Made in America

Latinos: A Biography of the People

by Earl Shorris
Norton, 520 pp., $25.00

The latest census counted 22.4 million Latinos living in the United States—approximately 9 percent of all Americans. They are of twenty-one different nationalities and of mixed Indian, European, African, and sometimes even Asian descent. About 9 million of them were born outside the country. About 63 percent of them are Mexican American, 11 percent Puerto Rican, and 5 percent Cuban American; the remaining 21 percent have roots elsewhere in the Caribbean or in Central or South America. Latinos are young: their median age of 25.3 years is almost ten years beneath that of the general population, and almost one third of them haven’t yet reached 15. Most live in cities in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey, or in towns throughout the Southwest. Already one of every four Californians and Texans is a Latino. Sometime around 2010, Latinos will pass blacks to become the largest minority in America.

If only they could leave off being just Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans and start acting as a group, Earl Shorris writes in his bitter and diffuse new book, with their exponentially increasing numbers, Latinos might be the great force propelling American politics toward the close of the century. Instead Shorris worries that five hundred years of intimidation and neglect by the Spaniards and the Americans have produced a people too distracted by their different burdens to work in unison. “There are no Latinos,” he declares in his introduction, “only diverse peoples struggling to remain who they are while becoming someone else.”

What Shorris means is that Latinos travel no single route. They have arrived over four centuries, under every imaginable circumstance—as job seekers, adventurers, well-to-do exiles, or persecuted refugees, or simply because the United States took over the land they happened to be living on. Once here, too, they have lived every kind of life. As he traveled the country rounding up exemplary Latinos, Shorris found mostly hapless victims, such as the family of Mexicans overtaken by bandits as they crossed the border into Texas, and the Puerto Rican mother who keeps her daughters indoors with her, watching television and eating junk food, away from the gunfire outside their Bronx apartment. But he also spoke to a middleclass owner of an office supplies business in El Paso, to a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, and to a few people, such as Jorge Más Canosa, the millionaire leader of Miami’s conservative, anti-Castro Cubans, who are wellknown and powerful.

These individual portraits should, like dots on a pointillist canvas, add up delicately to a large picture of Latino life. But unlike the dots, they cannot be taken in at once; they must appear to us scattered through five hundred pages. Even as Shorris convinces us of his subjects’ diversity, his book leaves the grim impression after a while that Latinos of almost every station are stoic dupes, awaiting an oppression as certain and predictable as rain.

Shorris’s own overprotective attachment to the …

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