A History Long and Rich
349 pages, $27.95.
When protests began in Puerto Rico over the U.S. Navy’s accidental bombing of Vieques, New York Daily News columnist Juan González immediately booked a flight to the Island. He knew the coverage would be weak, as is the case with most stories about Puerto Rico. He believed the bombing was a big story on the eve of an election year – and that it would inform a public that knew little about Puerto Rico beyond the media love affair with Ricky Martin and Jennifer López.
González is one of very few mainstream Latino journalists who regularly report from inside the Latino community. He is a columnist who often bases his reporting on the scene of a story, rather than relying on wire services and web sites; and he is a reporter who prefers to interview undocumented immigrants rather than the politicians who would speak for them. His approach to Vieques would be no different – and he would face a familiar frustration in trying to get his story to a readership beyond New York. After slating a few columns for the Daily News, González contacted an editor of a well-known national progressive publication based in New York. He thought she would love the idea and offer to put Vieques on the cover. He was wrong. She only wanted a small editorial. “That’s why I have so many problems with publications of the left,” González said in an interview while he was on a book tour in Houston. “They don’t take our issues seriously, and are very condescending to people of the Third World.”
González went to Puerto Rico anyway. He did a few radio spots for Pacifica Network News, wrote a few columns for the Daily News, and completed a long feature hoping that some publication would show interest. In the end, it was a left publication, In These Times, that made the piece a cover story.
For González, the media’s resistance to U.S. Latino stories is nothing new. Articles like the Vieques piece may take weeks to shop. And Harvest of Empire was not exactly a quick turn-around. After going to three publishers, ignoring suggestions that he talk more about Gloria Estefan and less about “Operation Wetback,” using all his vacation and sabbatical time to travel the U.S. and Latin America to research his topics, this widely anticipated, in-depth book about Latinos in the United States is complete. González (and Viking) are to be commended. Pulling together works of Chicano scholars such as Rudy Acuña and Juan Gomez-Quiñones, and Puerto Rican scholars Clara Rodríguez and Angelo Falcón, and adding his own research, González has created the first modern, important examination of the collective experience of a people known as Latinos. Unlike similar works in the past, most notably Ilan Stavans’ The Hispanic Condition or Earl Shorris’ Latinos, González avoids the “safari approach”: serving as tour guide to the Latino world so that non-Latinos might understand. González also avoids nostalgic recollections of the way things were for Latinos, and instead is much more inclined to look at why things were they way they were. The result is a mix of memoir, journalism, historical text, and cultural critique. And despite the eclectic approach, González has written a very readable book with a Latino journalist’s outlook – which, for the author and this reviewer, separates this work from all the rest. “Mine is the perspective of a Latino who has grown tired of having our story told, often one-sidedly, without the passion or the pain, by ‘experts’ who have not lived it,” González writes.
Distinctly different from his first book, Roll Down Your Window: Stories of a Forgotten America, which was an anthology of columns focused on life in present-day America, Harvest of Empire follows the historical trek of Latinos from their respective homelands to the United States, and considers how they are changing the country intellectually, politically, and demographically. Roll Down Your Window was journalistic. Harvest of Empire is a hybrid of a scholarly disquisition, biographical anecdotes, and oral history.
The book begins with an analysis of Latino culture in the New World, taking into account the complex racial and class systems imported from Spain – systems that shape Latino relationships with this country, its people, and its institutions to this day. González then relies on established scholars for a crash course on U.S. expansion into Latin America. According to González and the sources he uses, the U.S. Latino immigration experience is closely linked to U.S. capital’s “rape and pillage” of Latin America, through exploitation and the extraction of its natural resources. That extraction, and the dominance of the hemisphere’s economies by the U.S., resulted in uneven development, which in turn led to the extraction of yet another natural resource, as immigrants migrated northward toward the land of riches.
González examines the experiences of Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican migrants, and Cuban exiles who encountered prejudice and discrimination similar to what European immigrants experienced – though it was unique, González argues, because it was not only linguistic but racial. Touching upon the South Texas Cortina wars of the 1860s, the racist attacks on Puerto Ricans in East Harlem in the 1950s, and early political marginalizing of Cubans in Miami, González organizes his stories in chapters focused on specific immigrant groups. He even includes a chapter on the experience of Colombians and Panamanians, groups usually overlooked in studies of Latinos.
While González brings a wealth of historical material to bear on each group he writes about, the real strength of Harvest of Empire lies in the author’s analysis of recent Latino immigrants, especially his work on Central Americans and Dominicans. González is covering new ground here, or at least territory thus far explored only by academics: networks or migration that developed between individual towns in Latin American and large U.S. cities; the Latino-on-Latino prejudice that is driven by demographics, and becomes most evident when a recent group of immigrants displaces an established group in a barrio. In Houston, for example, Mexican Americans reject newly-arrived Salvadorans. In Miami, Cubans complain about undocumented Dominican workers.
In González’ account of the “Battle of the Virgins,” the parochial nature of this fight becomes evident. An elderly Puerto Rican woman complains to González that too many Mexicans are now attending her beloved Holy Agony, an old Puerto Rican Catholic church in East Harlem. She tells González that the Mexican parishioners want to put the La Virgen de Guadalupe in front of the church – replacing the Puerto Rican Virgen de la Providencia. The same saint, but the wrong icon – something the Puerto Rican woman cannot tolerate.
“It was important for me to show all sides of the Latino experience in America,” González said. “All too often do we see scholarship on Latinos regionalized. New York only knows about Puerto Ricans. California is familiar only with Mexican Americans. Miami knows only Cuba.” González (described by theVillage Voice as “the most radical journalist” on New York’s daily scene, and perhaps best known as co-host to Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!”) makes no apologies for his anti-imperialist or leftist perspective. “My solutions aim directly at that all-powerful and invisible Market and the empire we have created in its name,” writes González. “Immigrant labor has always been crucial to the Market’s prosperity. The Market recruits it, exploits it, abuses it, divides it, then ships it back home when it is no longer needed.”
When Carey McWilliams, the late and legendary editor of The Nation, wrote North from Mexico: A History of Spanish-Speaking People in the U.S., it was the first true historical account of the Mexican-American experience. A half a century later, González has written a book that compares favorably to McWilliams’ classic. Juan González has combined moving personal accounts of his family’s migration experience, oral history, traditional history, and analysis, in a work that will find its place in the Latino Studies’ canon and very likely inform how similar studies are undertaken in the future.
Russell Contreras is an associate editor at todos.com, a Latino web site. He is also a contributing writer for the Houston Press and Latina Magazine.