Latinos: One Group or Many?

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Samuel Farber

A Biography of The People
By Earl Shorris
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992, 520 pages, $25 hardcover.

THERE ARE NOW more people of Latin American background residing in the United States than in most Latin American countries. Major cities like New York and Los Angeles have acquired marked Latino features, while Miami has become a bilingual and bicultural bridge to Latin America and is currently controlled by a partly Cuban economic and political power structure.

Earl Shorris is a writer who grew up in the border city of El Paso, Texas with family links to the traditions of Sephardic (fifteenth-century Spanish) Jewry and close friendship ties to a number of Chicanos including Ruben Salazar, the Los Angeles Times journalist who became a Chicano martyr after being killed by the police, under suspicious circumstances, during the 1970 East L.A. riots.

Shorris deserves praise for undertaking the very ambitious task of presenting a comprehensive picture of the life of Latinos—a term he much prefers to Hispanics for a number of good left-wing political reasons. He is well versed in the different histories and cultures of Latin Americans and approaches the subject matter in a spirit of respect and solidarity while avoiding any hint of condescension, let alone the highly offensive romanticism that pretends to eulogize Latin Americans in folkloric or “primitive” terms. Shorris’ book is full of valuable insights into a wide variety of Latino issues, particularly cultural attitudes such as the sense of dignity (277), respect (107) and of aguantar or endurance (105).

Shorris chose to concentrate his reportorial and analytical efforts on the three largest Latino groups in the U.S: Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. While this is an understandable strategy in light of the available information, it is also problematic.

Take New York, for example. Puerto Ricans are less than half of the Latino population and neither Cubans nor Chicanos constitute a major group in the city. Instead, we find growing number of Dominicans, Colombians and, most recently, young Mexican men from the state of Puebla.

In any case, the three national groups studied by Shorris are described and analyzed from every angle ranging from history to media content and ownership, and from education to religion. When he deals with the Latino class structure, however, Shorris follows the currently fashionable tendency to write about either the very poor—to a significant extent outside of the labor market—or about the middle and upper classes.

The large Latino working class who cannot, for the most part, be counted among the ranks of the poorest Latinos, nor among the middle and upper classes, gets less coverage than Latino cooking and is thus virtually ignored. Thus, Shorris has nothing to say about Chicano industrial workers in California and the Midwest, Puerto Rican hospital and other service workers in New York City or Cuban garment and contruction workers in South Florida.

Shorris is on much firmer ground in what could be considered to be the central underlying thesis of his book- that major national, racial, political and class differences among Latinos stand in the way of their becoming a unified bloc in the United States.

Barriers to Unity

In Latin America, the existence of a common political and cultural identity is not limited to middle-class and political intellectuals but a reality with strong mots among the vast majority of the population. However, it remains to be seen whether that common identity can survive the encounter with the U.S. ruling racial, class and economic system, particularly among the descendants of the immigrant generation.

Shorris could have profitably compared Latinos to the African-American population, whose much greater homogeneity has been shaped to a great extent by racism In spite of the fact that there are differences between West Indians and native born Blacks—as well as an increasing class polarization between a growing middle class and a growing African-American poor—these differences are smaller than those dividing white European Latinos from Black and mestizo Latinos.

In the context of U.S.-style racism and the existence of a relative degree of social mobility for white immigrants, second generation Argentinian and Cuban white professionals and business people have relatively less in common with a mestizo unskilled worker from Puebla, Mexico than what a second generation West Indian professional or businessperson has in common with an African-American unskilled worker.

It is also possible that the composition of a U.S. Latino population and consequent identity will be qualitatively different from that of Latin America. As the descendant-generations of white Latinos lose the command of the Spanish language and intermarry with other non-Latino whites, a new type of Latino population and identity could develop: restricted to people meeting the North American definition of non-white and augmented by the continuing immigration of poor Latin American mestizos and those Latino Blacks who will not fuse, as many have done in the past, with the African-American population.

Wild Pitches

Given all the positive features of Latinos, I wish I could conclude that this politically progressive pro-Latino author has written the definitive work on the subject Unfortunately, as a whole, Shorris’ Latinos is very chaotic and incoherent. His peculiar mixture of social science, journalism and literature doesn’t quite come off in what is essentially a long and structurally disorganized work.

His excellent insights are combined with incomplete and sometimes wild interpretations supported by little factual evidence. Shorris writes as a pitcher with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball but with unreliable and inconsistent control.

Among his uncontrolled “wild pitches” I can cite some of his rather peculiar ideas about why people migrate from one country to another (129), the supposed differences between the Latino and North American ways of playing baseball (403-404) and the almost delirious discussion on the supposedly different attributes of the Spanish and English languages (118-120).

Shorris has been unfairly accused of national stereotypes and even racism in his comparison of the three major Latino groups (see “Comment” section of NACLA”S Report on the Americas, v. XXVI, No. 4, February 1993). He does this on occasion but it cannot be said that the views and approaches offered by the book as a whole are based on stereotypes.

Shorris writes about the entrepreneurial aggressiveness and daring (atrevimiento) of the Cubans, sometimes referred to as “the Jews of the Caribbean,” but he does not base this characterization on racialist grounds. The problem is that while he does offer some insights relevant to this question, he does not provide a systematic sodal and historic ex-, planation for whatever differences exist between Cubans, on the one hand, and Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, on the other hand. It is only fair to add here that no author has yet carried out this admittedly complex analysis.

Like the New Yorkjews in the period immediately preceding the 1950s, Cubans in South Florida currently have a social structure characterized by the existence of a community with an important number of capitalists, a much larger number of shopkeepers and other small business people, many professionals and other intellectual workers, and a majoritarian group of blue- and white-collar workers. Compared to this, the Chicanos and Puerto Ricans are relatively “truncated” immigrant communities who left their capitalists, professionals and intellectual workers in their home countries. This has major cultural, political and economic consequences for the immigrant groups in-question.

Thus, given these social structural differences, it is hardly surprising that Cubans tend to control, for example, the editorial as well as the business departments of Spanish-language printed and electronic media in the U.S. mainland and even in Puerto Rico.

In the early ’60s, the first Cuban exiles were overwhelmingly white and upper-and middle-class in composition with a numerical preponderance of professionals and business people. This early exile wave also received financial assistance from the federal government that was no longer available by the time of the Mariel exodus in 1980—a heavily working-class group with a Black component roughly similar in proportion to that of the Black population of the island.

By thebeginning of the’80s, all of the urban classes in Cuba were well represented in Miami and consolidated the creation of the multiclass “enclave” economy where a large percentage of Cubans trade and work with, and for, each other. This phenomenon has been thoroughly documented and analyzed by the Cuban sociologist Alejandro Portes of Johns Hopkins University.

Two other factors help to explain the relative success of Cubans in the United States.

• First, while prerevolutionary Cuba had experienced only limited industrial development, its economy was thoroughly capitalist and the predominance of market commodity relations was unchallenged by any alternative precapitalist mode of production This helped to create a population whose consumption goals were not qualitatively different from those of U.S. workers even though the material means to satisfy those goals were obviously not available to the great majority of Cuban urban and rural workers.

• Second, a considerable proportion of the white Cubans who went into exile in South Florida were themselves immediate descendants of the vast number of Spanish immigrants (primarily from Galicia and Asturias) who came to Cuba in pursuit of a higher standard of living during the big sugar boom in the early part of the twentieth century. These first and second generation white Cubans were therefore quite familiar with the striving for upward mobility that they had witnessed among their parents and grandparents. This immigrant connection is worth looking into.

January-February 1994, ATC 48