Latinos: A Biography of the People, by Earl Shorris, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 520 pages, $25.00
Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, by Richard Rodriguez, New York: Viking, 230 pages, $21.00
Both Earl Shorris and Richard Rodriguez are trying to say something about the Hispanic experience in America, but their approaches could hardly be more different. Shorris's Latinos is an ambitious, sweeping attempt to draw a portrait of 22 million people. Rodriguez's Days of Obligation, by contrast, is the intensely personal account of one man's struggle to define himself. In the end, despite his narrow focus, Rodriguez tells us much more that is meaningful and significant.
The main problem with Shorris's book is the misleading thesis expressed in the subtitle, A Biography of the People. The population conventionally referred to as Latinos or Hispanics is not one people but several, a fact that Shorris too often ignores. In the introduction, he describes an encounter with a Mexican woman in which he asks her how she prefers to be labeled. "Mejicanos," she declares. "Yes, but there is a larger group," Shorris responds. "We are Mejicanos," she insists.
This identification with a particular group of Spanish-speaking people, rather than with Latinos in general, is quite common. The recently completed Latino National Political Survey found that, in general, Mexicans prefer to be called Mexicans, Puerto Ricans prefer to be called Puerto Ricans, and Cubans prefer to be called Cubans. Few like Hispanic, and even fewer like Latino. Yet for the most part, Shorris proceeds as if these distinctions were not important.
"For the last twenty years," he writes, "I have expected the appearance of this book….A generation has been born and a generation has died, and the book has not been written. Rodolfo Acuña, Mario T. Garcia, Alejandro Portes and others have written fine, useful books, but not a book about Latinos." Thus the task has fallen to Shorris, but it is too much for him. It is folly to attempt a survey of 22 million Spanish speakers and their children, representing two dozen national origins, in fewer than 500 pages.
Shorris tries to examine 16 million Mexicans and consider their place in America. Then he tries to do the same for a couple million Puerto Ricans and for a somewhat smaller population of Cubans. Because he tends to speak of "Latinos" generically, he makes certain groups, such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Salvadorans, seem bigger than they really are. (Although Cubans and Puerto Ricans are concentrated in Miami and New York City, respectively, and therefore have considerable influence in those cities, they are much less numerous than Mexicans nationally. There are more Mexicans in Los Angeles alone than there are Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the whole country.)
Shorris makes some valid observations, but the conclusions he draws from them are too broad. For example, he notes the significance of Mexican-American military service: "World War II, more than any other event, changed the character of the Mexican American. A people that had won more Medals of Honor than any other racial or ethnic group during the war could not feel quite so humble at home….They were Americans, men who had fought for their country….Men who had commanded Anglo troops in battle did not cringe before them in civilian life."
Shorris would have us believe that this accomplishment belongs to "Latinos" generally. This is overreaching. Participation in World War II is of special significance to Mexican-Americans, but not to Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Argentinians, or any of the other groups that populate Shorris's Latino universe.
Shorris not only overgeneralizes, he editorializes. His periodic lapses into left-wing cant are distracting and irritating. For example, he casually mentions "two morally corrupt administrations—those of Ronald Reagan and George Bush." He begins a sentence with: "As the recession and the Reagan Administration—combined with the arrival of the aggressive Dominican population—drove the Puerto Rican community backwards by every social and economic measure…" And he offers this ode to labor leader César Chavez: "The hunger strikes of César Chavez made him an American Gandhi. Nothing Steinbeck wrote, nothing Woody Guthrie sang prepared the world for the unbreakable will, the brown skin, and the beautiful, suffered face of César Chavez."
Shorris rejects the argument that the media should focus more on the three-quarters of Hispanics who are not poor rather than the quarter who are. He says this "argument is abhorrent on moral grounds: The 26 percent who are poor, if indeed only 26 percent are poor, are those who need attention; the rich can presumably take care of themselves." But provoking assistance is not the only function of media attention, and emphasizing Hispanic poverty is simply misleading, especially when all Latino groups are lumped together.
Shorris is quick to offer rationalizations for Puerto Rican poverty. He says Puerto Ricans are at the lower end of the Latino economic ladder because they are the "conquered." They have never been independent; they have languished first under the Spanish heel, then under the American heel.
Still, Shorris's discussion of racism and its impact on Hispanics is valuable and eye-opening. For example, he quotes from a Depression-era report on Mexicans prepared for Rep. John Box (D–Tex.) by Roy L. Garis of Vanderbilt University:
"Their minds run to nothing higher than animal functions—eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery. In every huddle of Mexican shacks one meets the same idleness, hordes of hungry dogs, and filthy children with faces plastered with flies, disease, lice, human filth, stench, promiscuous fornication, bastardy, lounging, apathetic peons and lazy squaws, beans and dried chili, liquor, general squalor, and envy and hatred of the gringo. These people sleep by day and prowl by night like coyotes, stealing anything they can get their hands on, no matter how useless to them it may be. Nothing left outside is safe unless padlocked or chained down. Yet there are Americans clamoring for more of this human swine to be brought over from Mexico."
Shorris also cites a 1987 monograph by psychologist Lloyd Dunn, entitled "Bilingual Children on the U.S. Mainland: Review of Research on Their Cognitive, Linguistic, and Scholastic Development": "While many people are willing to blame low test scores of Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans on their poor environmental conditions, few are prepared to face the probability that inherited genetic material is a contributing factor."
These quotes attest to the prejudice that still faces Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics (who, at least in California, have higher labor-force participation rates, lower welfare rates, and a higher percentage of children born to married couples than European-Americans). For Shorris, prejudice is an obstacle that can be overcome only with government assistance. For Rodriguez, it is a challenge that spurs an inner journey.
Rodriguez enraged militant Chicanos and guilty white liberals a decade ago by belittling affirmative action and bilingual education in Hunger of Memory. In Days of Obligation, a collection of 10 essays, he struggles to identify the origins of the dark face he sees in the mirror every morning. Taught to be "an Irish Catholic" by nuns and priests who took vows on the Emerald Isle, Rodriguez as a child did not understand the Mexican culture of his parents.
What am I? he asks, over and over. Am I Indian? Am I Spanish? Am I both? Every dark-skinned Mexican has, at one time or another, asked the same questions. "Mexico is littered with the shells and skulls of Spain, cathedrals, poems, and the limbs of orange trees," Rodriguez writes. "But everywhere you look in this great museum of Spain you see living Indians."
"Where are the CONQUISTADORES?" he demands to know. Politically correct America, Rodriguez notes, "pities the Indian the loss of her gods or her tongue. But let the Indian speak for herself. Spanish is now an Indian language. Mexico City has become the metropolitan see of the Spanish-speaking world….Mexico City has captured Spanish."
I once wrote that the Mexican Indian pulled the mantle of Spanish civilization around him as just another layer, an addition to the many layers of civilization that he represented. Rodriguez, a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, puts it this way: "The Indian stands in the same relationship to modernity as she did to Spain—willing to marry, to breed, to disappear in order to ensure her inclusion in time; refusing to absent herself from the future. The Indian has chosen to survive, to consort with the living, to live in the city, to crawl on her hands and knees, if need be, to Mexico City or L.A."
In Mexico City, he writes, "Everywhere I look. Babies. Traffic. Food. Beggars. Life. Life coming upon me like sunstroke.
"Each face looks like mine. No one looks at me.
"Where, then, is the famous conquistador?
"WE HAVE EATEN HIM, the crowd tells me, WE HAVE EATEN HIM WITH OUR EYES.
"I run to the mirror to see if this is true.
"It is true."
Rodriguez has discovered who he is, and he is proud: "I take it as an Indian achievement that I am alive, that I am Catholic, that I speak English, that I am an American. My life began, it did not end, in the sixteenth century."
Rodriguez watches those whose misfortune it was to be born in some distant mountain village in southern Mexico rather than Los Angeles prepare to cross the Tijuana River into the United States at twilight. "They were men without women," he writes. "They were Mexicans without Mexico." On Saturdays, they "flooded the Western Union office, where they sent money…all the way down into Mexico. America was a monastery. America was a vow of poverty. They kept themselves poor for Mexico." The constant striving that Rodriguez both describes and embodies is the ultimate refutation of the stereotypes that Shorris cites.
Raoul Lowery Contreras is a syndicated columnist in San Diego.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Montezuma’s Revenge".