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Taking the Oath

Why We Need a Revisionist History of Latinos in America

HARVEST OF EMPIRE A History of Latinos in America; By Juan Gonzalez; Viking: 346 pp., $27.95

MAGICAL URBANISM Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City; By Mike Davis; Verso: 128 pp., $19

LATINO USA A Cartoon History; By Ilan Stavans; Basic Books: 192 pp., $19.95

August 20, 2000|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | Gregory Rodriguez is a Los Angeles-based fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to the Times Opinion section

The systematic study of Latinos in the United States has its origins in the ethnic nationalist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Latino university students caught up in the ethnic pride and identity politics of the era fought to have ethnic studies included in higher education curricula. The study of America's Latinos has since been thoroughly dominated by activist scholars and writers who either once participated in or who still emulate the ethnic campus politics of a generation ago. Heavily influenced by Marxism, black separatism and the colonial independence movements of the day, the early influential works on the Mexican American experience were steeped in what one UC Berkeley Chicano Studies professor has called the "good guys-versus-bad guys" school of history.

As a result, much of contemporary writing on Latinos is, unfortunately, only peripherally about Latinos. As Mexican American historian Manuel Gonzales has pointed out, even seminal works in Chicano Studies, like Rodolfo Acun~a's 1972 "Occupied America," were seemingly less concerned with telling the story of Mexican Americans (the good guys) than they were with highlighting Chicano oppression at the hands of Anglo Americans (the bad guys). In other words, for the past generation, many intellectuals have been largely concerned with Latinos as mere pawns of external forces rather than as prime movers in their own evolving stories.

The spheres of Latino activity that have captured the attention of most writers and scholars have generally been collective responses to Anglo oppression. Indeed, in this view, Mexican American identity itself has been largely defined by its opposition to Anglo America. Activist historians ingeniously--if not disingenuously--managed to portray contemporary Mexican Americans as a conquered people, "an internal colony" whose ancient ethnic homeland, the American Southwest, was being occupied by invading Anglos. No matter that there were only an estimated 75,000 Spanish speakers in all of California and the Southwest at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, many have rallied behind the specious notion that "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us."

But the truth is that most of us did cross the border after the Southwest became the United States, and there is no shame in that fact. Indeed, in California--which by the way was home to no more than about 7,500 Spanish speakers at the close of the Mexican War--the overwhelming majority of Mexican Americans derive from the 20th century's two great waves of Mexican migration. Indeed, by 1990, two-thirds of adult Latinos in Los Angeles County were foreign-born, and half of them had arrived within the previous decade.

In portraying Mexican Americans as conquered people, activists sought to highlight their ancestral rights to the Southwest as well as to confer upon them the additional "protected status" of a colonized ethnic minority. To do so, they had to make the very real abuses Mexicans have sometimes suffered at the hands of Anglos the central overriding theme of Chicano history. They also were obliged to misconstrue Mexican migrants' motivations for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In "Occupied America," Acuna was perhaps among the first to openly declare that Mexicans did not come to the United States in order to improve their economic prospects. Indeed, he wrote: "Most Mexicans became part of the United States either because of the Anglo conquest or because they were brought here by economic forces over which they had little control. The uprooted Mexican was torn from his homeland 'like a nail torn from its finger.' "

In his brilliant 1991 essay, "Nihilism in Black America," Cornel West outlined two opposing ideological camps in America's racial dialogue. On the one hand, he writes, there are the conservatives who talk about behavior, values and attitudes as if political and economic structures hardly existed. On the other, there are the "liberal structuralists" who argue that larger economic and political forces thoroughly dictate both individual life choices and chances. The study of American Latinos has been heavily influenced by ideologues of the latter persuasion. The result has been scores of analysesin which Mexican migrants were largely stripped of free will or self-propelled motivations. Yet, as West argues, culture is as much a structure as the economy or politics, and individual decisions are not irrelevant in the face of broader forces.

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