and Orange County teenagers who act like "haughty
Beverly Hills 90210 wannabes." Davis is surprisingly careless
on key facts. For example, he misidentifies former California
State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles)
as a representative of the San Gabriel Valley, cites the wrong
year for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and claims that Mexico
recently passed a law allowing dual citizenship. (The Mexican
government was careful to allow only naturalized U.S. citizens
to reclaim the more limited rights that come with dual "nationality.")
Clearly more at home with the theoretical than the mundane,
Davis romanticizes immigrant cultural practices. He argues that
immigrants are rejecting American cultural influence by neatly
re-creating their traditions and political structures throughout
urban America. Curiously, he misconstrues the growing signs
of immigrant rootedness in the United States--like unprecedented
levels of home buying, naturalization and business start-ups--as
evidence of growing cultural resistance. He writes perplexingly:
"Immigrants have, in fact, had to retrench themselves more securely
on the northern side of the border in order to defend their
embattled social identity in the south."
But today as ever, uprooting oneself from one's country of
birth and resettling abroad is a disruptive and alienating process.
The clash of cultures inevitably forges new social forms as
immigrants transform themselves over time and generations into
ethnic Americans. And though transnational lifestyles are easy
to sustain for corporate executives and the artist class, they
are harder to uphold for families of lesser means, particularly
once they have children enrolled in school. Earlier this year,
the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles released data that indicates
that transnationalist life may be much more of a fad among intellectuals
than among Mexican immigrants. Though millions of Mexican-origin
Angelenos have been eligible for dual nationality since 1998,
only 3,838 had applied as of late March 2000.
Both Davis and Gonzalez end their books with strikingly similar
messages of political advocacy. Within his last few lines, Gonzalez
concludes that the Latino future rests on the "reining in" of
the free market's "relentless grasp," while in his last paragraph
Davis promotes "labor militancy" as the "most powerful strategy."
Both authors claim to be exposing the brave new world they say
Latinos are creating in America, but their ultimate conclusions
have been standard-issue for decades.
Stavans' "Latino USA," on the other hand, carries no such pointed
political message. Indeed, it is difficult to tell what purpose
the book serves. Despite the author's high-minded intentions
of combining "the solemnity of so-called 'serious literature'
and history with the inherently theatrical and humorous nature
of comics," "Latino USA" reads like a book from the popular
"For Dummies" series. Unsatisfactory and unprovocative, the
cartoons, which feature a cast of goofy characters, just regurgitate
the lessons of Chicano Studies 101. They give us the same old
history of martyrs, acronyms and ethnic icons. Even the wit
and irreverence of illustrator Lalo Alcaraz could not save this
book. Like Gonzalez and Davis, Stavans delivers little more
than 30-year-old intellectual orthodoxy.
It is puzzling that as the Latino experience has become more
dynamic and pluralistic over the last few decades, its representation
in American intellectual life has not. A healthier, less ideologically
driven and less defensive vision of the Latino past, present
and future is desperately needed. But it won't happen until
a new generation of writers and scholars has the courage to
tear down what has become a worn-out intellectual framework,
born of a movement that has long since lost its relevance.