LATINO AMERICANS -The Companion Book to the PBS documentary Series
Written by Ray Suarez, Celebra Press, 2013.
Reviewed by Denis Bixler-Marquez
Behind the current debate on comprehensive immigration reform lies the question of the future of Latinos in American society.
Ray Suárez’s tome “Latino Americans: The 500-year Legacy That Shaped A Nation” (Celebra, $18 paperback, also available in Spanish) first addresses that question with a condensed examination of the historical trajectory of Latinos in the United States. That is followed by a good analysis of the current status of Latinos and the issues and challenges they face.
This work is a companion to the upcoming PBS series on Latino Americans, informing the national debate on immigration reform just in time for Congress to reconvene and tackle pending immigration legislation.
Suárez, a “PBS Newshour” senior correspondent, deliberately gives most chapters titles that denote the coexistence of Latinos with the rest of America, such as “Shared Destinies Manifest Destinies.” However, he does not shy away from vivid portrayals of controversial events, experiences or protagonists.
Just as importantly, the Latino perspective is represented in the construction of his narrative, as it is told to a large extent through the eyes of the protagonists, past and present. The early history of Latinos introduces the reader to the exploration of the continent and the colonial period. Key historical figures and events are augmented by maps and illustrations. He captures the important dimensions of the interface between two peoples that resulted from U.S. expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean.
Themes such as confluence, conflict, displacement, resettlement, resistance, deportation and immigration all appear. The participation by Latinos in the development of salient industries like agribusiness, railroads, mining and commerce underscores the Latino role in the building of the United States.
The period in which Latinos fought for their country in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and began their struggle to obtain first-class citizenship, receives substantial attention. The subsequent political manifestations that characterized the civil rights movement, and also generated a quest for a legitimate American ethnic identity and political and socioeconomic self-determination, are central to this book.
While the prominent political and socioeconomic efforts to improve the lives of Latinos by organizations like LULAC, the American G.I. Forum, the Puerto Rican Defense Fund and MALDEF are discussed, the volume also examines mass media and artistic representation of Latinos in America’s cultural mainstream.
Not surprisingly, the El Paso region and authors conversant with the border region figure prominently in the narrative.They contribute significantly to the context and flavor of the portrayal of the Mexican American experience and the border milieu.
As Mario García and other historians have indicated, El Paso was the Ellis Island of the Southwest, a major crossroads that grew in prominence after the convergence of major railroad lines. Novelist Víctor Villaseñor’s family’s migration by train to El Paso is but one of the El Paso encounters mentioned by Suárez. The book even mentions an urban legend about the alligators in San Jacinto Plaza being turned loose at night to devour unwelcome immigrants in the Rio Grande.
Suárez concludes his portrayal of Latinos via an analysis of their contemporary condition in the U.S. political, economic and social agendas. His analysis tackles anti-immigrant and anti-Latino initiatives as well as the nation’s struggle to reform the immigration system.
He brings the book to a close by reminding all Americans that if America is to understand its future, it must also understand Latinos. In the book’s introduction, a photograph of a placard held by young Latinos in the 2006 pro-immigrant demonstrations also poses a challenge to the nation. It reads “We believe in America. Does America believe in us?”
The absence of an index and a bibliography are limitations for the reader, although authors are cited in the text. As a guide to the television series, the companion book is a useful resource.
Dennis Bixler-Marquez is a professor and director of Chicano Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
This review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on September 15, 2013 and is posted with the permission of the author and copyright holder, Dennis Bixler-Marguez. To contact Dennis write: firstname.lastname@example.org