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American optimism with Latino roots

Translation Nation Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States Hector Tobar Riverhead Books: 308 pp., $24.95

June 12, 2005|Michael Jaime-Becerra | Michael Jaime-Becerra is the author of "Every Night Is Ladies' Night."

Hector TOBAR has traveled across the country in search of latinidad, the Spanish term for Latin American origin. Latinidad can occur in many disparate guises, and Tobar, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, encounters it in a variety of settings: the Tijuana border, chicken-processing plants in Alabama, the Miami offices of aging Cuban exiles and New York's ground zero in the wake of Sept. 11. His book "Translation Nation" is then part personal narrative, part exploration of immigrant identity.

Tobar, a veteran Los Angeles Times reporter now based in Buenos Aires, first recounts his family history, the journey from the rural Guatemalan province of Zacapa to 1960s Los Angeles, which he would call home for the next 30-odd years. This grounds his many perceptive and exact observations about the current state of Latinos in the United States, making his personal story a barometer by which cultural shifts can be measured. He captures these shifts with equal measures of insight and elan, giving the book an infectious optimism, an undeniable sense that the nature and scope of latinidad are not only expanding but becoming more inclusive as well. The most compelling passages come when he strays from the familiar to the newest, most tenuous pockets of latinidad, encountering individuals who may otherwise have gone unnoticed precisely because they complicate common notions of Latino identity.

In the working-class Southern California city of Maywood, Tobar discovers Edauco Pulido, the driving force behind El Grupo Pro Mejoras de Maywood, the Maywood Improvement Assn. This organization, founded after several residents noticed a questionable spike in their water bills, unseated the president of the city's water company and became a force in city politics. In Dalton, Ga., we meet Flocelo Aguirre, founder of the Dalton International Soccer League, alternately known as La Liga Mexicana de Futbol. With 36 teams and 1,000 members, Aguirre's group is arguably the most powerful Latino organizing force in the rural South.

The book's most unusual figure may be Benjamin Reed, a disc jockey at KFTA, a radio station that broadcasts from a beet field in Rupert, Idaho. Reed, a devout Mormon, returned transformed after a missionary experience in Argentina. His ease with the various forms of Spanish spoken throughout Latin America, combined with his affinity for Latino life, are the foundation for his on-air radio persona, El Chupacabras. Reed, looking more "like a copier repairman who had wandered into the station," Tobar writes, "grabbed the open microphone, and suddenly begun to channel his inner Mexican."

Yet this DJ, who named himself after a mythical goat-sucking vampire, is very much like Pulido, the bilingual politico, and Aguirre, the small-time futbol tycoon. All have fostered change in those places that are home to latinidad, the garages of Maywood, the soccer fields of Georgia, the frosty plains of Idaho.

The book is not without the occasional misstep. His assertion that Latino immigration may one day be compared with the Underground Railroad of the slave era seems shallow without the benefit of explanation. At other points, the rich personal narrative that propelled the book's beginning falls to the background or is dropped in favor of journalistic objectivity. This distance is particularly apparent when Tobar and a Times photographer don rain slickers to blend in with relief workers to report on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center and firefighters scrambling in search of survivors.

These slips are vastly outnumbered by the many stories of transcendence and faith. Time after time, Tobar encounters people driven by the belief that more awaits them in the United States. As a result, "Translation Nation" is a wealth of profiles generally rendered with careful, respectful detail. Each chapter is grouped into thematically unified sections, so that, when looked at collectively, the assemblage highlights the great complexity of the American Latino experience.

Of his brief time at an Alabama chicken-processing plant, he writes: "This was the kind of work that erases portions of your memory if you do it too long." While it is clear that mind-numbing work of all sorts may be done by Latinos for some time to come, "Translation Nation" ensures that such efforts are not overlooked. *

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