Pushing the little-known Latino Generation into the public sphere

I participated in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held April 12-13 at the University of Southern California. I was on a panel titled "Exercising Your Voice" with co-panelists Tom Hayden and Astra Taylor. Each of us has recent books or books about to be released. I spoke about my new book, The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America, published by the University of North Carolina Press. I introduced my book by saying that it had to be contextualized by certain facts.

First, Latinos became the largest ethnic group in California in April, exceeding those of white European descent. Latinos now compose 40 percent of the state, the most populous one in the nation. Second, Latinos today represent the largest ethnic/race minority in the country, with approximately 57 million Latinos, or 17 percent of the total population. And third, by 2050, Latinos will constitute one out of every three Americans. The Latino Generation is part of this demographic reality.

But despite these numbers, Latinos are still a very little-known group. Most Americans have no clue about the Latino experience. As a result, there are many misconceptions and stereotypes about Latinos. Some believe Latinos are a recent group and the last of the immigrants. Others believe Latinos are very different from earlier immigrants, especially those from Europe. Some think it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to integrate Latinos because they don't really want to become Americans; instead, they want to just live among themselves, speak their own language and practice their own culture. And some of the more racist in the country still believe the older stereotype about Mexicans being lazy, given to drinking, and dirty ("dirty Mexican"). But these are all wrong.

Latinos have been very much a part of this country. Why is the book festival held in Los Angeles? Did the name of this city come with the Mayflower? The fact is that everything from Texas to California at one time was part of the Spanish colonial empire. Spanish settlements in what later became part of the United States began in New Mexico in 1598. After Mexican independence, this northern area -- El Norte -- became a part of the new Mexican nation.

However, the United States with its ideology of Manifest Destiny coveted this territory, provoked a war of choice with Mexico, and conquered the area in the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48). This transferred the present states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California to the United States. The Mexicans living in those states were extended American citizenship and became the first Mexican-Americans.

At the turn of the century, mass Mexican immigration to the U.S. began. Between 1900 and 1930, more than a million Mexican immigrants entered the United States to work on the railroads and in agriculture, mining and urban industries in the Southwest and Midwest. The migration has continued, with the exception of the Great Depression years in the 1930s, until now. As immigrants, Mexicans and their Mexican-American children and grandchildren have worked, worked, and worked. They could not afford to be lazy. Economically, Mexican-Americans and other Latino groups have contributed immensely to this country through their hard but mostly cheap labor. Latinos have also contributed their rich cultures to the American cultural mosaic.

Latinos have further struggled to be integrated into American society. They have acculturated by becoming bilingual and bicultural, and some are solely English-speaking and largely influenced by American mass culture. Combatting racism and other forms of discrimination, Latinos have a long history of civil rights struggles with the aim of integrations. Despite being considered foreign, strangers and aliens, Latinos shed their blood as American soldiers in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. In World War II, perhaps as many as half a million Latinos fought in the military -- not for the Mexican army, but for the U.S. Army.

Yet most other Americans know little about this history. It's not integrated into American history, certainly not at the K-12 level. I have students of every ethnic background, including Latinos, who know nothing or little of this Latino experience. Then you have the lingering misconceptions and stereotypes I referred to earlier.

So how does my book on the Latino Generation fit into all of this? I wrote this book in part to put a human face to this experience and to present the new voices of America to a country that knows so little about its neighbors.

This lack of knowledge has in part been responsible for the intense new nativism over the last several decades aimed mostly at Latino immigrants. Some clamor that we have lost control of the border as hordes of illegal aliens invade our country. They link Latino immigrants with crime, drugs, rape and other horrible accusations. They believe Mexicans in the U.S. want to work to regain the Southwest back for Mexico. "I want my country back!" the tea party types cry out, meaning that in part they decry the growing number of Latinos in the U.S.

In all this, Latinos are spoken about in the abstract, as if they are not even human. But they are. My book on the contemporary Latino Generation counters these misguided and even racist views by showing how young Latinos today are very much human, very much American, very much desirous of integration, yet very proud of their ethnic heritage and very much the voice of the new America.

This book is composed of 13 oral histories of some of my former students at the University of California, Santa Barbara during the first decade of this century. They are part of the millennial generation of Latinos. Demographically, they are the children of the new immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America and the Central American political refugees, all who began entering the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of my former students were mostly born in the 1980s, but they are brought together as a generational cohort by other factors, as well. Their immigrant parents are the result of the new globalized economy that uprooted people in developing nations for cheap labor in the new American deindustrialized economy, which requires large amounts of unskilled service workers to serve the better-educated and high-tech workers and professionals at the other end of the economic spectrum.

The new Latino Generation is affected by the fact that members of this generation have come of age at a time when Latinos have become the largest minority group in the country. Being cognizant of this has empowered them. The Latino Generation is also the product of new technologies that have led to greater communication between the different Latino groups, which has helped produce a new consciousness as Latinos. This generation more than previous Latino ones has been affected by an almost permanent neonativism as they have grown up, and this has affected their sense of empowering themselves to combat this anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment.

And despite the nativist opposition, members of the Latino Generation have experienced more educational mobility, including going to college and graduate and professional schools, than any other previous Latino generation. The Latino Generation is also affected by the significant and unprecedented rise of Latino political power, and as they mature, members of the new generation are contributing to this and beginning to lead it. These factors, along with others I explain in the introduction to my book, characterize the Latino Generation and mark it a distinct generation.

My book is a case study of the Latino Generation, which is also a national generation with many of the same experiences and characteristics as my former students. These 13 stories are wonderful expressions of this generation. Each represents a distinct individual experience, even though shared historical experiences connect them. For example, all of them are children of immigrants. A few arrived as immigrant babies or young children. They attest to the hard work of their parents. They also recognize their parents' support of education for their children. The stories address the acculturation or transculturation as these second-generation Latinos become bilingual and bicultural. And they reveal young Latinos who want to better themselves as Americans and want to have as much access to educational mobility as possible. They achieve this through their hard work despite many difficulties in their public schools. They are, in the end, achievers, and not only have they graduated from college, but they have gone on to successful professional careers. In their stories, they come across as hardworking young Latino Americans who are pursuing their dreams and aspirations and who want to make this country a better and more democratic one. They are the Latino Generation and the voices of the new America.

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