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Four Takes

A look at the Latino experience in America

Shutterstock/Bill Lawson

Right before Cinco de Mayo, awash in party-hearty beer and taco ads, I chanced on this jarring reminder: By the mid-19th century, America’s annexations — which gave us Texas, California, and our southwest — had cut Mexico’s territory by half and its mineral resources by three quarters. These appalling numbers help explain so much. In fact, you can arguably lay Mexico’s poverty and loss through emigration right at our doorstep. We got the land. We got the oilfields. So when you hear talk of a wall at the border know that we also walled off prosperity a century-plus back.

Those stats came from a great, incisive book called “Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America” (Penguin, 2011, first out in 2000) by former New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez. He pointedly calls the United States an empire (no matter how uneasy that makes us) and says that stateside Latinos are the “unintended harvest” of US domination of Latin America.


Mexico is the most glaring example: It recently surpassed all other countries, including Ireland and Germany, for most legal immigrants to America — and that’s minus the undocumented. But Central America and the Caribbean were also slammed by forces both military (see the Spanish-American War of 1898) and economic (see United Fruit Co., etc.). Meanwhile, migration from Cuba poses a singular story, with a singular political heritage (see Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio).

Gonzalez, whose parents arrived from Puerto Rico in 1946, concedes that Puerto Ricans have had a unique encounter with immigration, because they don’t need a passport, coming as they do from a US territory. He also chronicles Nicaraguan, Honduran, Colombian, and Dominican relocations, and traces the Latino exodus from the 1500s on up. All that time, nativist suspicion has simmered and overheated, as is clear from the provocatively titled “The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation” (Stanford University, 2013, second edition).


It’s by Leo R. Chavez, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and it’s both scholarly and subversive. In fact, Chavez boldly co-opts the “threat” narrative of opponents to south-of-the-border immigration and then frames it within “the grand tradition of alarmist discourse.” But the Latino threat is amplified by several distinct factors. First, proximity: Latinos can unnervingly enter by land, unlike most past immigrants processed from overseas. Proximity then links to payback; we’re subconsciously afraid that they are “bent on reconquering land that was formerly theirs.”

Add in the stereotype of Latina fertility, which fans fears of a population explosion. Finally, there’s the isolating strength of numbers: There are so many Latinos here — a third of the US population projected by 2050 — they can form their own Spanish-speaking enclaves and resist integration. Chavez steadily debunks the fictions through facts: Studies show that Latina mothers have fewer children once they get jobs, like all immigrant groups before them, and by the second generation, English coexists with Spanish — or even supplants it.

That next gen is the subject of my next two books. “The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate” (Stanford University, 2013) is by Walter J. Nicholls, who teaches sociology at the University of Amsterdam. He reminded me how painstaking and strategic most protests can be. Just after she refused to sit in the back of the bus, for instance, Rosa Parks was thoroughly vetted by civil rights leaders. They needed someone with an impeccable reputation, someone to embody the best of the movement, and Parks was perfect.


So it’s gone with the DREAMers (it stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act). Indeed, immigrants-rights groups intentionally decided to “build a sympathetic public portrait” of this youth group to “counter the stigmatizing arguments of their adversaries.” They’re young, English-fluent, often academically impressive — and, the kicker, here through no fault of their own. Yet, because they aren’t American citizens, their dreams are on hold. DREAMers have also wisely stolen a page from the tremendously successful gay-rights movement by “coming out” as well. As their slogan goes: “Undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic.”

My last book, “The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America” (University of North Carolina, 2014), offers 13 compelling oral histories of first-gen Latino college students — who’ve bonded as a generation through mobilization and advocacy.

Author Mario T. García, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, humanizes those reductively lumped under the term “illegal immigrants.” One student is the child of Napa Valley grape pickers, another of a Honduran realtor in Pasadena. But all, says García, are members of our country’s largest minority that is, paradoxically, “the least understood.” Estos libros ayudan a que el cambio: These books help change that.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at