A Shredder of Latino Stereotypes

Article excerpt

IN his fascinating and exhaustive tome "Latinos: A Biography of the People," Earl Shorris plumbs everything from the Alamo to Zorro and then some in chronicling the past and present Latin influences in the United States.

From the start, Shorris discards the labels most commonly applied to the second-largest minority in the US. "Hispanics," "Chicanos," and even "Latinos" are inexact terms, he states. "There are no Latinos, only diverse peoples struggling to remain who they are while becoming someone else."

But in his book, which is stuffed with personal stories, Latinos are defined as Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans struggling to remain who they are. Shorris begins by noting that the struggle for self-identity starts even before the leap into the US melting pot.

For example, should Mexicans feel pride or shame in their link to the Spanish conquistadors who "civilized" the Aztec emperors? Which lineage does one trace, the European or the Indian? Or should one go back further, to Middle Eastern or African roots?

Shorris concedes: "Any history of Latinos stumbles at the start, for there is no single line to trace back to its ultimate origin.... Latin history has become a confused and painful algebra of race, culture, and conquest."

Nonetheless, the book does trace some of these early historical confluences, then moves on, continually countering the tendency to lump all Latinos into a single ethnic group.

In that respect, this is a text for everyone. It's for Anglos, African-Americans, or Asian-Americans who see Latinos in the crude stereotypes of "West Side Story" or "Miami Vice." It's for those who carry in their heads the images of thieving "brown men with toothpicks in their mouths ... migrants, men who bent their backs in strawberry fields and oceans of tomatoes; men who waited all week to spend Sunday in the shade."

Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans in particular are likely to find this a critical and empowering look at themselves. "Latinos," for example, tackles the sacred icon of the Alamo, where many Americans picture Davy Crockett and a handful of white, blue-eyed, Protestant Texans dying as heroes protecting the West from hordes of highly trained Mexican forces. Calling the current Alamo museum "a shrine to anti-Mexican sentiment," Shorris corrects a few lingering historical errors.

The only real Texans defending the Alamo were eight Mexican citizens who opposed the politics of Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Most of the other Alamo fighters were Yankees, new arrivals from New York and Philadelphia. And Santa Anna's troops were actually a rag-tag, conscript army composed mostly of Indians from southern Mexico who spoke no Spanish. They fought in an open field, with little or no understanding of military discipline and tactics, against an enemy hidden inside thick adobe and stone walls.

Anglos, observes Shorris, tend to think all "Latinos" are like those who live nearby. …