by Héctor Tobar (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $19)
A little over a year after my family immigrated from Mexico to southeastern Virginia, a grade-school classmate asked me, “Did you live in a clay house?”
I did not, and neither did any of the people I knew. (By 2020, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, only 4 percent of houses in the country had walls made of adobe.) I don't remember the context of our conversation, or how the topic of my birth country and family's former abode even arose.
But I did remember the exchange while reading about a similar one in Héctor Tobar’s recent Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino.” Early in his book, Tobar recounts being approached by a young boy during one of his son’s soccer games in L.A. Cash in hand, the boy (who was White) asked Tobar—a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, UC Irvine professor, and proud son of Guatemalan immigrants—for some ice cream. For Tobar, it was a reminder of the seeming inescapability of stereotypes about Latinos in America. “Obviously you can’t accuse a six-year-old boy of being a racist,” he writes. And yet, “the boy had, in his own way, put me in my ‘place.’”
Conversations about Hispanics in America suffer from a combination of myopia and monotony. They focus on predictable topics—perilous immigration experiences, cartels, poverty—and fail to grapple with the variety of Latino experience. It’s no surprise that younglings like the ones Tobar and I encountered make innocent, yet inaccurate, assumptions.
Our Migrant Souls is Tobar’s attempt to remedy this. Part memoir and part polemic, the book tries to answer a rather panoramic question: What is the Latino experience in America like? At his best, Tobar offers a lyrical portrayal that captures the lives of many Hispanics. But his broad project frequently stumbles. He eschews some stereotypes, and having been on the receiving end of similar ones I sympathize with him. Yet the metanarrative he develops and applies to Latinos as a whole is not only incomplete—it’s often far too pessimistic.
For Tobar, understanding Latinos (I use “Latino” and “Hispanic” interchangeably here) begins by recognizing the imprint of empires on our past and present. Whether colonial Spain then or—more central to Our Migrant Souls—the United States now, the story of “people of Latin American descent,” he writes, “was born from a history of conquest and exploitation.” This is essential for Tobar: “‘Latino’ is a story about empire.”
Most of the book presents Tobar’s indictment of empire and racialization, and the damage they have wrought upon Latinos. “Erasures” from history books and mass media, unappreciated contributions to the domestic and economic lives of “White” America, and especially the indifference toward migrants at the border all culminate in his frequently bleak outlook: “Sociology, fate, racism, and the law hang over us.” But Tobar also depicts an inspiring story of defiance, a “prologue to a love story of reinvention and resilience,” which asserts the vivacity of Latino stories. Through many interviews, he recounts lives of passion and determination, whether of a mother of three young kids who is learning to read and write for the first time, or of the burgeoning dance-floor romance of newly arrived immigrants.
This framework in Our Migrant Souls—an arc that moves from the centrality of empire, to the imposition of race, to Latino resilience and reinvention—certainly applies to many Hispanics, and Tobar insists on universalizing it. He frequently writes in the first-person plural (“We Latino, Latinx, and Hispanic people”) to characterize the Latino experience as a whole. But as a cultural critique purporting to rectify incomplete portrayals of Latinos, Tobar’s metanarrative reflects his own partialities.
He (rightly and understandably) criticizes U.S. support of right-wing regimes in places like his family’s native Guatemala, but largely omits that many Latinos fled communist or socialist dictatorships—which undermines his characterization of “empire” as a largely American, capitalist affair. Tobar only once recounts the experiences of Cuban immigrants—the fifth-largest Hispanic group in the United States—and completely ignores those fleeing Venezuela, the fastest-growing immigrant group from Latin America.
Similarly, Tobar neglects the significance of religion in the lives of Latinos. He makes only a dozen or so passing references to religiosity, even as overwhelming majorities of Latinos—75 to 85 percent—either believe in God or self-identify as religiously affiliated. And he never really tries to understand why some Hispanics are politically conservative. Despite approximately a third of Hispanics consistently backing Republican presidential candidates for decades, the best explanation Tobar offers of a Trump supporter he met in central Oregon is that “he wants to fit in.”
Most of all, Tobar overlooks the optimistic, even patriotic outlook with which most Latinos view the United States. A 2012 Pew Research Center report found that 79 percent of American Hispanics would immigrate to the United States again. A 2020 study by the nonprofit More in Common found that 81 percent of Hispanics felt “grateful” and 76 percent felt “proud” to be American. Many Latinos have, to put it mildly, a far more sanguine view of America than Tobar, who holds that the country treats them as a “caste of lesser humans, the hired help of America.”
These characteristics—skepticism of leftward regimes, religiosity, conservatism, and patriotism—are prevalent in the lives of many and perhaps even most Hispanics in America. Their omission suggests Tobar’s framework may not actually be as widely applicable as he lets on.
And yet Tobar is far from alone in his views. Other writers and academics have also centered their understanding of Latinos in America on empire and racialization, and they, in my view, suffer from very similar oversights.
A common tendency among them is to treat the experiences of Black Americans and Latinos as analogous. Tobar compares “the talk” many Black parents have with their children about police encounters with one he’d have about the border wall. More egregiously, he likens the Middle Passage of slaves from West Africa to North America to the journey undocumented immigrants take across the southern border. But for many Black Americans, racial discrimination is a reality regardless of differences in class or education. The majority of Latinos in the United States, by contrast, were born or arrived after the Civil Rights movement.
These writers also tend to downplay the role of American institutions—legal, educational, economic—in improving the conditions of Latinos and other minorities. Towards the end of Our Migrant Souls, Tobar writes about Wong Kim Ark, the plaintiff in a legal battle against the Chinese Exclusion Act. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with Wong, ruling that the 14th Amendment guaranteed a right to birthright citizenship. Tobar recognizes Wong for the accomplishment, as well as Chinese-American mutual aid agencies who assisted him. Rightly so.
But he omits that the American legal system itself was also essential in improving Wong’s life then—and the lives of many Latino children of immigrants today. So has the American educational system taught many recent Latin American immigrants to read for the first time, and the free enterprise system contributed to their higher standard of living than many had in their home country. Though these three institutions sometimes fail, their failures do not invalidate their role in rectifying injustice. Yet this is often forgotten in similar critiques of America’s institutions that are decried by skeptics like Tobar.
For all his objections to American impositions, Tobar ends up adopting a rather American vocabulary around race and ethnicity. “In the intimate spaces of your friendships and your homes,” Tobar writes to his Hispanic students, “You are not inclined to use these terms [Latino and Hispanic].” And yet Tobar also claims those terms “dominate our lives.”
Tobar is trying to show a disconnect between how Latinos see themselves and how they’re regarded by the outside world. Fair enough. But he could also have applied richer notions of race, which blend racial categories, as part of his Latino reinvention. Instead, he settles for a confrontational mindset where “Whiteness” sets the terms of debate, thereby conceding to the very mentality he sets out to criticize.
Still, it’s important to point out how beautifully Tobar’s interviews with immigrants bring their often-unnoticed experiences to life. Those interviews show stories of familial ruptures and reconciliations, of a byzantine legal immigration system that keeps children from burying deceased parents in another country, of parental—and especially maternal—love, and a persistent desire for parents to fashion a stable childhood unlike their own. And they show stories of traveling to a Latin American country for the first time or after years away and recognizing there a part of yourself you had forgotten or didn’t even know existed.
“To be Guatemalan, to be Latin American, to be Latino or Latinx,” writes Tobar, “is to grapple with the promise, the beauty, and the dysfunction of an immigrant life.” Even if he often uses the first-person plural too broadly, he pulls it off when describing these personal reflections. Through them, he shows how the border-crossing, service-working, Spanish-speaking (or for that matter, Nahuatl-or-Zapotec-speaking), family-obsessed Hispanics as more than those traits alone. When he’s most personal, not political, Tobar movingly blends heartbreak with wonder.
Telling stories like those, in that manner, will be part of painting a fuller public image of Latinos, one that extends beyond the default assumption that we sell ice cream or live in adobe houses.
Though Our Migrant Souls overlearns the lessons of empire and unwittingly preserves its rigid notions of race, the lives of Latinos in America can’t help but come alive on the page. That’s surely reason for hope for the next attempt at discerning “the Latino experience.”
Luis Parrales, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is assistant editor of The Dispatch.
Image: Men and a woman sit on a rooftop in Torrance, California, to watch the fly-by of Space Shuttle Endeavor. (Unsplash: Daniel Gregoire)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe