Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

One thought on “Latino History Month #4

  1. I want to second your observation on the regional variation within the U.S. Latino community, Tomas. In some ways, we can be as parochial and misinformed about our own people as the U.S. mainstream.

    Just this weekend at the Latino Book and Family Festival I listened to a Latino film producer speak of doing “Latino/Chicano” stories as if those terms were interchangeable. Thankfully other panel members pointed out the limitations this bright and articulate individual was placing on our identity.

    In another example, following one of my presentations about my book where I discussed the diversity of Latinos, a Latino reporter friend from Bakersfield told me if he tried to convince some of his family and friends there were black Latinos from the Caribbean “their heads would explode.”

    Thanks for continually sharing a broader picture of Latino Americans.

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