Book Review: ‘Latino Americans’ Offers American Stories

Around 600,000 African slaves were shipped to colonial America, forever leaving their mark on the look and feel of what would become the United States. Now, with over 50 million members and growing rapidly, another group looks to do the same.

In the book, Latino Americans, esteemed journalist Ray Suarez offers up a history of the Latino American experience, from the voyages of Colón to the present. His stated goal is to show that “Latinos are in the same moment among the newest and oldest kids on the block,” that while many Latinos may be ecstatic over their community’s up-and-coming standing in America, and many non-Latinos may be fretting over what a growing Latino population might mean for the country, Latinos and their ancestors have been a major part of the American panorama all along.

Suarez begins his history of Latino Americans with Spanish America – specifically, the northern frontier of New Spain, much of what would become Texas, the American Southwest and California. The section contains the popular names and places familiar to any student who’s taken an alternative American history course. There’s St. Augustine in Florida, of course, settled long before many of the Pilgrims were even born. There’s the tale of Zacatecas-born Juan de Oñate and his exploits in Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, most notably his vicious treatment of the Acoma. The book moves on to the histories of the Californios (Alta California) and the Tejanos (Tejas), and the tragic lives of Apolinaria Lorenzana and Juan Seguín. Greed and the notion of white supremacy by the Anglo Americans leads to the annexation of Texas and the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, with the Spanish-speaking citizens of the acquired lands treated as conquered peoples and guests in their own home.

The next chapter focuses on Cubans and Puerto Ricans by journeying to New York at the close of the 19th century. Here, oddly enough, Suarez spends an inordinate amount of pages on the poet Jose Martí and the context of the Spanish-American War. The section feels more like a history of U.S.-Latin American relations rather than a history of Latino Americans in the strictest sense. While Martí did spend time in New York and Florida during the 1880s and early 1890s, he was always a Cuban in exile – a Latin American, not a Latino American. To say otherwise would be akin to calling Hemingway and Baldwin American-French writers. Suarez’s brief foray into the race issue in colonial Cuba and Puerto Rico makes for an interesting read, however irrelevant it may be to the Latino American experience per se.

The author gets back to the history at hand by describing the birth of Spanish Harlem and the human effects of America’s imperialistic agenda on the island of Puerto Rico. The case of Isabel González, a Puerto Rican woman held up on Ellis Island, highlights the backwardness at play in the United States’ relationship with one of the colonies in its newly-won empire. A revolution in Mexico results in a mass migration to the United States (one million Mexicans between 1900 and 1930), while a depression in the United States soon afterward leads to the repatriation of around 400,000, “more than half of whom were American citizens.”

Chapter Three recounts the brave heroics of Latinos in the fight overseas during the Second World War and similar heroics at home in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Era. Here Suarez provides arguably the most interesting anecdotes in the whole book – like the story of Guy Gabaldon, the Marine raised by Japanese Americans in California, who uses his fluency in Japanese to sneak behind enemy lines in the Pacific theater and take more than a thousand Japanese soldiers prisoner; or Macario Garcia, “the Fearless Mexican,” who became the first Mexican citizen – not a Mexican-American citizen, but a Mexican citizen – to receive the Medal of Honor. On the day after he returned to his home state of Texas, Garcia, now a nationally celebrated war hero, would be denied service at a local diner, the story garnering nationwide attention. San Juan-born Eugene Calderon, another serviceman and a company clerk for the Tuskegee Airmen, would later become the deputy superintendent of New York’s board of education and a co-founder of ASPIRA.

The rest of the section retells the familiar accounts from the Latino storybook: the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, LULAC, the efforts of Dr. Hector P. Garcia and his American GI Forum during the post-war years, the bracero program of the 1940s and the subsequent implementation of Operation Wetback in 1954.

From there, it’s back to the East Coast (noticing a pattern here?), where Suarez rejoins the saga of Antillean Latinos in the United States. He begins with Cuban-born Desi Arnaz and Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno, and the effects that I Love Lucy and West Side Story had on shaping America’s image of Latinos in general. Again, as if revealing a weak spot in his conception of the Latino American experience, Suarez provides a lot of information on the events unfolding on the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, though I suppose his reason for this is to contextualize the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican experiences in the United States. His rational seems to be that knowing why they came here in the first place marks the initial step in understanding their experiences once they got here. In any case, the special refugee status afforded Cubans and the nationless character of the Puerto Rican Diaspora seem most pertinent to history of Latino Americans. There’s also an interesting bit on the Dominican immigrant experience in the wake of earlier Puerto Rican arrivals.

The ensuing pages underscore an evolutionary leap in the way Latinos were depicted on screen and how they made their political power felt. While Freddie Prinze is sticking it to the man in living rooms across the country, Huerta, Chavez and the United Farm Workers are teaming up with Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy to demand equal rights for Latinos in the field and in the classroom. Huerta’s role allows for a brief but important discussion on machismo and the efforts of Latinas like Huerta to redefine womanhood in the Latino community. As with its African-American counterpart, the Chicano Movement had its own faction of militant separatists, men like José Ángel Gutiérrez and pronouncements like the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, rebuked by other Latinos as “a new racism.” Suarez closes the chapter with a trip to New York for a contrast between two roads to uplift in the Puerto Rican community – that of the Young Lords on the one hand, and that of the young Sonia Sotomayor on the other.

Next, the book goes over the recent past, everything from radical Puerto Rican nationalism and the Marielitos, to the current controversy on immigration beginning with Reagan’s immigration reform in the late 1980s and the booming Latino population since then. The rise of nativism dominates much of the chapter, as non-Latino Americans struggle to keep the country from being Latinized by passing English-only laws and other laws targeting Latino immigrants. A fence is built along the Rio Grande, and the Minutemen spring into action. There’s the Sensenbrenner bill of 2005, and political scientist Samuel Huntington seems to speak for all fearful non-Latinos when he writes around the same time, “There is no Americano Dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” Such xenophobic legislation and vitriolic language sparks a coalition of Latinos, immigrants and their advocates that will, hopefully, defeat it.

Then, after an awkward digression into the history of Latinos in baseball, Suarez reaches the founding question of his book: “And now … what?” The Latino community is growing, and growing quickly. By 2050 their numbers are projected to swell to more than double their current population, “approaching one of every three Americans.” The priority for Suarez is to invest in Latinos, particularly in education, so that succeeding generations of Latino Americans bear productive and empowered citizens to American society, participating in America’s democracy and forming the bedrock of a resurgent American middle class. As America becomes more and more Latino in the coming decades, it will become increasingly crucial that America become more accessible to her Latino citizenry.

Frankly, I wanted to hate Latino Americans. I cracked it open, pen in hand, ready to find plenty wrong with Suarez’s attempt to capsulize something as wide and manifold as the Latino American experience. After all, how do you present the history of a people from somewhere as large and diverse as Latin America, living somewhere as large and diverse as the United States? And while the work has its flaws, some more glaring than others, I find Latino Americans to be an honest effort to say something both important and interesting to the American people, Latino and non-Latino alike.

Sure, the know-something reader is asked to look past Suarez’s regrettable neglect of South America. They’re expected to forgive his limiting Latin America to only those countries in the Western Hemisphere that use Spanish as their primary language (sorry, Brazil and Belize). They’re asked to indulge him as he retells histories that veer away from the experience of actual Latinos in actual America. And the well-worn New York-Miami-Texas-Southwest-California paradigm is re-worn heavily throughout the text.

But if the reader is able to forgive these sins and peccadillos, they’ll encounter a moving history of a people who represent the past, present and future of the America. These 256 pages tell a story of bravery and fear, of joy and heartache, of hope and despair, of successes and setbacks, of helping hands and closed doors. Again, it is a story, not the story. Its value to the Latino historical narrative is equal to that of Howard Zinn’s work to the American historical narrative. Latino Americans fits well on your history shelf, but it shouldn’t be the history book in your Latino collection.

Nonetheless, I hope Suarez’s ambitious attempt to capture the Latino American story inspires future attempts to tell other stories, just as I hope the tales of past deeds in his book fuel future achievements.

What Suarez offers is not a Latino American history, something he makes quite clear in the book’s rousing conclusion. This an American history starring Latinos. In a nation as fundamentally open and multicultural as America, there’s no such thing as “their” history. “Latino history is your history,” Suarez writes to both the Latino and non-Latino reader alike. “Latino history is our history.”

With a premise like that, and the anecdotes Suarez provides to support it, Latino Americans proclaims itself as the newest addition to the Latino American canon.