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Made in America

Because they were already citizens they were closer, Shorris believes, to the poor rural blacks who came up from the South at around the same time than to earlier immigrants from Russia or Italy—with the added disadvantage of not knowing English. They went to work in factories and service industries in New York and other cities in the Northeast, tending to cluster in isolated neighborhoods like the South Bronx where, he says, “landlords gouged them, employers took advantage of them, nothing worked for them.” In 1991 Puerto Ricans were the worst-off ethnic group in the country, more than twice as likely as blacks to be on welfare.* Yet it is a measure of how far Latinos are from unity that despite their relative poverty the 2.75 million Puerto Ricans who live in the continental United States exhaust much of their political energy worrying about whether the island will get its independence, or whether it will become America’s fifty-first state or stay a commonwealth.

Most Cuban Americans got here in one of two waves. The first, largely middle-class push of exiles began arriving in Florida and to a lesser extent in New York and New Jersey after Castro’s revolution, especially after the Bay of Pigs failure; between 1962 and 1976, more than half a million Cubans received quick asylum and billions of dollars from the US government for help in relocating and setting up businesses. The Mariel boatlift of 1980 brought another 125,000, who tended to be less educated, and frequently black, and who were not so warmly embraced—the first restrictions on Cuban immigration were set shortly after they arrived—but on the whole, Shorris says, Cubans, with their exile’s “arrogance,” are the envy of other Latinos. (If Puerto Ricans can be associated with African Americans, Shorris writes that Cubans enjoy a reputation as the “Jews of the Caribbean.”)

Those Cubans who have prospered have done so in part by practicing socioismo, an old-boy web of contacts holding onto business inside the community, and in part because their hatred of Castro endowed the normally pedestrian immigrant struggle with the direness of a quest. (Shorris believes that working-class Cubans are more unwaveringly fanatical than the better-off. The occasional bomb, he writes, helps them to separate themselves “from the ordinary poor.”) Only 5 percent of America’s Latinos live in Miami, but about half of the country’s Latino-owned businesses, and the largest Spanish-language television network, Univision, are based there.

Of all the Latino groups, Mexican Americans count the longest and most complicated history here, many of them having lived over two centuries in the Southwest before 1848, the year the United States annexed the territory following victory in the Mexican-American War. After that war their land was taxed unreasonably, divided up, or confiscated outright, and many Mexicans had to hire out as miners or fruit pickers or on the railroads.

Another million Mexicans arrived between 1880 and 1929, looking first for jobs, and then for shelter from Mexico’s revolution. In Chicago and Detroit they met other immigrant groups at steel mills and packing houses, but those in the Southwest were kept out of unions and guided away from Anglo communities to isolated colonia settlements with segregated schools, and when they did badly under these conditions social scientists of the 1920s and 1930s began to call them shiftless and even retarded. In 1930 Dr. Roy I. Garis of Vanderbilt University, a eugenics specialist, testified before Congress on the general attitude of Americans toward Mexicans: “Their minds run to nothing higher than animal functions—eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery.”

The Border Patrol was established in 1924, and by 1929 undocumented entry was a criminal act; with the Depression, Congress summarily “repatriated” to Mexico at least thirty thousand people who had been born here or had become citizens. The situation improved slightly after World War II, when Mexican American veterans who had gone to college on the GI bill began to form new middle-class, boosterish political associations to quicken assimilation. (Their Viva Kennedy clubs are thought to have won Kennedy the key state of Texas.)

Shorris informs us with his subtitle that his book is a “biography” of Latinos, not a history. Under such a scheme, he examines the Mexican American Chicano movement of the 1960s more for the imprint it left on a collective psyche, like that which a tortuous love affair or a parent’s death might leave on an individual life, than for its effect on laws or institutions. This is unfortunate, for although the Chicanos’ movement never caught on as powerfully as the movement for black civil rights or the protests against Vietnam, their talk of ethnic solidarity became the chief reference point for subsequent Latino politics. Today, the movement is recalled only dimly if at all in the figure of the activist César Chávez, who was able briefly to enlist the nation’s sympathy with boycotts and hunger strikes on behalf of grape pickers in California. In fact, Chávez, because he claimed to be working for all poor people and not for Mexican Americans in particular, wasn’t as typical of the Chicano movement as the artists who began to paint wall murals depicting rediscovered Aztec gods, or the thousands of Chicano teen-agers who struck their schools in Los Angeles and Denver, or the farmers who raided a courthouse in New Mexico demanding the return of land granted to their ancestors by the Spanish king.

What these all had in common was their announcement of a distinct identity in which people could take pride, and around which they could organize. Chicanos stopped talking, as the previous generation of Mexican American leaders had talked, about getting ahead by assimilating. They started talking about the Indian and Mexican roots that both knotted them to one another and set them, as a group, apart from other Americans. They created the new academic discipline of Chicano Studies to examine their culture, and, briefly, a new political party, La Raza Unida, to advance it. This statement for the Chicano Youth Conference in Denver in 1969 was characteristic:

Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggle against the foreigner “Gabacho” who exploits our riches and destroys our culture…. We are Bronze People with a Bronze Culture…. We are Aztlán.

Such desperate, utopian assertiveness sounds out of date today. Most Latinos must be more tentative; they are so many different kinds of people that they cannot point to a single color or culture that unites them. But if the Chicano aspiration to “brotherhood” produced little that was concrete or permanent, it was still a dress rehearsal for the notion, twenty years later, that Latinos would do better sticking together than alone. (It is with this hope that Shorris writes abstractly in the Times of the “numbers” necessary for Latinos to exercise their “important voice in national politics.”) Even so, Shorris recalls the Chicano movement with a heavy heart; in his description we feel we are reading about a loved one injured beyond all hope of recovery. The Brown Berets, a paramilitary group, were, he tells us, “platoons of children, many of them seeking to overcome some physical or emotional handicap”; César Chávez’s “beautiful, suffered face” is remembered more vividly than any victories won by his United Farm Workers.

Shorris’s account turns around the story of Rubén Salazar, a brilliant activist journalist who was a childhood friend from El Paso, and who was brutally killed by Los Angeles police during a Chicano protest against Vietnam. Out of the entire eclectic movement, which had several leaders more prominent than Salazar, only he holds Shorris’s attention. His notorious murder has the final clarity of myth, and thus, strangely, it, instead of the uneven accomplishments of the activists, is the lesson that the era teaches:

In all the history of the Mexica the pattern had been the same. A man rose to prominence and led the people in war. He was killed in ambush or in battle, and he was neither replaced nor remembered in anger. The Mexica believed in heroes but not in martyrs. Conquered cities did not rise again; destroyed temples were not rebuilt. The Náhua poet asked, “Is it true that we pass this way but once?”

For those ancient reasons, the killing of Rubén Salazar was a Mexican death. As in the past, some people survived, but the spirit of the civilization died. Of those who survived, some were used as slaves and servants by the conquerors; others in their worldly wisdom chose to become like the conquerors and prospered. Soon it was the 1980s and Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. His California cadre called out to the crowd, “Viva!” and the crowd answered, “Olé!” Never before had so many Mexican-Americans voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

This passage captures the atmosphere of damage and inexorability that hangs about Latinos. Once we explain the crash of 1960s idealism and the defection of Mexican Americans under Reagan in terms of something so ancient and fundamental as pre-Columbian legend, then Latino history itself begins to seem little more than a repeating fable, a spinning wheel of brief hope followed by long stretches of letdowns. Indeed, throughout the book, it is as if the Spaniards’ and the Americans’ different talents for ignoring, harassing, and profiting from minorities and conquered populations have created a people whose main features in common are a kind of stuck-ness, incompleteness, and bad luck. The sense of being in between two identities, an unease presumably felt for a time by the Jews and the Italians when they first got here, simply and permanently is Latino culture for Shorris. Even the relatively prosperous Cubans are revealed as frail Quixotes suspended between “certainty and irony,” “paranoia and hope,” “death and laughter.”

Again, the problem goes back to roots. Of all the consequences of Spanish imperialism, Shorris feels, one of the hardest for Latinos (after genocide) is that it deprived them, even before they arrived in the United States, of a dependable narrative with which to explain themselves. Their multiple heritage he calls a “confused and painful algebra of race, culture, and conquest,” since everyone must ask unanswerable questions about ancestry, and about the Aztec and Carib and Yoruba civilizations that were ravaged. The mestizo, or mixed-race Latino, is, Shorris believes, “condemned by the complexity of his nature to an endless examination of his own blood.”

It would be natural to understand Shorris’s moroseness as a form of “white liberal guilt” about old injustices, and some of his more hyperbolic self-accusations (for example, “In a Mexican restaurant or even when eating Mexican prepared-food from a grocery store, every Anglo is a colonialist exercising his power,” or “Whites do not open the door to darkskinned people for any reason other than to use them”) certainly fit this charge. But the turning over and over of past violations is also a way of avoiding the morass of the present as Latinos become more and more numerous and visible but not by all appearances more cohesive.

Shorris is depressed to see Latinos everywhere breaking apart over dozens of side issues. There are farmworkers who want to restrict immigration, Catholics who oppose abortion, liberals who single-mindedly campaign for affirmative action, bureaucrats who think their best chance for advancement is in the Republican Party. Each nationality, too, has its legitimate local worries and its less appealing prejudices. Shorris recalls the enmity that erupted in 1990 after the exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Montaner, appearing on a Spanish-language TV newsmagazine, accused Puerto Rican women of being welfare slouches. (A more vivid and alarming incident that does not appear in the book occurred the following year, when one hundred Cubans met at Miami’s Hispanic Walk of Fame to urinate on the star of a popular Mexican actress who had committed the unpardonable error of taping her talk show in Havana.)

Charting these rifts, Shorris begins to sound like a flustered ship captain who can’t decide whether his crew should cling to the sinking wreckage or jump overboard into shark-infested waters. Latinos either sacrifice their closest concerns and deliver themselves whole to dishonest, careerist politicians, he writes, or they part ways and lose the weight of their numbers.

If they [Latinos] remain separate and distinct, they will become an island within the nation, a troublesome toy to the powerful majority; otherwise, they will eventually become assimilated into the great factions, a politically indistinct group, with an appetite for different cheeses and ideas, the largest insignificant minority in American history.

This sentence means to measure what Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans accomplish and what they give up when the world calls them a group. It is possible to be moved, as Shorris is, by the different perils of a life lived in America’s mainstream and a life spent in an enclave off to the side. What his no-win pathos finally suggests, however, is the slipperiness of the abstract, in-between category of the Latino around which Shorris has constructed his book—a category whose future he has trouble imagining, because it never had a past.

  1. *

    See Nicholas Lemann, “The Other Underclass,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1991, p. 97.

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