Harvest of Empire Summary

In Harvest of Empire, Juan Gonzalez tells a sweeping history of Latinos in the United States, from the early colonial era to the present day.

  • Gonzalez argues that, contrary to popular opinion and despite their undervaluation, Latinos have been part of the United States since before the arrivals of Anglo colonists.
  • The American government’s exploitative activities across Latin America have resulted in several waves of Latino migration to the states; these consequences of imperialism are what Gonzalez calls the “harvest of empire.”
  • Gonzalez traces the particular paths of different Latino groups, including Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Dominicans.

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1463

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Harvest of Empire is a nonfiction book by Juan Gonzalez that examines the historical relationship between Latin America and the United States. The book is divided into three sections: “Roots” explores the history of colonialism in Latin America and discusses how different Latin American cultures interacted with their respective colonizers; “Branches” analyzes the history of immigration between Latin America and the United States and discusses the diverse array of Latin American subcultures that now populate the United States; “Harvest” emphasizes the growing importance of Latin Americans in US politics and provides insight into the most relevant sociopolitical issues facing Latin American voters. Juan González is a journalist and political activist of Puerto Rican descent who has worked as a columnist for the New York Daily News. Harvest of Empire is both a work of investigative journalism and a political statement, and it applies a critical lens to the history of United States intervention in Latin America. 

Roots

“Roots” outlines the history of colonization in the Americas. Beginning with Columbus’s arrival in 1492, Europeans began claiming and settling across North, South, and Central America. However, Gonzalez notes that the interactions between colonizers and native residents varied by region. Whereas North America was primarily settled by the French and British, who typically avoided interaction and cultural blending with the natives, Central and South American were colonized by the Spanish, who took a more aggressive approach. Gonzalez defines the colonial approach of the Spaniards as one of “social inclusion” and “political exclusion,” whereas the British and French maintained a more strict segregation in the North American colonies. 

Gonzalez notes that the United States’ bid for independence from Britain transformed them from a series of disjointed colonies into an Empire. Many Latin American countries tried to ally themselves with the United States in the wake of the revolutionary war, but the United States often proved to be a fickle ally. Rather than supporting the revolutions of their Latin American neighbors, the United States often took advantage of political turmoil in order to expand its own territorial holdings. 

As the twentieth century began, the United States had solidified its power over much of Latin America. In order to maintain its economic hold on Latin America, the United States interfered in the internal politics of various nations. Gonzalez cites US support for dictators such as Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and Rafael “El Jefe” Trujillo in the Dominican Republic as examples of US interference. He also notes that the designation of Puerto Rico as an unincorporated Commonwealth of the United States is a form of political and economic disenfranchisement. Gonzalez identifies the political instability caused by United States intervention as the cause for the increase in Latin American immigrants to the United States during the twentieth century. 

Branches

“Branches” discusses the various different groups of Latin American immigrants who have settled in the United States. Gonzalez discusses the unique issues and cultural attitudes of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Central American, Columbian, and Panamanian immigrants and their efforts to establish communities in the United States.

Many of the chapters in “Branches” draw on firsthand accounts of immigrants from various Latin American backgrounds. Gonzalez uses his own account of being of Puerto Rican descent to emphasize the ways in which the status of Puerto Ricans as both “US citizens” and “foreigners” has left many Puerto Rican immigrants without a strong sense of cultural identity. 

The influences of Mexican culture on the Southwest regions of the United States can be traced back to the annexation of various territories during the nineteenth century. However, despite being politically recognized as United States territory, much of the land that forms the Southwestern United States traditionally belonged to Mexico. Furthermore, the arbitrarily placed national borders separated families and communities that had inhabited the land for centuries. Gonzalez also discusses the Chicano movement of the 1960s and its impacts on the development of a cohesive Mexican culture within the United States.

Gonzalez notes the differing treatment of Cuban and Dominican refugees by the US government. Cuban immigrants have long been unique amongst Latin Americans as a result of their relatively positive reception from the government. This reaction by the government was intended to undermine Fidel Castro’s communist regime, which had resisted US intervention for much of the latter twentieth century. By contrast, Dominican asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty were denied refugee status and did not receive the same government benefits as Cubans, leading them to develop a disproportionately negative reputation in the areas in which they settled. However, despite the apparently positive relationship between the US government and Cuban refugees, Gonzalez notes that most Cuban immigrants feel that the United States values them more as a symbol for resisting communism than as a people.

Gonzalez attributes the rise in Central American immigration to the United States directly to US interventionism in the region. US support for violent dictators and its history of issuing predatory loans resulted in widespread political and economic disenfranchisement. As a result, many Central Americans migrated north to the United States in search of better opportunities. Immigrants from Panama and Columbia face similar issues. West Indian laborers were brought to Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal, and faced continued discrimination from both white settlers and native Panamanians, leading many to travel North. Meanwhile, political instability wrought by US intervention and the increasingly lucrative drug trade resulted in Colombia becoming “the murder capital of the Western Hemisphere,” and many Colombians traveled to the United States in search of safety. 

Harvest

"Harvest" discusses how Latino people are an increasingly influential population in the United States, both politically and culturally. Gonzalez traces the evolution of Latino political engagement, beginning with the first-generation immigrant efforts to integrate into the existing United States culture. However, subsequent generations rejected this effort at assimilations and instead developed a sense of Latin American identity that focused on civil rights and cultural diversity. This movement gave way to a push for expanded civil rights, and voter engagement increased rapidly. Subsequently, Latino American voters, Black voters, and liberal White voters began banding together in support of more liberal candidates. This increase in Latin American political involvement transformed them into a recognizable and vocal voice within politics. 

In the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States began enforcing much stricter immigration policies. This led to a rise in broader anti-immigrant attitudes, which negatively impacted many Latin American groups. However, despite the post-9/11 rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, Gonzalez maintains that Latin American culture still pervades many aspects of modern US culture. Furthermore, Gonzalez analyzes the dependency on seasonal labor that free-trade policies and economic exploitation have created for both the United States and Latin America. Though anti-immigrant sentiment remains high, Gonzalez contends that Latin Americans will continue to immigrate to the United States in search of economic opportunity. 

Gonzalez transitions into a discussion of Puerto Rico’s status as a United States unincorporated commonwealth. He outlines the instability and exploitative nature of the current system, and then discusses three different options for how Puerto Rico might move forward. The first option involves the induction of Puerto Rico as a full-fledged state. However, Gonzalez believes that this plan is destined to fail, as there is not a strong enough national consensus amongst Puerto Ricans, many of whom worry about the impacts that full statehood would have on their culture and economy. The second option is for Puerto Rico to become fully independent. However, Gonzalez notes that the loss of US citizenship would negatively impact many Puerto Ricans. The final option, and the one that Gonzalez endorses, is a “voluntary association” model, wherein Puerto Rico maintains its relationship with the United States while also receiving a greater degree of local autonomy. 

Harvest of Empire ends with Gonzalez outlining six provisions that he believes will help decrease both illegal immigration to the United States and help repair many Latin American nations that continue to suffer as a result of US interference: First, Gonzalez champions the implementation of a common labor policy along the Mexican border to end the exploitation of undocumented workers. Second, he calls for a revision of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico that grants Puerto Ricans more independence. Third, he advocates for more bilingual education options and champions the teaching of Spanish as a second language. Fourth, he encourages the government to fund inner-city education and infrastructure to benefit both local and immigrant populations. Fifth, he encourages an immediate cessation of all United States military involvement in Latin America. Sixth, he calls for an end to the blockade of Cuba. Gonzalez ends the book by restating his central thesis that Latin Americans have and will continue to play an important role in US history. 

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