The thesis of Harvest of Empire is that the flood of immigrants from Latin America who have settled in the US since WWII and profoundly transformed US society is the result of a distinctive and long-standing historical relationship between Latin America and the US, which differentiates Latin American immigrants from other immigrant groups and creates common conditions for them that prevail in spite of profound differences among them in race, nationality, culture, etc. Chapters 1–3, the first part of the book, set the background of this relationship by dealing with the foundation of colonial societies in Anglo and Latin America, with the US relationship with Latin American independence movements and subsequent attempt to carve out a sphere of influence in newly independent Latin American countries, and with US military adventurism and economic imperialism and the emergence of US-backed dictatorships in Latin America in the first part of the twentieth century. In short, these opening chapters deal with the imperialist "roots" of the immigration crisis.
In chapter 1, Gonzalez argues that "just as adults develop key personality traits in the first years of childhood, so it was with the new nations of America, their collective identities and outlooks, their languages and social customs, molded by centuries in the colonial womb" (3). The differences between Spanish and English colonialism, in particular, yielded two vastly different colonial societies, both in virtue of what these colonial powers brought with them in terms of religion (Catholicism vs Protestantism) and already existing colonial practices (the Spanish reconquista vs. English colonization of Ireland) and in virtue of how they interacted with the indigenous societies that already existed in the territories they conquered. The Spanish attempted to assimilate the Aztecs, Incas, and other indigenous peoples they conquered as a labor class and convert them to Catholicism and often intermarried with them, while the English maintained a policy of strict separation, sometimes escalating to the level of outright genocide. Thus, possibly the most important difference between Anglo and Latin America was the difference between the racial hierarchies that prevailed in the two. In Anglo-America, a racial binary prevailed between white and not-white, and the US, in particular, developed into a democracy of, by, and for free, white, landholding citizens, which held both indigenous peoples and black slaves as racial and political outsiders. In Latin America, a racial spectrum developed, with whites at the top and slaves at the bottom, but with dozens and at times even hundreds of racial castes layered in between, with most Latin Americans being nonwhite.
Chapter 2 tracks the independence movements in Latin America that began in earnest after Spain's conquest by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808. Gonzalez notes that the US started out as an inspiration to Latin American revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar, but, over the course of the nineteenth century, became an enemy of genuine self-determination for Latin American countries. At first, the US remained neutral in the wars of independence that raged across Central and South America. The US did not wish to antagonize Spain to the point that the later would refuse to sell territories like Cuba and Puerto Rico to the US. Then, after independence, the US began to annex large parts of Mexico in 1836 and 1848 and conquered Cuba and Puerto Rico (as well as Guam and the Philippines) in the Spanish-American war in 1898, turning Cuba into a protectorate and Puerto Rico into an outright colony. Over the course of the nineteenth century, American business interests gained ever-greater footholds in other parts of Central America and the Caribbean, starting plantations (the most notorious ones owned by the United Fruit company), mines, railways, etc.
Through these ventures, the US became increasingly responsible for organizing Latin American labor internationally. This was particularly important as a backdrop for later Latin American migration to the US. Gonzalez notes this development at the outset of chapter three, which deals with the late nineteenth and early twentieth century:
As US-owned plantations spread rapidly into Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Guatemala, millions of peasants were forced from their lands. Some were even displaced from their native countries when some of those same firms initiated cross-border labor recruitment efforts to meet the shifting labor needs of their far-flung subsidiaries. At first, the migratory labor streams flowed largely between the subject countries. West Indians, for instance, were recruited to build the Panama Canal, Haitians to cut sugar in the Dominican Republic Puerto Ricans for the cane fields of Hawaii. But beginning with World War II, which shut down the supply of European labor, North American industrialists initiated massive contracting of Latin Americans for the domestic labor front. Thus began a migration process whose long-term results would transform twentieth-century America. (60)
Because of the increasing importance of Latin American land, labor, and resources to US corporations, and with the end of formal US annexations of Latin American territory in 1898, the US played an increasingly important role in the finances and internal politics of Latin American countries at the beginning of the twentieth century. Two important realities stand out: the practice of lending large amount of money to Latin American countries and/or acquiring their debt from other powers, on the one hand, and the backing of Jefes or dictators, on the other. Prominent examples include Trujillo in the Dominican republic, Batista in Cuba, and the Samozas in Nicaragua. Where these strategies of indirect control failed or were insufficient to maintain American business interests, the US sent armies of occupation.
Thus, by the post-WWII period, the US had conquered some of Latin America and developed a sphere of economic and political interest backed by local puppets and, at times, outright military force, in much of the rest of the region. This arrangement created the backdrop against which immigration to the US from Latin America became commonplace and set the stage for waves of Latin American migrants to arrive in the US starting in the 1960s and escalating to the present day.