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.