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Taking the Oath - Why We Need a Revisionist History of Latinos in America

a book review of Juan Gonzalez' "Harvest of Empire," Mike Davis' "Magical Urbanism," and Ilan Stavan

By Gregory Rodriguez
Irvine Senior Fellow

Los Angeles Times
August 20, 2000

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 them.

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 past.

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 at hand.

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 going.

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 urban landscape.

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.

Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times

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