IN his fascinating and exhaustive tome "Latinos: A Biography of the People," Earl Shorris plumbs everything from the Alamo to Zorro and then some in chronicling the past and present Latin influences in the United States.
From the start, Shorris discards the labels most commonly applied to the second-largest minority in the US. "Hispanics," "Chicanos," and even "Latinos" are inexact terms, he states. "There are no Latinos, only diverse peoples struggling to remain who they are while becoming someone else."
But in his book, which is stuffed with personal stories, Latinos are defined as Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans struggling to remain who they are. Shorris begins by noting that the struggle for self-identity starts even before the leap into the US melting pot.
For example, should Mexicans feel pride or shame in their link to the Spanish conquistadors who "civilized" the Aztec emperors? Which lineage does one trace, the European or the Indian? Or should one go back further, to Middle Eastern or African roots?
Shorris concedes: "Any history of Latinos stumbles at the start, for there is no single line to trace back to its ultimate origin.... Latin history has become a confused and painful algebra of race, culture, and conquest."
Nonetheless, the book does trace some of these early historical confluences, then moves on, continually countering the tendency to lump all Latinos into a single ethnic group.
In that respect, this is a text for everyone. It's for Anglos, African-Americans, or Asian-Americans who see Latinos in the crude stereotypes of "West Side Story" or "Miami Vice." It's for those who carry in their heads the images of thieving "brown men with toothpicks in their mouths ... migrants, men who bent their backs in strawberry fields and oceans of tomatoes; men who waited all week to spend Sunday in the shade."
Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans in particular are likely to find this a critical and empowering look at themselves. "Latinos," for example, tackles the sacred icon of the Alamo, where many Americans picture Davy Crockett and a handful of white, blue-eyed, Protestant Texans dying as heroes protecting the West from hordes of highly trained Mexican forces. Calling the current Alamo museum "a shrine to anti-Mexican sentiment," Shorris corrects a few lingering historical errors.
The only real Texans defending the Alamo were eight Mexican citizens who opposed the politics of Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Most of the other Alamo fighters were Yankees, new arrivals from New York and Philadelphia. And Santa Anna's troops were actually a rag-tag, conscript army composed mostly of Indians from southern Mexico who spoke no Spanish. They fought in an open field, with little or no understanding of military discipline and tactics, against an enemy hidden inside thick adobe and
Anglos, observes Shorris, tend to think all "Latinos" are like those who live nearby. In California and the Southwestern states, Latinos are Mejicanos or Mexican-Americans. In New York, they're Puerto Ricans or Neoricans. In Miami, Latinos are Cubans and, more recently, Nicaraguans.
Shorris explains how the various nationalities see themselves and each other. The essence of the Cuban character is atrevemiento, which means daring. Cubans also see themselves as "aggressive" and "hard-working."
Puerto Ricans most often characterize themselves as "partying" people. While some considered this happy-go-lucky attitude a plus, Shorris sees it as the tragic mentality of troops having a last fling before going into battle.
Older Mexican-Americans choose the word aguantar, which means to endure or tolerate one's fate with courage. Younger Mejicanos choose the word respeto, or respect. It describes how Mejicanos treat teachers, bosses, adults, neighbors, and police. Viewed as virtues by some, Shorris sees a docility among these Mexicans that translates into a tolerance of lousy working conditions and low wages.
Of the three, Cubans are most admired by other Latinos for their economic success. They are dubbed the "Jews of the Caribbean," and they are pleased to be described that way.
But Shorris doesn't view Cuban success as a model for other Latinos. "Cubans identify with the conquerors, not the conquered.... As exiles rather than immigrants or sojourners, they think of the United States as a useful place, more like a rental than a home.... The Cuban has located the center of the world, and he is standing there."
Cubans, as political exiles in the United States, also have received vast amounts of US aid. Between 1962 and 1976, Cubans living in the US received an estimated $4 billion in loans for such things as medical care, education, and Social Security for the elderly. No other Latino group is likely to have such an advantage, notes Shorris.
"Latinos" also delves into racism. It looks at individual Latino's business successes and failures. A couple of chapters deal with the state of bilingual education. Machismo, gangs, drug dealing, border life, food, literature, and the Latin sense of time are explored as well. This book is chock-full of intriguing footnotes and includes a Spanish glossary. Scarcely a plantain chip has been left unturned. But that isn't necessarily a plus.
It's obvious Shorris did a lot of research and interviewed a lot of people. Too obvious.
The book needed a stricter editor's hand. There are heaps of vignettes that make it readable. And Shorris can turn a phrase. But getting through more than 500 pages takes a certain commitment. And for all the book's girth, newer US arrivals - Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Colombians - get short shrift.
Despite its shortcomings, "Latinos" is a good reference point for non-Latinos to begin to confront pervasive myths about an increasingly important sector of American society.