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In 'Our Migrant Souls,' author Héctor Tobar explores myths and truths of what it means to be Latino

The cover of "Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of 'Latino." (Courtesy)
The cover of "Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of 'Latino." (Courtesy)

Host Deepa Fernandes speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Héctor Tobar about his new book, “Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of ‘Latino.” In it, Tobar tells the stories he’s heard as well as his own to explore what it means to be called Latino.

Book excerpt: ‘Our Migrant Souls’

By Héctor Tobar

Empires

My children grew up devouring stories of empire and injustice, fantasies set in worlds that are not our own. I took them to movies and bought them books that transported them into fictional realms and into alternate pasts, or deep into the future, or into a galaxy that is “far, far away.” This is a rite of passage of a United States childhood. We watch and read narratives of powerful elites living inside stone towers and walled cities, protected by death rays and roiling fires and all-seeing eyes. The empire of fantasy and cosplay is steel and stone perfection, and it is savagery. We sit in a darkened theater, or with our faces covered in the bluish glow of our private screens, and we watch heroes who are small and weak and isolated fight back against power. When we see the empire defeated, we feel strong, liberated, and renewed.

Stories about empire move us because they’re echoes of the memories that reside deep in our collective consciousness. We live in a world of migrating peoples and interconnected markets, a global system of wealth creation built upon acts of violence. In the Americas, European conquerors erased ways of life that were alien to them, fought wars, enslaved people, razed temples, and outlawed religions. Bits and pieces of this history have been passed down to us. In class, or in books, we learn about the ship with captive men and women from the African kingdom of the Ndongo that arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619; about the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole being forced out of their lands in the Trail of Tears. Hollywood takes the history of colonialism and conquest and dresses up the characters in robes and helmets and gives them prop weapons, and it transforms this history into a crowd-pleasing fantasy. As Junot Díaz once put it: without the history of racialist ideologies, X-Men makes no sense; without colonialism, Star Wars make no sense; and without the history of chattel slavery in the New World, Dune makes no sense.

The largest “Latino” city in the United States, Los Angeles, is also the home of a movie and television industry that makes billions of dollars telling empire fantasy stories. The most recent film adaptation of Dune earned more than $400 million in box-office revenue, and when I saw the film with my Mexican Guatemalan American son (who had read the novel in high school), we listened as one of the characters pronounced a speech about the horrors inflicted by an empire. Her words could have been spoken by any of a number of different peoples across the eons of time: “The outsiders ravage our lands in front of our eyes. Their cruelty to my people is all I’ve known.”

In the real lives of Latino families, the empire’s power is plain to see. Let’s start with geography, and the natural barriers that separate the beginning and the present of our family stories. The choppy seas of the Straits of Florida and the western Atlantic; the cacti and dry washes and dirt trails in the Sonora Desert. The United States Coast Guard patrols the migrant routes across the Caribbean, and along the border between Mexico and California and Arizona there are fences, and a wall. What is a barrier several hundred miles long, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards, but the physical expression of an empire and its will?

The idea of Latino or Hispanic people as a race apart was born from the history of the United States and its triumphant march across the North American continent. The United States made us into “people of color,” and now our American story has the epic sweep of an IMAX movie; we have crossed oceans and deserts, and entered into new and exotic urban “barrios” and “ghettos,” and planted roots in farm towns on vast and verdant plains. Armies, police forces, and various systems of incarceration enforce an unequal order in which our labor produces the riches of an empire. Many of us live with the everyday fear that the agents of the empire will arrive at our front doors and take our mothers and fathers and grandparents away from us, into an imperial machinery of detention and deportation.

In trying to subjugate us, the empire darkens us, in more than one sense of that word. Melanin is what makes us darker, and melancholy is a darkening of the spirit. The roots of these two words are the same: the Greek “melas,” meaning black. Throughout this country’s history, the lives of the people today known as “Latino” have been shaped by the American tradition of creating legal categories applied to the “nonwhite.” We have been “braceros” and “illegal aliens” and “resident aliens,” and for many of us migration to the United States has become a one-way journey, a forever-goodbye to our homelands. Our second-class, outsider status in the United States produces the melancholy that is, in many ways, a defining element of the migrant experience. “Did he know he was never going to see his own mom and dad ever again?” one of my students writes of her immigrant father’s departure from Mexico. “Did he know that twenty years later he would cry like a small child for his mom”—watching on a video call from California—“as his sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, buried her frail corpse . . .”

The experience of having been uprooted from one way of life and transported into another, entirely different way of living marks the collective psyche of Latino people in the real-life empire of the United States of America. We have an ancestor who left behind a home where she understood the ways of the world, where she knew the paths across her village to take to school and work, where she knew the names of her neighbors and the moods and light of the changing seasons. She enters a cold and lonely country where Anglo-Saxon order and efficiency shape the landscape. Where she is a member of the laboring caste. Whatever success she may have in North America, that feeling of being separated from the essence of herself never leaves her. One of my students writes of a mother who decides to return to Mexico, leaving her grown children behind. “No te quiebres,” she tells her son during a tearful farewell, the words summarizing a migrant philosophy: Don’t break. If this woman was our grandmother, or great-grandmother, the legacy of her journeys, her exploitation, and her resilience can be something as subtle and indelible as the pigment in our skin, the shape of our noses, the color of our eyes. The dark shades we see, or think we see, when we look in the mirror.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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