(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Juan González, a columnist with the New York Daily News, is a former left-wing political activist and one of the founders of the Puerto Rican radical group the Young Lords. The author’s activism and his political orientations shape his history of Latinos in North America. His fundamental thesis is that United States imperialism in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South and Central America has impoverished the people of the Spanish-speaking nations and created links between the North American power and its southern neighbors. Heavy Latino immigration into the United States at the end of the twentieth century is therefore the harvest of a regional empire.

The author’s three primary goals are to present the historical development of the Latino experience, the diversity of the Latino population, and the major issues relating to contemporary Latinos. His book is therefore divided into three parts: “Roots,” “Branches,” and “Harvest.” In the first part, González discusses the Spanish colonization of Latin America and contrasts it with the English colonization of the North from 1500 to 1800. He examines the emergence of the United States as a regional power over the course of the nineteenth century and the reduction of the Latin American nations to borderlands of the North American power. Finally, he looks at the establishment of U.S. control over its southern neighbors from 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War, to 1950. In the second part, González looks at the major Latino groups that have settled in the United States. These include Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, people from the four war-torn nations of Central America, and Colombians and Panamanians. The third part considers the emergence of Latinos as an important group in contemporary U.S. politics, the controversy over illegal immigration across the Mexican border, the debate over language use, the relevance of the free trade issue to Latinos, and the problem of Puerto Rico’s status. Written in an engaging, informal style, Harvest of Empire provides interesting reading and a good introduction to the Latino population of the United States.

The first part, covering the historical background of the Latinos and Latino-North American relations, is the weakest section of the book. González is not a historian, and this section is largely a compilation from published secondary sources that vary in quality and reliability. Still, it does provide a useful overview of Latin American history and a background to the two other sections. The second part, on the diverse Latin American groups in the United States, is more original than the first. The author conducted extensive interviews with people from different Latin American nations, and the information from these interviews gives a depth and richness to his description of contemporary Latino life. He also adds autobiographical materials, telling of his own family’s movement from Puerto Rico to New York and of his bitter feelings when a public schoolteacher attempted to assimilate him by imposing the name “John” on him. The chapters of the third section are essentially editorials, and they seem to stem from the author’s career as a columnist. Here, his discussion of Latinos as a growing political force is particularly thought-provoking and noteworthy. One need only reflect that presidential candidates George W. Bush and Albert Gore both worked Spanish words and phrases into their speeches in the 2000 election campaign to conclude that González is correct when he argues that Latinos are an increasingly important group of swing voters.

González brings together an impressive amount of information on his topic. Unfortunately, occasional minor errors undermine confidence in the accuracy of his statements. For example, in discussing racial classification in the early United States, he remarks that “in the United States . . . the first federal census in 1790 reported that free coloreds’ were less than 2 percent of the population, while black slaves were 33 percent.” If González had checked actual U.S. Census records instead of relying on dubious secondary sources, he would have found that the first census reported that 19.3 percent of people in the nation were of African ancestry—a high proportion, but well below one-third. In discussing differences in language policies toward earlier European groups and toward contemporary Latinos, he says of the French language in Louisiana that “the use of French declined, but it did so through the evolution of the population, not through government fiat, and the rights of French-speaking children continued to be recognized in the public schools.” In fact, memories of being punished for speaking French in public schools are commonplace among those who attended...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)