Marie Arana traces the vast, complex boundaries of ‘LatinoLand’

The word “Wyoming” appears ten times in Marie Arana’s new book, “LatinoLand.” That’s maybe ten times more than any other book I’ve read about Latinos. The land that is now Wyoming was one of the northernmost places in the Americas reached by Spanish conquistadors. Some of it was part of the territory taken from Mexico after the US-Mexico war, and it is about the size of Central America’s Northern Triangle – made up of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – from which so many migrants leave for the United States. United States today.

The word “Peru” appears almost fifty times, which is also more than in any other Latino-focused book I’ve encountered. Peru is where Arana was born and where her Spanish ancestors eventually landed after first traveling to the Americas in the 16th century. It is a country torn by ethnic and class tensions between native Peruvians and ‘pale strangers’ like her American mother – the ‘pishtacoswhite ghosts, hungry ghosts that needed the fat indios to run their gigantic machines,” she writes. Arana’s family settled in New Jersey when she was nine, and her maternal grandparents lived in Wyoming.

So as strange as it may seem at first to include so much about Wyoming and Peru, it makes perfect sense once you understand what Arana hopes to achieve with this book based on her own experiences, decades of reading on the subject and hundreds interviews with others who have reflected on the meaning of Latino identity. She seeks to expand our understanding of the geographies inhabited by Latinos to include not just Wyoming but other unexpected places such as South Dakota, Vermont, and Tennessee. And by writing in depth about her Peruvian heritage, she reminds us that although Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, followed by Salvadoran Americans, Cuban Americans and Dominican Americans, make up more than 80 percent of the Latino population, they do not have a monopoly on articulation of Latino identity, which cannot exclude Colombians, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Panamanians and, yes, Peruvians, if it is to mean anything at all.

For Arana, LatinoLand is more than diverse communities living everywhere. It is also a conceptual space. If you were somehow able to gather the more than sixty million Latinos living in the United States and bring them all together in one place that would form a new state, that state would be the number one have the second largest population of all Spanish-speaking countries in the United States. America, behind only Mexico. The purchasing power of the Latinos who would live there has reached $2 trillion and will exceed $2.5 trillion within a few years. LatinoLand’s gross domestic product is said to be the fifth largest in the world. Learning more about LatinoLand is essential to understanding the past, present, and future of the United States.

Arana is a skilled guide. She understands the depth, nuance and variety of LatinoLand better than anyone. In the 1980s and 1990s, she served as vice president and editor-in-chief at both Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Commercial publishing has diversified somewhat since then, but she describes struggling at the time to convince colleagues that they needed to publish more books by and about Latinos, who, she was told, were not reading or buying books. Arana later became editor-in-chief of Book World at The Washington Post, where, she writes, she was “the paper’s only Hispanic department head.” She was the first literary director of the Library of Congress, where, she writes, she was the “only senior-level Hispanic in the Librarian’s Office.” Along the way, she became the award-winning author of more than a handful of books, including a memoir called “American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award; a sweeping biography of Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar; and “Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story.” All of this makes Arana a keen observer of all that the growth of Latino communities and the flow of works by and about Latinos has meant for the United States. But it also makes her a necessary chronicler of the fact that our stories still haven’t been told, understood, or integrated into the overall American story in a way that is satisfying to us.

Latinos remain “America’s largest and least understood minority,” as Arana’s subtitle reads. She means that Latinos are not particularly well understood by others or by ourselves.

There is the pernicious lie that many of the Mexicans entering the United States are rapists, murderers and thieves, or the more innocent but also false belief that we are all working-class immigrants. Arana aims to counter these common stereotypes with mini-biographies of top performers such as four-star general Richard E. Cavazos, pop music star Gloria Estefan, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Mario Molina, astronaut Ellen Ochoa, rocker Carlos Santana and former AT&T Vice Chairman Ralph de la Vega. She describes them as our own “talented tenth,” riffing in Spanglish on WEB Du Bois’s “talented tenth” of African Americans. There’s also the fact that Hollywood has portrayed us as villains, gardeners, and nannies, and that only 8 percent of the media industry is Latino, leading Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) to proclaim, “Americans know it’s not. who Latinos are.”

But Latinos are also rarely given the opportunity to learn about ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves about our community are often too simplistic and incomplete. Arana tells us about a charter school in Washington, DC, that used to have mostly black students, but now more than half of the students are Latino. Yet the school’s curriculum has not changed due to its demographic makeup. The school’s Latino students, Arana writes, “were exposed to great black American literature at a school dedicated to diversity, and still they were denied any reference to their own culture.” Furthermore, both Republicans and Democrats, including the Latinos among them, have tried to convince Latinos and everyone else that we are either natural Republicans or natural Democrats, because of our views on family, religion, capitalism, the proper role of government in the American economy. life and the imperial projects of the United States, which we have both opposed and supported. But such claims are simply aimed at consolidating support among voting blocs; they are superficial representations that hardly explain anything about us.

I believe the MAGA years are responsible for reigniting a fierce debate, among Latinos and non-Latinos, about who Latinos are. The basic question goes something like this: What does it mean to be Latino when a growing number of us support the MAGA movement’s vision for America? Arana’s “LatinoLand” is the latest contribution to this debate, and her answer is that we belong to every race and every religion, that we come from everywhere and have settled everywhere, that our political views cover every point of the spectrum, and that we have worked hard. and have had success in every sector, even though we are overrepresented in subordinate positions and underrepresented in more lucrative positions.

It is undoubtedly exhausting for Latino writers to have to make these points over and over again, to try to break free from the boxes that others have placed us in and to which we have sometimes confined ourselves. Arana thoroughly unpacked that box and examined its entire contents. Her fragmented and beautifully written story, which engulfs readers in a series of portraits, rather than as one continuous story, is a perfect representation of Latino diversity. Yet it remains to be seen how and if the content Arana has revealed can be repackaged in a way that contains our complexities and contradictions while cohering as a recognizable identity. Perhaps we will conclude that participating in the ongoing debate about what it means to be Latino is the closest we can get to the essence of what it means to be Latino.

Geraldo Cadava is a contributing writer at the New Yorker, a history professor at Northwestern University and the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump.”

A portrait of America’s largest and least understood minority

Simon & Schuster. 554 pages $32.50

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