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Telling the Story of Our America

Elizabeth Martinez A longtime activist, author, and teacher, Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez has published six books on social movements in the Americas, including 500 Years of Chicano History and most recently De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century. She currently heads the Institute for MultiRacial Justice in San Francisco.

Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America(New York:Viking Penguin, 2000), 346 pp., $27.95 cloth, $15 paper.

Immigrant labor has always been critical to the Market’s prosperity. Only by reining in that Market, by challenging its relentless grasp, by humbling its colossal power, can Latinos in this country move from incremental to qualitative progress, only then can they shatter the caste system to which they have been relegated.

With passion and eloquence, Juan Gonzalez presents a devastating perspective on U.S. history rarely found in mainstream publishing aimed at a popular audience. The United States emerged in just two hundred years, he points out, as the world’s superpower and richest nation. “No empire, whether in ancient or modern times, ever saw its influence spread so far or determined the thoughts and actions of so many people around the world as our nation does today.” The majority of U.S. people don’t like to think of their country as an empire.

This imperial domination, he says, is due in large part to “a vicious and relentless drive for territorial expansion, conquest, and subjugation of others—Native Americans, African slaves, and Latin Americans.” It left an entire hemisphere transformed into an economic satellite and sphere of U.S. influence. “If Latin America had not been raped and pillaged by U.S. capital since its independence, millions of desperate workers would not now be coming here in such numbers to reclaim a share of that wealth.”

Given Gonzalez’s recent experience as a Pacifica radio journalist, it is no surprise to read his radical perspective. Last January 31, he reluctantly resigned as co-host of the popular news magazine program “Democracy Now” which he launched some five years ago with Amy Goodman. He took this action in the wake of a struggle that has seen the firing or forced resignation of the director of Pacifica Network News, as well as WBAI’s station manager, and other Pacifica employees.

In his letter of resignation, Juan Gonzalez charged that the Pacifica board did not respect free speech, labor or civil rights, or even practice due process. He has launched a campaign to replace the present board with a new one that will be democratically accountable and return to “reporting important stories the corporate media ignored, thus helping to shape progressive thought and popular movements throughout the country.” Indeed, this is also the spirit of Harvest of Empire.

What makes the book even more than anti-mainstream is his combination of an historical analysis of imperialism with issues of immigration and a new racism. As hinted in his title with the ironic word harvest, our hemisphere is “one New World, north and south.” A deep-rooted interdependence exists, masked by one-sided wealth and power. Wake up and see the past, present and future we inhabit together, is the author’s message. It is a message not to be ignored, especially when we consider that, by the year 2100, half the U.S. population may be Latino.

Too often the U.S. attitude toward Latin America has been paternalistic or just plain contemptuous: a reflection of the imperialist historical process itself. Gonzalez and many other Latinos have also grown tired of having the Latino story told one-sidedly—what he calls “the safari approach,” geared to an Anglo audience with the author acting as interpreter of the natives. Latin America has been too often thought of “as an exotic and beckoning backyard for U.S. power and influence, a series of nondescript banana republics.”

Such eurocentric arrogance even surfaces on the left, which has often failed to take Latin America (except for Cuba, Chile, “the hot spots”) as seriously as other parts of the world. We have not studied the works of Latino revolutionary intellectuals as they deserve. The same holds true for Chicano/a politics here; too often progressive or left publications make no effort to include Chicano issues or radical writers. And most Anglo radicals simply do not understand why it is offensive to call the United States “America.” Giving the name of the whole hemisphere to a single nation legitimizes Manifest Destiny and Juan Gonzalez can be cheered for consistently avoiding this error. (He does use “American” when the need arises for an adjective or U.S. nationality term.)

It is not only Anglo readers who need to hear Gonzalez’s message, as demonstrated by Gregory Rodriguez’s reactionary, red-baiting review in the Los Angeles Times. Rodriguez complained that Gonzalez “spends an inordinate amount of time” on U.S. colonialism and he accuses anyone who disagrees with the assimilationist model of being from the “good guys versus bad guys school of history.” Fortunately historian Rudy Acuña answered these views with acid accuracy in the Los Angeles Times on September 10, 2000.

Gonzalez sets out his book of revelations with compelling skill. Here is a Puerto Rican barrio boy and co-founder of the radical Young Lords Party in the 1960s turned experienced journalist. His coverage of life in the nation’s ghettos made his first book, Roll Down Your Window: Stories from a Forgotten America, a gem of committed journalism. Picking up his new book, one could easily think: come on, how can this guy pretend to cover the history of “Latinos,” all twenty-some nationalities, at home and in the United States in one book? What he does instead is to offer an unusual understanding of fundamentals.

In his first main section Gonzalez presents an integrated, borderless story of the colonial period (called “Raices,” or “Roots” in English) that, if read in every U.S. history class, might spark a new attitude toward Latin America and Latinos in the United States. It makes all too clear, for example, that most U.S. leaders in the early 1800’s looked to Spain’s colonies in this hemisphere strictly for the picking and had no interest in the emergence of new revolutionary societies even when they were inspired by the example of the U.S. revolution.

The grand climax of expansionism came under the label of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by magazine editor John O’Sullivan in 1845. That phrase married imperialism and racism with ferocious energy. Latin Americans were deemed inferior and incapable of democratic self-government whereas “the Caucasian race” was superior in all ways, down to brain size. So much for Mexico, half of whose land was seized by the U.S. war on Mexico of 1846-1848. This annexation, plus the Mexican labor acquired with it under colonization, laid the basis for commercial prosperity in the twentieth century western United States. That crucial fact has been replaced in our history books by the myth of the lazy Mexican.

The war on Mexico marked a crucial point in the development of U.S. political culture, as Cecilia O’Leary points out in her book To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. For the first time, the Stars and Stripes was carried into battle as the national flag of the United States, thus invested with a patriotism that had not crystallized up to then. “Imperialism and nationalism became inseparably linked in the symbol of the flag as the press associated it with images of blood shed in victorious battles,” she notes.

It was in that spirit of justified expansionism that the United States made Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, additional victims of Manifest Superiority. The “Latin American Backyard” became obscenely profitable; between 1950 and 1967, Gonzalez notes; new investment totaled less than $4 billion but profits stood at almost $13 billion. That growth, and the political control it required including interventions such as we saw by the CIA in Guatemala in 1954, eventually generated another kind of growth: the migration of Latino labor to the United States.

Thus Gonzalez sets the stage for the book’s next section, in which he looks at the six major Latino groups in the United States with emphasis on life at the grassroots. By describing in detail the experiences of one working class family from each group, he illuminates the economic, social and political realities confronting that community. This approach makes living, complex, individual people out of an ethnography that in lesser writers’ hands could just produce survey stupor.

In the third section, (“La Cosecha” or “Harvest”), we come to Gonzalez’s list of the main contemporary issues—politics, immigration, language, and culture—with immigration probably the hottest issue today. As the author notes, contempt for Latin Americans has begun changing to white fear of hordes of Spanish-speaking “barbarians at the gate.” Anti-immigrant legislation starting with California’s Prop. 187 in 1994 headed the current burst of nativism. Again racism defines the xenophobia: in 1996, Gonzalez points out, 2,047 “illegal” Canadians were deported (out of 120,000) compared to 1.5 million Mexicans (out of 2.7 million).

The reasons given for the hateful resurgence are familiar: supposedly Latinos come here just to get on welfare, they drain public resources, they take jobs from U.S. citizens. Gonzalez goes beyond exposing these myths to an even more provocative analysis showing the reasons why Latino immigration will continue into the twenty-first century (in particular, ongoing economic crisis at home and the disastrous effects of NAFTA).

In an epilogue, the author lays out his personal vision of what the anti-immigrant furor and other issues related to the “harvest of empire” require. Only by changing the nature of the U.S. empire can Latino equality become real. The changes in national policy Gonzalez considers essential are:

  1. End the dual labor market in cheap Mexican labor that exploits millions of Mexicans on both sides of the Rio Grande (the same should be said for Central Americans). This could include establishing a common labor market such as the European Union is considering. By abolishing the concept of “illegality,” workers could then organize unions together and fight for their legal or civil rights transnationally, with economic benefits to workers on both sides.
  2. End the colonial status of Puerto Rico; recognize whatever status the Puerto Rican people should choose in a plebiscite for that purpose. (Gonzalez does not address here the fact that the plebiscite would almost surely not produce a majority vote for independence or even what he would consider a progressive choice, for complex reasons rooted in colonization itself.)
  3. Recognize the rights of language minorities and promote the widespread study of Spanish as the principal language of the Western Hemisphere and the second language of the United States.
  4. Reinvest in U.S. cities and public schools, which is where the bulk of Latinos live, work, and learn.
  5. End U.S. militarism in Latin America (such as the so-called War on Drugs).
  6. End the economic blockade of Cuba.

Juan Gonzalez has laid out a radical analysis so eloquently that it’s hard to stop cheering. But the book does have its weaknesses. There are occasional factual errors, most of them minor. One serious error turns up in Gonzalez’s discussion of the Guatemalan peace accord, which he credits inaccurately to the United States (Susanne Jonas’ book, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process, published last year by Westview, makes clear what really happened). This error hurts, given U.S. support for the 1954 military coup and the ensuing dictatorship that killed over 200,000 civilians.

The author’s deep roots in mainstream journalism may be an influence here and elsewhere. He refers to “assimilation” as a major Latino goal without acknowledging how the concept has often been energetically discredited. To many Latinos it means a melting-pot liquidation of Latino culture and identity as the price of being accepted by the dominant society.

At times the author seems more optimistic than many of us about the fundamental nature of U.S. society. He calls the newly independent colonies that became the United States in 1789 “unprecedented social experiments into which were amalgamated the cultures, races and political traditions of both settlers and indigenous peoples.” Tell that to the Indians, who were mostly decimated along with their cultures, not “amalgamated.” As for the Mexicans here in 1846, how did most of them feel about those “experiments?”

All in all, a reader can feel that the author sometimes undermines his radical expose of U.S. imperialism by the casual incorporation of this society’s self-definition, reflected in its language.

One last problem: the book tends to focus disproportionately on East Coast Latinos. His treatment of the Puerto Rican struggle for decolonization is masterful, while developments in California —especially Los Angeles, the second largest Mexican city—receive rather skimpy discussion. Giving “The Radical Nationalist Period: 1965-1974” less than four pages (although they include the Chicano youth movement, the United Farm Workers, the land struggle in New Mexico, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party and other organizations) makes it hard to draw long range lessons beyond a rather superficial message of “radical politics didn’t work.”

These limitations do not begin to outweigh the book’s achievement and its usefulness to students, activists, and the general community. Harvest of Empire presents basic political truths so clearly, so powerfully, and so readably. A Latin American from the barrio has spoken in mainstream publishing and been heard; that is good cause for celebration.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 02 (June)
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