The Hispanics in the United States: A History, by L.H. Gann and Peter J. Duignan, Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 392 pages, $28.95
This is the finest book on Hispanics in America that I have ever seen—or ever expect to see. Other writers are no doubt capable of the same scholarship, and some undoubtedly have longer years of study of the subject than Gann and Duignan, who have made their reputation with books on Africa. What is so rare about this book is the freshness and openness with which the authors approach the subject, and their ability to set it in a larger historical and international context.
Perhaps the best way to summarily characterize The Hispanics in the United States is that it is three-dimensional. The peoples discussed in its pages are never the two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs all too common in books preoccupied with proving some theme—whether that theme be filiopietistic, victimology, ideology, or some intellectual "model," quantitative or otherwise. Gann and Duignan write about flesh-and-blood people, in a way which suggests throughout that their story is important in and of itself and that we will all be better off for understanding it. It is not anecdotal, but neither is it abstract. Cultural, historical, political, and economic dimensions are all given their due.
The term Hispanic in the title is one of convenience only, for the book itself treats Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and others as separate groups with very different histories abroad and very different experiences in the United States. As the authors point out: "Puerto Ricans or Mexican Americans had not originally defined themselves as 'Hispanics'; Congress had not legislated the new ethnic definition; it came only by administrative fiat."
Yet points of similarity as well as difference between the various Hispanic groups are explored. Indeed, the experiences of Hispanics are put in perspective, not only by comparisons with the experiences of contemporary blacks and whites, and with those of European immigrants to America before them, but also at times with experiences of various groups in Algeria, Sweden, or Rhodesia. All of this is done deftly and where appropriate, not as part of some overarching Weltanschauung.
There is no dramatic "Gann-Duignan thesis" the reader will take away from this book comparable to the "Turner frontier thesis" or more recent fads about "role models," "self-fulfilling prophecies," and the like. This is not a book with a formula for encapsulating history or a panacea for social ills. It is a book of insights and sense, not rhetorical fireworks or intellectual or moral exhibitionism. The reader will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of Hispanics in America, not a sense of how clever Gann and Duignan are.
Although Hispanics in the United States is chock full of historical facts, statistical data, and economic, political, and sociological analysis, there is no sense of "cramming," no jargon, and the writing is almost conversational in its ease. With the media's addiction to labels, this will almost certainly be called a "conservative" book. However, the authors reject a number of conservative theses. For example, they deal sympathetically—though not uncritically so—with bilingual education. More important, this is a book where opposing views are explored, not simply embraced or dismissed. It is these explorations which are valuable, even to those who may disagree with the authors' conclusions. This is, after all—as the subtitle says—a history.
It is not history meant to startle professional historians with newly unearthed revelations or a spectacular theory tying it all together. The authors themselves describe it as "a synthesis based on secondary sources" and "personal interviews and visits." What is remarkable about this book is not the input but the output. It sets contemporary problems in a historical context and illuminates both the past and the present for a general audience. Scholars can no doubt learn much from it as well, if they are willing.
Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of Race and Economics, Conflict of Visions, and other works.