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The Real Multinationals

Behind a common language, Hispanics are as various as people can get.

by Linda Robinson

March 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY. All Rights Reserved.

BOOK REVIEWED: HARVEST OF EMPIRE - A History of Latinos in America. By Juan Gonzalez
346 pp. New York: Viking. $27.95.

The hit songs of Ricardo Martinez, better known as Ricky Martin, are unlikely to remembered a decade from now, but the recent boomlet of Latino pop stars in this country appears to mark the start of a more generous appraisal of Hispanics in the United States. For the most part they have been treated as unwelcome interlopers or ignored altogether, even though their swelling ranks constitute the most dramatic demographic transformation the United States has ever undergone. For a country long used to seeing itself as black and white, it will be something of a shock when Hispanics become the nation's largest minority group in five years and fully one-quarter of the population by midcentury.

Even Americans who are aware of the statistics generally lack a fuller appreciation of what the country's Latinization portends. But now, with ''Harvest of Empire,'' Juan Gonzalez has made a serious, significant contribution to understanding who the Hispanics of the United States are and where they come from. This ambitious, well-researched book highlights positive traits that are often overlooked, like Hispanics' high rates of employment and business formation, and underscores how their struggles have been compounded by an anti-immigrant climate and the disappearance of high-wage union jobs that helped earlier arrivals climb up the socioeconomic ladder.

The defining feature of United States Latinos, which poses the main challenge in writing about them, is their tremendous diversity. Although joined by a common language (Spanish), they come from 20-odd countries with distinct histories, customs and blends of European, African and indigenous stock. Gonzalez takes the sensible approach of devoting separate chapters to Mexicans (two-thirds of United States Hispanics), Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians and Panamanians, Dominicans and Central Americans. Though he gives short shrift to the uniquely American Latino hybrid forming in cities where several nationalities cluster, interact and intermarry, his multigenerational stories of immigrant families in New York, Texas, California and Florida endow his text with depth, detail and emotional resonance.

The book's unifying theme, as the title suggests, is that the United States caused this wave of immigration by two centuries of neocolonialism, imperialism and economic exploitation. The author, a Puerto Rican and a columnist for The Daily News in New York, hammers away at this argument, recounting the military interventions and heavy-handed, self-interested Washington policies that certainly did exacerbate the region's troubles. But his insistence that the United States is the sole culprit behind the poverty and turmoil propelling so many people northward ignores equally important factors -- beginning with the anti-entrepreneurial, anti-individualistic bent of Spanish colonialism -- that restricted economic opportunity and political liberty. His sustained broadside against Uncle Sam does help make the point that what happens down there affects what happens up here, and more specifically that the one realistic way to curtail immigration to the United States is by improving people's lives at home.

Unfortunately, Gonzalez is so convinced that the United States can be only an unremitting force for evil that he cannot see a good thing if the gringos are behind it. He labels free trade, which Washington has promoted, an economic disaster for Latin America and for Mexico in particular. But free trade has in fact spurred huge job creation there, and Mexico's economy has averaged five percent growth since 1996, although one would not know it from reading this book. The United States has a great deal to be ashamed of in its historical treatment of Latin America, but the region's development today is hampered less by United States competition than by its own practices that favor monopoly, discourage investment and allow vast sums to end up in overseas bank accounts.

Gonzalez explains his point of view in a rich and touching portrait of his family. An urban New York leftist, he got an Ivy League education and helped found a militant Puerto Rican group called the Young Lords, but success did not make him forget his parents' struggles with racism, violence and poverty or his own memories -- for example, of the teacher who wanted to call him John -- that still rankle. His thesis best applies to Puerto Rico, which was and still is the United States' sole Latin American possession. Its anomalous, quasi-colonial status has played havoc with Puerto Ricans' social stability, economic fate and national identity. But whereas Gonzalez's personal politics would seem to make independence the logical solution for him to embrace, he instead takes the awkward position that Puerto Ricans should gain full autonomy but retain their coveted United States citizenship. Such conflicted stances are exactly what has kept the island on the fence, unwilling to give up the benefits of tax-free welfare and open access to the mainland despite the political humiliation of limited suffrage and subjection to wartime draft.

The book's final section tackles the issues that will determine whether the Latinos of the United States are successfully integrated into the mainstream: immigration, education and political enfranchisement. Gonzalez makes a persuasive case that newcomers and natives alike ought to be able to agree on certain common-sense goals, among them that the federal government should help areas hardest hit by immigrant influxes, that English fluency is a critical asset for economic advancement and that foreign-born residents should become legal citizens, with a voice in the system. Recent elections show that the Latino vote has become key in critical states, and most presidential candidates now on the stump are at least trying to speak a few words of Spanish.

Gonzalez has high hopes for a future Latino-led, multiethnic coalition that will inspire new political activism. And he suggests that non-Hispanic Americans might grow more accepting of the Latino presence if they recall earlier fears of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. They might remember, as they get used to pop tunes with a Latin beat, that some of the most quintessentially American songs were written by Israel Baline, a working-class man from Siberia better known as Irving Berlin.

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