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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 subject probably accounts for much of the pervading gloom of his book. He leads the reader through such disparate topics as Latino cuisine, congressional redistricting, and low self-esteem with the proprietary zeal of someone showing a guest the rooms in his house; the reader, awed in places by the astounding variety of the material, must repeatedly stop to wonder what eccentric path led him to be host. Apparently a life lived around Latinos has prepared him, and compels him, an outsider but no “tourist,” to write about their hardships. Shorris describes growing up among Mexican Americans in El Paso and marrying a Sephardic Jew, raised in the Bronx, whose first language was Spanish. He tells us about several of his childhood acquaintances, and in a chapter near the end he finds a spokesman for his nostalgia in the figure of his dead father-in-law, Ernesto, whose ghost explains to him that Latinos “want to assimilate” but cannot, “so we are trapped in hope.”

But the better part of the blame for the book’s near-paralyzing mood of regret may sit with the category of the Latino itself. We are now so accustomed to the word it is hard to remember that the notion of the “Latino” has been among us hardly more than a decade, and that it was in fact conceived defensively, as an alternative to the very different notion of the “Hispanic” that made its debut as a category in the US Census in 1980. Newspapers at the time had greeted the “Hispanic” term as heralding a great and promising new presence in America; a number of upbeat stories announced, somewhat apocalyptically, that the “Decade of the Hispanic” had arrived. But the sudden spotlight was quite obviously contradictory. The movement for civil rights for most of the people who would now be called “Hispanic” had lost steam since the mid-1970s, when the Supreme Court decided a key case in favor of bilingual education, and the Voting Rights Act was amended to protect Spanish-speakers. By 1981 the first English-only law was being passed in Florida and activists, instead of making new headway, were trying to soften punitive measures in an immigration reform bill before Congress. Federal cuts under Reagan threatened to bankrupt Washington civil rights groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (roughly comparable to the NAACP) and the National Council of La Raza (roughly comparable to the Urban League) that had been founded in 1968.

In order to survive, these groups in the early 1980s turned to the private sector for money. A series of “corporate partnership” agreements were negotiated with Kraft and Gulf Oil and Coca-Cola and hundreds of other companies which before had been sluggish at pursuing Spanish-speaking consumers, or awkward (one early, notorious campaign in Spanish for Braniff airlines had mistakenly invited customers to “fly naked”). The corporations promised to recruit and promote more Hispanic workers. They would also work to improve the image of Hispanics in their advertising, and make themselves more sensitive in general to the needs of Hispanics. Philip Morris, for instance, sponsored art exhibits by Hispanic artists; Anheuser Busch established a scholarship fund for Hispanic students.

The “Hispanic” identity that emerged was thus the odd teamwork of bureaucrats, activists, journalists, and advertisers. It was thoroughly abstract, emptied of a sense of national origin, and suggesting, with its vague reference to Spain, white European instead of Indian or African ancestry. More than anything else, it represented a new market of consumers to be mined. As they worked to help Hispanics, companies were also able to begin studying millions of people they had never considered as a separate group before, and to think up new ways of selling to them.

It is not by chance that the most energetic chroniclers of Hispanic “trends” are trade magazines for advertising executives and journals telling salesmen where to pitch their goods. Under the liberal-sounding rubric of greater sensitivity, these articles sternly advise businesses to hurry and learn tastes, language, and habits, and to grasp “subtleties” in such a diverse population—the differences, for example, separating a fifth-generation Texan family that speaks only English from an undocumented Mexican who has just arrived, alone, in Houston. “To attract Hispanic customers, we must understand who Hispanics are, how different they are, and the importance of the values they share and keep,” one marketing expert, a Hispanic, instructs in American Demographics, a magazine for salesmen. Companies are encouraged to celebrate the Mexican Cinco de Mayo holiday and to set up booths at various “grassroots events,” and it is said to be worth knowing that Puerto Ricans tend to buy products in small containers rather than larger bargain sizes, and that they demonstrate exceptional “brand loyalty”; Hispanics generally, according to the Journal of Business Strategy, have more children and thus “use more of everything, from diapers to detergent.”

That it is possible to speak at the same time of diversity and diapers suggests how unruly an idea “Hispanic” is, how much this talk of values and preferences serves a business rather than a political or a cultural proposition. Shorris, who has worked in advertising, is horrified by the efficiency with which advertisers, especially those on the two Spanish-language television networks, Univision and Telemundo, have moved in on this new market. He worries that their attention is an “electronic melting pot in which words, customs, gestures, histories disappear.”

The newer term “Latino” has been taken up lately because it is thought to represent a distinct culture, not a bureaucratic category or a market niche to be manipulated. (The Census Bureau had planned to use Latino, Shorris writes, until someone worried at the last minute that people would confuse it with Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews.) As much an invention as Hispanic, Latino is used more by intellectuals and young people in cities, perhaps because they hear in it a sense of dignity and separateness evoking the rhetoric of ethnic pride we associate with the 1960s. Sandra Cisneros, the Mexican-American poet and short-story writer, said recently in The New York Times that “Hispanic” was a “repulsive slave name,” while “to say Latino is to say you come to my culture in a manner of respect.”

Shortly after his book appeared, Shorris laid out his own reasoning in an essay published in the opinion pages of The New York Times. He explained that the group’s sheer variety confounds any definition based on racial composition or political affiliation or class or religion. But there must be a name for it, because “political power in a democratic society requires numbers, and only by agglomeration does the group become large enough to have an important voice in national politics.” “Latino,” he believes, is a better word than “Hispanic” for the simple reason that it sounds more like Spanish, and so upholds a tie, maybe only symbolic, to traditions that might have been held in common a long time ago.

The difficulty remains, though, that Latinos are a motley, incongruous lot, held together not by a 1960s dream of togetherness, but by the more current and hard-to-pin-down principle of “diversity.” Shorris spends most of the book pointing to ways in which the three largest groups of Latinos—Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and Mexican Americans—behave differently, pursue different political goals, and frequently bear one another grudges. At one end are the Puerto Ricans. “The Spanish and U.S. conquests weigh heavily in Puerto Ricans’ judgment of themselves,” Shorris writes. He characterizes them as ground down by exploitation and poverty and by a perpetual self-doubt he attributes to four centuries of rule by outsiders. The United States won Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, but Puerto Ricans didn’t become citizens until 1917, and they didn’t begin moving to the mainland in large numbers until after World War II. About 50,000 Puerto Ricans arrived each year between 1950 and 1963, many of them jíbaros, farmers, who had been dislodged from the countryside to clear land for sugar monopolies on the island.

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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