One of the most haunting images in David Riker’s film La Ciudad is of the New York City skyline seen from a work site miles away from midtown. There, a group of Hispanic dayworkers scrape off bricks, carry them to a designated area and pile them neatly on top of one another. No one, including the film viewer, seems to know where he or she is. The images evoke a vivid sense of place/ no-place that reflects the condition of multitudes of Hispanic immigrants to this country–not as much the ones like my parents, whose sense of place had as much to do with their schooling as with their new geography, but immigrants who enter the global Norte in search of a way out of strife and into life itself–improvement, fulfillment of dreams, a future that will be better than now. Like many Latin American renderings of reality, the reality of La Ciudad is informed by the imaginary.
While Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire deals with reality in a conventional sense–it is filled with charts, numbers and facts–his book cannot help conjuring up a series of past and present constructions of what it is to be Latino (or Hispanic, or Latin American, or Spanish-American, or Spanish-speaking, all identities modified by residence, however brief, in the Coloso del Norte). Indeed, a more diverse group is difficult to fathom, as Gonzalez makes clear not only through his facts but by the very structure of the book. He covers more than 500 years of history; the internal politics (historical and actual) of scores of countries; racial, gender and class conflicts within the multifarious national groups; varying US government immigration policies and practices; and all this in an attempt–a welcome one in my opinion–to create a sense of unity among all the ethnicities calling themselves Hispanic and living in America (capital: Washington). Imagine the difficulty: What could a Kanjobal indigenous-language-speaking peasant fleeing Guatemalan repression in 1980, who might later work in the tomato fields of South Florida, possibly have in common with a black Panamanian ex-cop (son of a West Indian) who left his country for New York out of guilt for having participated in quelling an anti-US demonstration and now is in the Air Force living in Alaska? These are two real people whose cases are discussed in Gonzalez’s Harvest, or better yet, harvests. Yet in light of all the peaches and pairs, Gonzalez has made a compelling case for unity.
A veteran of sixties left politics–co-founder of the Young Lords–and now co-host with Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, Juan Gonzalez lays out those figures and charts in the service of what some in cultural studies might call his “subject-position,” a position he never disguises in a voice of academic objectivity. His subject reads as follows: “I was born in 1947 to working-class parents in Ponce, Puerto Rico. My family brought me to New York City’s El Barrio the following year and I have lived in this country ever since. As a journalist, and before that as a Puerto Rican community activist… I have spent decades living in, traveling to and reporting on scores of Latino communities…devouring in the process every study or account of the Latino experience I could find.” And his position: “Mine is the perspective of a Latino who has grown tired of having our story told, often one-sidedly, without the passion or the pain, by ‘experts’ who have not lived it.” Indeed, we hear the voice of a hard-hitting social critic from the inside.
Gonzalez shows not only his advocacy/journalistic flair for making a convincing case but also a sense of narrative. His accounts of Puerto Rican immigration along with his own family history–a story that could have been an added segment of Riker’s film–give him an air of authority, but always an authority that leaves itself open to other authorities, which includes anyone with a border-crossing tale to tell. And there are many in this book.
Gonzalez’s subject-position notwithstanding, the force of the facts is a crucial dimension of his narrative. There are several important depictions of Hispanic immigrant reality in Harvest of Empire that have not been given the attention they deserve. Perhaps the most important is that The United States Empire–this designation is not taken lightly–has at once created and fed on Hispanic immigration. The expansionist policies of the nineteenth century, including the military annexation of a great chunk of Mexico, the cold war obsession with a perceived Soviet threat and the enrichment of US-based corporations through exploitation of Latin American labor and raw materials are the foundation for the desire of our neighbors to the (global) South to move to the (global) North. And once over the frontier of El Norte, Hispanic immigrants further the enrichment of US elites by providing cheap labor. For Gonzalez, this foundation places US government officials in a hypocritical position of decrying the effects of demographic movement northward–welfare payments made out of the pockets of US citizens, rising crime, drug trafficking, general social disintegration–when US financial elites have caused and benefited from them. Surely we have heard the indictment about US world domination before, especially in the pages of The Nation (not as often in the mainstream, though), but what makes Gonzalez’s take unique, I think, is that he frames the critique within the specific realities of Hispanics living in the United States. Note one of many examples: The consequences of the repeated annexation of Mexican territory between 1836 and 1853 were as lucrative for the isolated yeoman culture that characterized the United States at that time as they were devastating not only for the Mexican residents living in those vast territories but for Latin America as a whole. Mexico lost half its land and major mineral resources, and the new US territory would later pave the way for cheap labor for US corporations.
Another argument in Gonzalez’s “harvest” is that the Hispanic influx is different from other immigrations to this country. It is not that the Hispanic situation is unique; in fact, Gonzalez uses other immigrant experiences as models for comparison. It is rather that certain dimensions of late-twentieth-century capitalism (on the global scale) have made for differences. Hispanic immigration is occurring at a moment when multinational corporations enjoy a prosperity and control over markets that were not the case during previous periods of high immigration to the United States. In addition, the fluidity of Hispanic immigration–the fact that many Spanish speakers come here with the intention of returning, an intention realized in many cases because of the greater accessibility of travel–is different from previous patterns. Moreover, what makes Hispanic immigration different, perhaps more in quantitative than qualitative terms, is the relative importance and unity created as the result of language. The polemic over language instruction, the use of Spanish on the job and in the media, its marker as a definitive ethnic trait that transcends national boundaries, the debate about the United States as a bilingual nation by definition–all serve to strengthen Gonzalez’s insistence that we as US citizens would do well to pay more attention to Hispanics regardless of the European ethnicities that, as Todd Gitlin puts it in The Twilight of Common Dreams, are chosen like flavors of ice cream. Mexican society recently witnessed a political transformation that is sure to have far-reaching consequences for all US residents. Yet if our media continue to focus their attention on the pathetic Hispanic imaginary, i.e., the Elián Show, we will remain unprepared for these repercussions.
There is no end to this in sight, says Gonzalez, which is another argument in his crop. The much-mentioned statistic that, by the mid-twenty-first century, one in four US citizens will be Hispanic is simply one projection out of many that point to the writer’s hope (along with that of José Martí) that North America will come to know the other America, so that it will cure itself of its scorn. More and more Hispanics are becoming citizens; the median age of Hispanics is far younger than that of most other Americans; there is a rising political consciousness among Latinos, as well as a rising middle class; and all this is occurring as free-trade ideology is wreaking economic havoc on the people most in need of improvement of material conditions in their native lands.
No, there is no end in sight. If I may add a Midwestern story to Gonzalez’s all-encompassing one, I’ll point out that we’ve got troubles too, right here in mid-Missouri. Sedalia, Marshall and Mílan–communities that I’m sure the sophisticated Latinos of San Francisco would consider pueblachos de mala muerte (cowtowns)–have seen dramatic increases in their Hispanic populations because of work opportunities in the meatpacking industry. Outside of a few gruesome accidents and violations of child-labor laws, we don’t have major problems (yet). But what if the boom economy runs out of steam? What if there are layoffs of these hard-working young women and men?
The images of La Ciudad that caught my imagination return. Perhaps the shot of the New York skyline from that working no man’s land lurks in our memories because it fuses a cityscape with the lives of people, people whom we first see as others. Yet with the wide angle, we come to know them as mirrors of ourselves. Carlos Fuentes puts it poignantly when, in The Buried Mirror, he evokes without mentioning it the North/South division that is the mainstay of Gonzalez’s discussion:
California, and in particular the city of Los Angeles facing the Pacific basin, the North American bridge to Asia and Latin America, poses the universal question for the coming century: How do we deal with the other? North Africans in France; Turks in Germany; Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia [before the division]; Pakistanis in England; black Africans in Italy; Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Latin Americans in the United States. Instant communication and economic dependence have transformed the once isolated problem of immigration into a universal, definitive and omnipresent reality.