In this series, contributor Christine Reyes is reading books that reveal and recover aspects of (primarily) US history. This is the second entry. For a list of books covered, see our intro here.
“History, of course, is a kaleidoscope where nothing is absolute,” writes Ilan Stavans, in the introduction to Latino USA: A Cartoon History. Perhaps nothing captures that statement better than this kitschy, irreverent history of Latinos living in what we now call the United States, going all the way back to 1492 and Cristóbal Colon’s famous voyage to the New World. The opening pages introduce a cast of narrators, including Calavera (the iconic, laughing skeleton that we often see on Día de los Muertos), El Santo (a wrestling folk hero whose nemesis is Captain America), Toucan (a mythical bird seen in the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende), and even the author himself. Below these descriptions, Stavans adds that the book is also told by “a cast of millions,” because this is a history told through the lens of many: the history of the United States, from the perspective of the Latinos who have been here since the beginning.
There’s a persistent belief in academia that experts (their status determined by degrees and peer review) have the authority to determine what the official narrative of our time is. What Stavans manages to capture in this book, aided by Lalo Alcaraz’s illustrations, is the reality that history and culture belong to the people who have lived it. When we attempt to separate moments of history from what people were thinking and feeling during those moments, we end up with a list of dead facts that tell us nothing about life.
But the Latin American people have always countered elitist narratives with a bright and boisterous love of their own definition of culture. In the days of colonialism, the stern and disciplined Spanish settlers did everything in their power to end the gaudy festivals in the Mexican colony. During these festivals, men would dress as women, rich would dress as poor, criminals would dress as popes, and the living would dress as the dead, all to remind one another that, in the eyes of destiny, all people are equal. This embrace of the joy and misfortune of life is a common thread that runs throughout Latin America, and it testifies to the resilience of its people. As Violeta Parra once sang, joy and brokenness are the two materials we use to form the songs that we all sing.
Latino USA jumps around through the many defining moments of Latino history that the typical US reader may not know, including the early racialization of the Americas, the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty that first turned Mexicans into Latinos, the US’s love affair with Cuba, the legend of Aztlan, the Zoot Suit Riot, up through the present day unrest of Central and South America.
What makes the book sing is the style of its writing, because reading it feels like standing in the middle of a crowd and having them all chime in with their own version of the story at once. Stavans calls this a “less European, more democratic” view of history, and anyone familiar with Latino culture would likely agree.