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. …