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Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish Speaking United States

by Héctor Tobar

Pub Date: April 7th, 2005
ISBN: 1-57322-305-0
Publisher: Riverhead

An apt collection of essays exploring the increasing prevalence of Hispanic culture in North America, by an L.A. journalist now based in Argentina.

Guatemalan by birth and raised in L.A., where he cut his teeth covering the 1992 riots for the Los Angeles Times (sharing a Pulitzer Prize for the effort), Tobar (a novel: The Tattooed Soldier, 1998) casts his net widely in defining Hispanic American identity. He pulls in essays ranging in subject from L.A. (“City of Peasants”), where, he notes, the number of Spanish speakers roughly equals that of English-only speakers; to the desperate, porous border of Mexico (“Where the Green Chilies Roam”—chilies being border guards); to the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas and the stream of jornaleros (day workers) who migrate to cities such as Ashland, Ala., to work for the Tyson company; to thriving pockets of Hispanic communities across the heartland. Tobar tracks the “violent and troubled path into Americanness,” quoting from W.E.B. Du Bois and Alexis de Tocqueville. In “Unconquered,” he examines worse-case scenarios, like the hopeless, drug-infested barrios in Cordova, N.M., that are suffering from cultural dislocation and oppression, though he also recounts success stories, such as the Hispanic civil awakening represented by California State Senator Gloria Romero and other Latino activists who have cast off the humiliation of their immigrant roots to proclaim permanence in their adopted land. In “The Old Men and the Boy,” Tobar descends on the conflicted Cubano exile community of Miami, where the immigration fight for young Elian Gonzalez became a national cause célèbre; and visits an aging “hero from another fatherland,” jailed Puerto Rican terrorist Elizam Escobar, still raging about the lack of respect given his people. Although the New York Hispanic community receives glancing attention, Tobar does a magnificent job of portraying the “contradiction and possibility” contained in the words una nacion unida.

A plea for transnational identity in the spirit of Tobar’s hero, Che Guevara.