Book review of LatinoLand by Marie Arana

Books

The Latino community doesn’t exist as a monolith. Latin Americans hail from over 20 countries, each with its own unique ethnicity and culture. African, Spanish and Indigenous influences vary wildly but are consistently present in most groups. Labels like Hispanic or Latino don’t snugly fit this growing population, and some people shrug them off entirely.

Lauded author and Washington Post columnist Marie Arana admits early on in LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority that she is “working with a deficit” in her attempt to capture the diverse experience of American Latinos. Yet by embracing the variety of this diaspora—and its people’s conflicting views on race, religion and politics—she comes as close to success as one can get.

The book at first functions as a survey, with brief chapters on Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans and other Latino groups. While these historical accounts might not unearth anything unknown to Latin American scholars, Arana’s punchy writing style is engaging, informative and full of pleasant surprises, like her tale about the first Dominican to settle New York in the 1500s, centuries before a bodega opened in Washington Heights. 

Arana also tackles the plurality of Latino identities from other angles, including the morphing religious affiliations of Hispanic Americans and a thoughtful dismantling of the myth of the “Latino vote.” Short profiles contextualize the broader themes and history lessons; some of the stories related here are harrowing, some amusing, others mundane. The horrors of colonialism, segregation and genocide are everpresent.

LatinoLand features interviews with an impressive swath of Latinos, from undocumented custodians and emboldened activists to federal policymakers and religious leaders—though at times there does seem to be a reliance on higher-educated professionals. While Arana celebrates the diversity of American Latinos and doesn’t push for any kind of assimilation, she also appeals to traditional American values when making the case for Latino acceptance, pointing to their contributions to business, academia and the military. But her most salient argument is that Latinos have contributed so much more to this country than what’s acknowledged in the mainstream; by spotlighting unsung heroes like climate scientist Mario Molina and labor champion Dolores Huerta, she gives them their due. 

As Arana pieces together a vibrant collage of American Latino lives, she communicates her belief that solidarity is possible among this fractured cohort. Perhaps, one thinks, it can emerge from the shared experience of being underestimated and undervalued.

Originally published here.

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