Harvest of Empire Themes

The main themes in Harvest of Empire are colonialism, American imperialism and foreign policy, and race and politics.

  • Colonialism: Gonzalez explores how the two empires’ approaches to religion and governance shaped their colonies.
  • American Imperialism and Foreign Policy: Since the nineteenth century, the United States has covertly dominated Latin America, militarily and economically.
  • Race and Politics: Latinos in the United States have grown more politically vocal and more active as voters in recent decades.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

Colonialism

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The major theme of “Roots” is the legacy of colonialism and how the different approaches of the colonial powers to managing their colonies has impacted various regions of Latin America. British and French rule in North America tended to focus on separatism from the native populations, with limited trade and a negative attitude towards intermingling and cohabitation. By contrast, the Spanish took a more aggressive approach and actively converted the native peoples of their colonies to Catholicism. They also made the effort to intermingle and interbreed with the natives in an effort to suppress native culture and identity. Religious homogeneity contributed greatly to these differing approaches, as the Spanish colonies were unified by their shared Catholicism and the North American colonies lacked a central religious authority. 

Gonzalez traces how these varied approaches impacted various North and Latin American efforts at independence. Many North American settlers were fleeing religious persecution in Europe, and the various colonies often lacked any concrete attachment to British culture and politics. This shared feeling of persecution and exclusion aided the North American colonies in their efforts to pursue independence. By contrast, Spanish-controlled territories often had firmer ties to Spain and the Catholic Church as a result of generations of intermingling, making independence a more difficult goal. Furthermore, despite Latin American support for US independence, the United States did not reciprocate, instead choosing to profit from the instability in many Latin American colonies. 

American Imperialism and Foreign Policy

In the wake of the United States gaining independence, the Western Hemisphere was at a crossroads: the United States could either utilize its newfound regional power to support the revolutions of other colonized countries, or it could capitalize on the instability of neighboring colonies in order to expand its own power. The burgeoning empire chose the latter strategy and began a century-long crusade that resulted in the annexation of large swathes of territory—including what would become Texas, Florida, and California—that had previously belonged to Latin Americans. This opportunistic expansion resulted in many Latin American territories being unceremoniously subsumed into the United States, and many regions of the southwestern United States have deeply ingrained Latin American influences. However, in spite of these influences, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment led to cultural tensions and divisions across the Southern border of the United States, many of which persist into the modern day. 

The United States’ growing influence did not end at its solidified borders; instead, the government utilized its financial resources and mounting military power to install and support dictators who promoted the United States’ regional interests. This led to the development of what are colloquially called “banana republics,” or countries that produce a limited variety of crops and resources designed to be exported to more economically developed countries. Countries like Honduras and Guatemala were essentially owned by major US-based corporations that financially exploited the underpaid agricultural workers. The corporations, and those who upheld the corporations’ interests within the banana republics, grew wealthy, while the countries themselves remained largely impoverished and wholly dependent on their limited export economies. Becoming a banana republic thus prevents a country from developing an independent economy and instead keeps them reliant on more prosperous nations for survival, which enables continued labor exploitation. 

Race and Politics

Latin American immigration to the United States has been a consistent trend since the colonial era, and Gonzalez traces both the causes and effects of immigration on various groups. He rejects the oftentimes homogenous characterization of Latin Americans and instead discusses the various subcultures within the broader Latin American diaspora. Despite a shared language, Latin American immigrants often have very different cultural, economic, and social backgrounds, and this influences how they fit into the society of the United States. 

Racism is a common theme across the Latin American immigrant experience, but the reaction to it differs between communities. Puerto Ricans are technically US citizens as a result of Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, but many Puerto Rican immigrants relinquish their culture in order to better integrate into the United States. Even Cuban immigrants, who are traditionally regarded as an outlier amongst Latin American immigrants, face racism. Though they were given special government assistance during the initial wave of Cuban immigration in the 1960s, the United States viewed them more as a symbol of anti-communist sentiment than anything else. However, the special treatment that Cubans received has led to a history of division within the Latin American immigrant community, and Cubans continue to face both internal and external prejudice. Gonzalez uses the Mexican-led 1960s Chicano movement as an example of how some Latin American immigrants rebelled against this assimilation and instead embraced their own cultural background with pride. The debate between integration and cultural pride remains prevalent into the modern day, and Gonzalez laments that white Americans have often made it difficult for Latin American immigrants to be proud of their heritages. 

Despite this lack of homogeneity in terms of culture, Gonzalez does identify Latin Americans as a unique political voice. With the exceptions of Cubans, who typically vote more conservatively, the majority of Latin Americans identify with more liberal causes and candidates. As an increasing number of Latin Americans apply for US citizenship and become politically active, Gonzalez insists that the political landscape must adapt to their presence. He outlines the issues that are most pressing to Latin American immigrants, with a specific focus on urban infrastructure, immigration, and education. Gonzalez notes that Latin Americans have been and will continue to be influential within the United States, and he encourages the government to recognize their presence as a positive and potentially transformative one. 

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