Educational comics have an honorable history, forged in the US by the visual didact Larry Gornick, and in Latin America by Rius, to whom Stavans (Amherst) and his artist collaborator pay tribute in their cartoon overview of Latin culture’s relation to the US.
Mexican-born Stavans here focuses on creating a historical narrative that draws heavily from popular culture and celebrates the mixture of backgrounds that find expression in present-day “spanglish.” He develops a cast of speakers that includes a conventional teacher, a toucan (homage to magic realism), the actor Cantinflas, and himself—a typically bespectacled college prof. These three emphasize the basic facts of recent history: the growing Latin presence north of Mexico; the 70 or so different ethnicities and languages south of the border; and the troubled legacy of US imperialism. Stavans gives voice to the unspoken “crucial factor” in Latin history: the mix of “racial types” that influences the course of events. He also highlights legendary Latin figures from the popular bandit Joaquin Murrieta to the saintly missionary Junipero Serra. Along the way, he and Alcaraz provide an alternate view of events familiar to most North Americans: the siege of the Alamo, the Spanish-American War, and American intervention in modern revolutionary struggles. The real strength of the book, though, is in its account of the Latin presence in the US: Stavans plugs his own work on such figures as Mexican film star Cantinflas (and also on the less important Oscar Acosta, the “Samoan” lawyer from Hunter Thompson fame). The three main groups of immigrants—from Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico—each receive due attention for their unique contributions to the evolving Pan-American culture. And Stavans even has kind words for the dissenting views of Mexican-American Richard Rodriquez, whose assimilationist vision isn’t so very different from that of Stavans and Alcazar.
Despite some odd byways, and an occasional clumsy sentence, a cartoon history for everyone: painless, witty, and inviting.