On the shelf
Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meaning and Myths of “Latino”
By Hector Tobar
MCD: 256 pages, $27
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Héctor Tobar is fed up with Latino caricatures.
It’s everywhere, from Netflix to the nightly news, from redheads’ Instagram feeds to woke people’s bookshelves. Conservative propagandists aren’t the only ones who reduce Latinos to murderers and cartel bosses. Liberal scribes also frequent such tropes. But in their stories, Latinos aren’t always sinners. You can also be “sharpsuffering or holy characters.
No wonder so many remain silent or even rejoice in the face of mass displacement and exploitation of the most marginalized among us. Why should they care about the one-dimensional characters they introduce to us?
Tobar’s latest book: “Our migrant souls“is the culmination of his decades-long struggle to correct this dehumanization. Tobar, a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent two decades at The Times, questions Latino identity with a subversive nuance. He doesn’t write for the white eye, but instead speaks directly to young Latinos, including his alumni at UC Irvine. He sometimes cites her work to illustrate the fact that many Latinos, from Afro-Puerto Ricans to Blaxican or half-Asian, feel like they don’t belong anywhere. In fact, this sense of disconnection is what binds us together.
The book’s subtitle, “A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of ‘Latino’,” reflects Tobar’s commitment to gray areas and contradictions. He writes: “An African heritage. your indigeneity. your Europeanness. You are everything – and you are the very specific place your parents came from.”
From reading the essays of these young Americans, which reenact their parents’ love stories and their own dirty secrets, Tobar learned a lot about what “Latino” can mean. He states, “Our humanity and our complexities exist outside of broadcast and print culture, rarely as vividly and fully as I see in your writings.”
Our Migrant Souls also sheds light on deeper truths about the United States, an empire that has displaced millions of people caught you here. Tobar spoke to The Times over the phone, in a conversation truncated for clarity and length, about how Latinos are not only the future of America, but also the essence of “a country struggling for its own mestizo identity.”
You started 2020 with this book. What inspired you to write this book back then?
I was teaching students and hearing their stories, and that was during the George Floyd riots. We were having this national conversation about race, and it seemed to me that Latino identity and the place that Latinos occupy in this country’s racial imagination was not a topic of national discussion… To me, it’s the defining race issue of the 21st century Century.
Why did you design the book as a conversation with young Latinos?
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. [rhetorically structured as a letter to his nephew]. In many ways, the book is a tribute to Baldwin. The fact that we, as Latinos, can stand up for ourselves, that we can begin to understand this country’s racial system, is thanks in large part to the work of African-American activists, thinkers, and writers.
So I read Baldwin, but I didn’t really feel like I wanted to target my own kids because they’d heard enough about me already. And my kids are privileged compared to most young Latinos in this country. I wanted to speak to the aspirants I met at UC Irvine. These young people who have so much going on intellectually, who are very curious but also hurt and angry. I wanted to share what they taught me.
Many Latinos have a love-hate relationship with the terms that define us. What is your biggest problem with the word “Latino”?
The biggest problem is that it centralizes Europeanness. Latin America was a term used by French intellectuals, among others, to justify French intervention in Mexico. It is this attempt to tell the people south of the Rio Grande that they have a common cause with the French and Spanish elite and not with the Anglo-American elite.
At the same time, it is a term used by marketers but also by activists. The origin of “Latino,” the way we use it, and the way it was used in the LA Times, one of the first media outlets to use the term, was an expression of an alliance between people of many nationalities. It’s a name for a group of people who share a common experience – of mingling, of travel, of surviving an empire.
They write, “‘Latino’ and ‘Latinx’ are synonyms of ‘mixed’.” Is there a danger that this notion of Latino identity as mestizo will lead to mainstream Latino obliteration of Black or Indigenous people who do not identify as mixed? reflects?
Absolutely. I think any generalization from a large group of people will lead to lies. And annihilations… We must find new forms of solidarity.
In your Ashes chapter, the book’s most powerful and haunting section, you write convincingly about the militarized border as a state killing machine that targets Latinos, drawing an implicit parallel to the machinery of the Holocaust. For me, as someone who has experienced this before, your wording did not strike me as excessive repeated encounters with human remains on the border that has become one mass grave where bodies are naturally cremated. They describe the diversion of migrants into the hostile desert as “the perfect media-age American carnage.” Why did you decide to devote an entire chapter to this comparison? Is there a reason you didn’t state it explicitly?
I didn’t want to be accused of moral equality because that’s not what I’m saying. … I am saying that these two crimes are on the same continuum of human history. That they are both expressions of the idea of racial cleansing, racial purity and racial defense as instruments of nation building. In the name of defending the German race against the Jewish race, the Nazis used industrial methods to murder millions of people. [Border militarization] is that terrible crime and serves the same purpose as any act of violence. It intimidates a whole people. The stories of what happens on the border penetrate the hearts and minds of Latino families and shape the way they make decisions. These are related events in human history.
They devote another chapter to the lies being spread about Latinos, be it in liberal Hollywood or conservative Fox News. Are they connected?
Both our infantilization in the liberal media and our portrayal as monsters in the right-wing media are symptoms of our voicelessness in the American media. The reason for this is a stereotype about Latinos that we are not intellectuals. We are not and never can be. Not that there is much intelligence in this country.
Did you write this book to rebel against this idea?
It comes from frustration as an artist. I just love the complexity and textures of my students’ storytelling. If you teach them that it is more interesting to read about a complex father than a holy father or mother, you will get many interesting insights into the human condition. What really bothers me is the didactic quality of many of our books [well-known] Art… that’s what Roberto Lovato calls the folkloric-industrial complex. We are selling this colorful example – the equivalent of it abuelita on the label of Abuelita Chocolate. But there is so much exciting work, some of which I mention in my book – great artists and photographers. I think we’re at the beginning of a Latino renaissance like the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve been saying this for about 10 or 15 years, but now more than ever I feel it’s actually happening.