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UCI Podcast: Héctor Tobar on the diverse faces of Latino America

The acclaimed scholar and writer embarked on a 9,000-mile roadtrip to explore Latinx identities across the U.S.

September 28, 2021
UCI Podcast: Héctor Tobar on the diverse faces of Latino America
In this episode of the UCI Podcast, Héctor Tobar, associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies, discusses the many Latino cultures of America that he visited during a 9,000-mile road trip he embarked on for a story he published in Harper’s Magazine. Steve Zylius/UCI

Latino people from all 50 states shape American culture and politics, but despite their diversity, they are too often viewed as belonging to a single category. That diversity appears across the U.S.: In New Mexico, where hispanos have deep connections to Spanish culture; in South Texas, where some Mexican-Americans express disdain for the country just a few miles south; in Miami, where cubanos differentiate themselves from Hispanics; and in New York City, where Puerto Rican immigrants have been linked with with the local Black community.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, Héctor Tobar, an associate professor of literary journalism and Chicano/Latino studies at UCI, joins the UCI Podcast to discuss the origins of the term “Latino,” the various Latinx cultures he encountered during a road trip across America for a story he published in Harper’s Magazine, and how the lives of all Latinx people are influenced by U.S. imperialism.

In this episode:

Héctor Tobar, associate professor of literary journalism and Chicano/Latino studies

Home Country: What does it mean to be Latino? an article for Harper’s Magazine written by Héctor Tobar

This author traveled across the country to ask: What does it mean to be Latino? a PBS News Hour segment about Héctor Tobar’s 9,000-mile road trip and magazine story

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Transcript

AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST

From California to New Mexico to South Texas to Little Havana to New York City, Latino people bring their unique perspectives to shape American politics and culture. But too often, Latino diversity has been poorly understood and Latinx people have been lumped into a single monolithic category.

How do Latino cultures across America differ from one another? And how have the lives of all Latinx people been influenced by U.S. imperialism?

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski. And you’re listening to the UCI Podcast.

Today, I’m speaking with Héctor Tobar, an associate professor of literary journalism and Chicano/Latino studies at UCI.

Professor Tobar, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

HÉCTOR TOBAR

Thank you so much for having me.

ORLOWSKI

So November of last year, you set out on this epic 9,000-mile road trip across the United States, going from California to Oregon, to Texas, to Georgia, Florida, New York, and a couple of other states that I think I missed. And then you wrote this beautiful essay about it in Harper’s Magazine. So why did you embark on this road trip?

TOBAR

Well, you know, I had been in discussions with Harper’s about writing something about Latino people related to the election. And at first the plan was that I’d go to Puerto Rico because you might remember that Puerto Rico was actually thinking of having a vote for statehood. And there was this talk of Puerto Rico becoming a state and adding two more senators. And of course when the election turned out to be very close and Biden barely squeaked by, all of that talk went out the window. So I proposed instead, look, it’s a pandemic. Flying is kind of difficult. How about if I just get in my car, drive cross country and visit all these Latino communities and try to make sense of what Latino identity is, if anything, right. And so that’s what I did. I proposed this trip to visit the many, many different communities that call themselves either Latino or its synonym, you know, Mexican-American, Chicano, Hispanic, cubano. There are just so many different ethnic identifiers for people who are grouped into this category called Latino. So I figured I would take a trip across the country and visit as many different kinds of communities as I could.

ORLOWSKI

And were these places that you had been to before that you had visited for stories during your reporting career or any other reason?

TOBAR

Oh yeah, absolutely. Because I’ve been writing about Latino issues for more than 30 years and also was once the LA Times Latino affairs correspondent, I’ve traveled across the country to visit many Latino communities. Almost all the places were places that I had visited before, but many were people that I had never met. There were people that I just walked up to on a street corner in the middle of a winter day. There was an artist who I had met through a series of emails. It was this process of meeting new people across the country and it was very exciting.

ORLOWSKI

Well, and as you were meeting these people I’m sure you were also reflecting a bit on your own personal history with the term “Latino.” What is that history? How have you embraced or identified with, or not, that term throughout your life?

TOBAR

The term “Latino” was not in widespread usage when I was growing up in California in the late 60s and 1970s. When I was growing up, I called myself Guatemalan-American because back then in the 70s using the hyphenated American, that was all the rage. And then you know when I got to college, there were all these Chicano students who were Mexican-American. I wasn’t really Chicano, but I kind of identified with their struggle, with Chicano struggle. I ended up marrying a Chicana woman. But “Latino” at that same time started to spread. You know, “Latino” is really an invention of the 1980s. It begins because people are encountering one another from different nationalities. You know, when Salvadoran family moves in next to a Mexican family and then their kids end up having a relationship together, and then they all have to go to a wedding, you know, then that’s where “Latino” is born. It’s born from these encounters between peoples. And so, yeah, so Latino began to sort of gain currency in the mid to late 1980s.

ORLOWSKI

And as I think you note in the essay as well, the term “Latino” had some origins with Hispanic activists who were using it, as you described, kind of as a unifying term for immigrant groups. Can you tell us some more about that history?

TOBAR

Think of Chicago and New York City and other places in the 1970s primarily, when you have these two different waves of migration meeting. So in the Southwestern United States, Latino people are primarily Mexican-American and Central American, and on the East Coast, they’re Puerto Rican and Dominican and Cuban. And on the East Coast, the term Hispanic has always been sort of a dominant term. So when these two people meet in, let’s say, Chicago, which happened in the 1970s, these Chicago activists decide, hey, we’re, we’re stronger if we have unity in numbers. And since we’re Puerto Rican and Mexican activists working together, you know, we could try calling ourselves Mexica-Rican’s, which is a term that some people use. But instead let’s, you know, since there’s also some Peruvians and Colombians around here in the back of the room here meeting with us, let’s call ourselves Latinos. And so the term “Latino” begins to be used by activists. At the same time the U.S. government is dealing with this conundrum of this new group of “ethnics,” who are, you know, active in labor rights and welfare rights. The U.S. Census decides in 1980 that they’re going to call them all “Hispanics.” So “Hispanic” and “Latino” start to spread sort of simultaneously across the country.

ORLOWSKI

And the terms are also in contrast to the dominant culture, the dominant white culture, as you note in the essay.

TOBAR

Yes, I think that you know, to me all the ethnic identifiers in the United States, the racial and ethnic, the main ones, Native American, Asian, Black, they’re all invented in response to white. You know, Latino is like Black and like Asian, it’s a term coined to describe something that a white person isn’t, right. And in fact, in this piece and the book that I’m writing, I try to understand the evolution of the term “Latino” in the context of the history of race ideas and race concepts and rates labels in the United States.

ORLOWSKI

Well, there’s so many complex identities underneath this Latino umbrella. In a sense, the term doesn’t fully capture those identities, and especially since it’s more of a European term. Can you tell us about how, you know, the term Latino doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the Indigenous identities of Latino people?

TOBAR

I talk about that a little in my piece, because Latinos roots are in the idea of “Latin America.” And so “Latin America” is a concept that starts to sort of gain traction in Mexico and in South America, in the Caribbean, in the 19th century. And especially when the French decide that they’re going to invade Mexico and try to make it an extension of the French empire. And they tell the Mexicans, look, this isn’t really an invasion because we’re your fellow Latin Americans. We’re not like those Anglo Americans, because also at the same time the French are in this rivalry with the British, right, with the British empire. And so we say, look, we’re Latin. And so the term “Latin America” comes from that. It’s an acknowledgement, or it’s an assertion, that these people living in Mesoamerica and South America have some sort of cultural connection to a Latin country, be it Spain or Italy or France or whatever, as opposed to the Anglo countries, right, or Germanic countries of Great Britain and Germany and whatever. And so that term, being a European term, erases the Afro and Indigenous roots of our family tree, because a Latino person is, you know, almost always has some roots in either Indigenous peoples of the Americas or in African peoples. And so that part of our identity, I think, is erased by this term “Latino.”

ORLOWSKI

Well, and the term “Latino” is even evolving today, and the term “Latinx” is gaining a lot of ground. What do you make of that transition and the growing popularity of “Latinx?”

TOBAR

The terms assigned to people of Latin American descent of Mexican descent have always been especially fluid and varied. And they’re always changing. You know, in California, there was a time when there was an ethnicity called “californios.” During the period of Mexican rule in California and at the tail end of the Spanish rule, this idea that there was this distinct ethnicity of people called “californios.” “Tejanos” is still sort of used in Texas. So there’s always been this fluidity. “Chicano” was created as a term in the 1950s and 60s, and really, really gained currency in the 1970s as a kind of hip alternative to “Mexican-American” because “Mexican-American” sounds so assimilationist. So “Chicano” becomes this term of coolness, of radicalness. And to me, “Latinx” has its roots in that. Of course, it begins as this idea that we’re going to try to eliminate the gender modifiers in Spanish because they alienate people who are transgendered. And now it’s spread to this whole sense of just an opposite of “Latino,” of expressing sort of that diversity, that multiplicity. Unfortunately, it’s still only caught on to about 5 percent of the population because the other 95 percent of the people who would call themselves that choose to call themselves either “Hispanic” or “Latino” and not “Latinx.”

ORLOWSKI

Well, it seems like in recent years, people might be waking up to the fact that “Latino” is a large umbrella category, that there are a huge diversity of different types of identities underneath that category. Especially this was the case after the 2020 elections, when some political pundits were really astounded that the percentage of Latinos voting for Trump increased, especially in a few regions like South Florida and South Texas. And political commentators were saying there is no such thing as the Latino vote, which is a good point, but it seems like a little late. So do you think that this realization from the pundits is catching on? Are people starting to realize that “Latino” is not this monolithic category?

TOBAR

You know, yeah. It’s like living next door to somebody. You know, you live next door to this family and they’re called “Latino.” And you know, you see them move in and you have some ideas about them. And then you see them doing all kinds of things that you don’t expect them to do. You know, like one day  one of the boys brings back home his white girlfriend, and another day they bring over their Black friends, or they turn up to have these Cuban friends. And then it’s like this, whoa, these people are more complicated than we ever could have imagined. And that’s what’s happening in this country, is that through a very slow process, not necessarily aided by the American media and film and television industries, people are through this process of everyday interaction realizing just how complicated Latino families are.

So there’s that. And in terms of the 2020 election, you know, you have essentially a working class population that in some regions of the United States shared the same sort of concerns, anxieties, that white working class voters had because they live alongside white working class people. Specifically the guy interviewed in Idaho who couldn’t even vote because he’s not a U.S. citizen, he’s a Mexican immigrant, but he told me he would’ve voted for Trump because he’s afraid that Joe Biden’s going to raise his taxes because he’s internalized the Republican rhetoric that he’s grown up with in his surroundings. And so there’s a lot of people like that. The woman I met in South Texas, who had listened to so much Fox News, she decided she didn’t even like going to Mexico anymore, you know even though Mexico is like three blocks away from her house. Right. She goes, “I don’t even, I don’t even like it. The only thing good there is the avocados. I don’t like chili. And I don’t like cilantro either.” And so there’s, you know, there’s, there’s that going on. There’s this proximity to white working class people and this general anxiety that working class people have, because the larger story that I’m telling is the failure of the Democratic Party to reach working class voters with a message that speaks to them in the same way that Trump’s xenophobia spoke to a lot of people.

ORLOWSKI

Well, I want to hear a little bit more about some of the unique places that you visited during your travels. And the first one I want to start with is New Mexico, which historically was a region that was most integrated with the Spanish empire. So what did you encounter in New Mexico?

TOBAR

Well, yeah, New Mexico is one of my favorite places to visit in the United States because feels so old and because the natural world there feels, like you’re stepping back in time. You know, Mexico is a place where the Spanish arrive in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores, Spanish explorers. There are Basques and Gallegos, and other different Spanish ethnicities that send their migrants and their explorers to this region. And so that history is still very much alive there. You know, I interviewed a man in New Mexico whose grandfather has this surname Ulibarri, which is a Basque surname, and which is the name of a 16th century explorer who wandered through this area. And a lot of people in New Mexico have these very, very old family ties to the culture of Spain. In fact, there is a large community in New Mexico of Crypto-Jews, people who were forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition and the period before the Spanish Inquisition, when the Jews were driven from Spain, 1492. So there are a lot of people who have this deep rooted history. And that history becomes a United States history during the war, the Mexican War in 1847, 1848, when suddenly U.S. troops marched down the Santa Fe Trail and occupy Santa Fe, New Mexico, and suddenly they’re part of the United States. That’s a much different story than the typical story of a Mexican immigrant, who arrived in the 1930s in the United States or in the 1990s in the United States. In those cases, someone has crossed a border, but in New Mexico, they can honestly say the border crossed us.

ORLOWSKI

Yeah, that’s such an ancient history and such a profound history as well. So moving on, one of the next stops you made was in Starr County in Texas, which is about two hours south of Laredo. And it’s right near the border with Mexico. And it’s actually the county that made the largest swing towards Trump between 2016 and 2020. And you mentioned the woman who said that the only positive thing about Mexico was the avocados, but what else did you encounter in Starr County?

TOBAR

People in South Texas, the people I’ve met over the years, many of them are commuters, and they drive long distances to work in the oil industry on the Gulf. Oftentimes they’ll go for an entire week and go work somewhere on the Gulf Coast. And so the region really is very dependent on the oil industry. So you’ll remember that in one of the debates, Joe Biden put his foot in his mouth and basically suggested that he wanted to do away with petroleum extraction. He wanted to do away with the oil industry. Well, that didn’t really sit very well in South Texas and lots of other places where people work in the oil industry. And I think that just cost him many, many votes.

Also, the Trump campaign did a lot of really intelligent things, including they did a food giveaway. I mean, South Texas is one of the poorest places in the United States. And the Trump administration, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sent these boxes of food. And just like the stimulus checks, each box had a letter signed by Donald Trump. And I talked to this one man who I met just walking through Rio Grande City, which is the county seat of Starr County. You know, I said, “Why did so many people vote for Trump here?” And he said, “Porque mandó comida.” Because he sent food. This man, he didn’t change his vote, but he said, “Oh, you know, I imagine that lots of people did.” So the combination of the sort of old machine politics, food giveaway, and Biden’s comments on the oil industry, I think that was sort of the micro story in that part of the country.

ORLOWSKI

So one of the next stops you made was in Little Havana in Miami, which is an entirely different type of culture there. So what did you find in Little Havana?

TOBAR

I had a little encounter with somebody in Florida, a Cuban woman, who was very upset when I made the mistake of using the term Latinx. “Yo no soy ningún Latinx,” this lady tells me. And then I was in Little Havana itself, proper, this very working class community, really interesting, it reminds me a lot of the place where I grew up, which is East Hollywood in Los Angeles, a very mixed community. And I told this man, well, I’m writing a story about Hispanic, immigrantes hispanos.Yo no soy ningún hispano. Yo soy un cubano,” this guy tells me. “I’m Cuban, I’m not Hispanic.” And so there was that there was sort of this very strong identification with Cuba.

And I went to one of these travel agencies that specializes in helping  Cuban people who live in the United States go visit their relatives. Because it’s a very involved process getting the visa, or if you want to send money or whatever. I met these three senior citizens and they were very, very anti-communist, but at the same time they told me they were anti-capitalist. They of course hated the Cuban government because it had oppressed members of their family and family members had been thrown in jail for saying things on a bus, for example, about the government. And they had been separated. You know, one family member managed to get out, but the other family member wasn’t let out for 20 years. But at the same time, they had lived now for 20 years in the United States, and lived through a couple of recessions and been pretty shocked by what they had seen. I mean, it’s like all that sort of communist propaganda about a hard life in the United States and how cruel it is. Well, a little bit of it turned out to be true. You know, capitalist life really is cruel. People get laid off, they lose everything, they’re homeless, they’re on the streets. 

And so I found that really interesting, you know, to meet this one woman in particular who had this critique of capitalism at the same time, she had a critique of Stalinism, but also who had been separated from her son for 20 years, just like the Mexican man who I had met in Georgia on my previous stop, who’d been separated from his family for 20 years because he’s undocumented and he can’t go back without risking not being able to come back to the United States. And so that was to me, very, very eye opening to see two very different kinds of Latino peoples: my Mexican friend in Georgia and these cubanos in South Florida, both having these very common experiences of family separation.

ORLOWSKI

So even though they come from different countries in Latin America and have so many differences of other experiences, they still have this commonality in their family life.

TOBAR

Absolutely.

ORLOWSKI

Well, one of the final stops you made was in New York and the Latino culture that you encountered there was one that used the term “Hispanic” a lot more, and that culture was closely linked to the Black communities in the city. So what was different about New York compared to these other places you’d visited earlier on?

TOBAR

Well, you know, I had been in many rural places, so to be back in New York City and to be in that hyper-urban environment that just really dense community that I went to, which is El Barrio, Spanish, Harlem. And the history in Spanish Harlem is absolutely amazing, just all the layers of immigration and migration. You know, I interviewed this one man who was half Puerto Rican, half Italian, grew up with Jewish people, now had neighbors who were Mexican, and also white because the neighborhood is being gentrified. So he had seen all of this coming and going, but as you said, I mean, I think that in the New York City politics that sort of dominates the scene now, there is a very, very strong alliance between the Puerto Rican activists, Puerto Rican community, and the African American community, because they’ve been allies on issues like public housing and employment for 50 years.

And beyond that, there’s also the fact that to be Puerto Rican means that you more than likely have a very powerful connection to Black culture from the island. So this Puerto Rican experience is one of this cultural mixing with, with African-ness, right? It’s always been that going back to the island. And then when people move to places like Spanish Harlem, or the Bronx, they’re even more thrown in again with Black people. And so there’s a very strong identification and it informs the politics. That’s why those places are among some of the most Democratic, the most loyally Democratic places that you find in the United States. The precinct that I visited I think voted something like 80 percent for Joe Biden.

ORLOWSKI

So towards the end of the essay as you’re reflecting on this trip, you write something that I want to quote. So you say, “I could see that what binds Latinos together is that we have all been shaped by empire. We are brown, Black, white, Indigenous, European, and African; some of us speak Spanish and some of us don’t. But all of us have roots in the upheavals set in motion by American imperialism.” So how has this American imperialism shaped, or maybe even unified, these various Latino cultures?

TOBAR

Well, yeah, for starters, I think it’s important to recognize how much of the creation of this Latino community is tied to events of political violence, of inequality. I’ve been sitting here at my desk in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles and all day, I’ve been listening to these workers outside who have been taking apart one my neighbor’s rooms of his house and they’re rebuilding it. And I’ve been listening to talking all day in these Central American accents. And so Los Angeles is a city now that’s being built and rebuilt and taken apart and put back together again by Central American immigrants. And a Central American immigrant is someone who has more than likely had a war in his recent life. The horrible civil wars, the death squads, the popular revolutions of peasants, of students taking up arms, that’s part of their history. And that history is shaped by U.S. imperialism. The United States sent weapons to back the Salvadoran junta. It sent napalm to the Guatemalan army, which dropped on Indian villages. There are two men right now who have been working in my house, who are speaking in Mam, which is a Mayan-Guatemalan language.

You know, here in the United States, we have our lives, our comfort is connected to these stories of empire, of the United States exerting its power. And so that’s, I think, the one thing that we have in common, all these different peoples. Obviously Puerto Rico is still a U.S. colony. Mexico, there’s that great saying in Mexico, “Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States.” That’s what they say in Mexico about Mexican history. And so all of these places have this relationship to this powerful country and its market for Latin American goods and for Latin American labor and for Latin American know-how. It’s the savvy, the kindness, the generosity of Guatemalan women that is raising generations of children across California and the United States. And those women are forced to leave their families, forced to leave the situation — a place where they learned how to be mothers, they learned how to be granddaughters, they learned how to be members of an extended family. They cultivated all of this wisdom about raising children, and they’re forced to leave their families and come to the United States and raise other people’s families. That’s a story about empire. And that’s one of the defining — that is the central defining thing to me, of the Latino or Latin X experience.

ORLOWSKI

Professor Tobar, thank you so much for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

TOBAR

Thank you so much for having me.