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BOOK REVIEW: Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States- College Writing Series

Cristal Cervantes, an Austin Club Leader and Advertising/ PR major at the University of Texas at Austin, has contributed one of her writing pieces to this blog.  The issue presented in the book Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives... should continue to be discussed.  Please post your comments below for discussion.

            CERVANTES_Book Review —This paper provides a critical review of the book “Ethnic labels, Latino lives.” It summarizes and describes the author’s viewpoints. Additionally it evaluates the strengths and weakness’ of the content. CRISTAL. Length: 1127 words.

            The author of “Ethnic labels, Latino lives” Suzanne Oboler is a professor of Latin American and Latino/a Studies, author of the Politics of Representation (1995), editor of 2 anthologies; Neither Enemies Nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos (co-edited with Anani Dzidzienyo; Palgrave, 2005) and Latino/as and Citizenship: The Dilemma of Belonging (Palgrave, 2006,) and founding Editor of the international academic journal, Latino Studies. Thus, she possesses the credibility and extensive knowledge to write about the issues raised in her novel.  

             In “Ethnic labels, Latino Lives” the problem the author tries to contend is that labeling a group “Hispanic” obscures the various social and political experiences of diverse Latino communities within the U.S. Oboler argues “the ethnic label Hispanic homogenizes the social and political experiences of more than 23 million people of different races, classes, languages, national origins, genders and religions."[1] As a consequence, she maintains that the ethnic label becomes a racism tool used to deny both U.S. born and migrant Latino’s full citizenship rights and political representation. Furthermore, the term “Hispanic” is influential in the creation of Latino identities and their perceived role within the U.S.

            I would argue that Oboler successfully provides her readers with solutions to the issue she raised about the umbrella term “Hispanic” and removing the historical identity of the groups it applies to. She achieves this in three different ways. First she incorporates solutions from outside scholars like Fernando Trevino who feels “ there is an advantage of continuing to use the now-known category Hispanic in ensuring the community access to much-needed resources and in making demands from the ethnically based policy structure of U.S. government.”[2] Trevino believes that creating a new label or removing the current one in place would prohibit the advancement of the Hispanic community. Thus, society should maintain the label “Hispanic” and exploit it for the betterment of the group in a U.S. context.

            Secondly, she relies on anecdotes from Latin immigrants and historical movements to decipher the label and recognize each group as its own entity. She explains how Latino groups can be differentiated according to the conditions each left their homelands, their arrival into the U.S., and their daily struggle to be accepted in mainstream society. In Chapter 3 “Establishing an Identity” in the Sixties: The Mexican-American/Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements, Oboler delves into the histories and impact of these movements to highlight the heterogeneity that exist within the Hispanic label. One thing that Oboler does well is she doesn’t limit historical events to those initiated by Hispanics. She also pays tribute to events like the Civil Rights Movement, and Feminist Movement. Each of the events the author describes had a significant influence in shaping Latino’s experiences in the U.S. Additionally, she gives a spotlight to Hispanic involvement during these movements; therefore it is imperative that she includes them

             Lastly, she suggests that the solution lies within the new generations of U.S. Latinos.  She argues that U.S. institutions primarily the education system has failed to educate society about the heterogeneous experiences of Latino communities within the U.S. and their homeland. Therefore, students need to open that closeted information. According to Oboler, “they must fight against the experience of invisibility to ensure social justice for themselves, for all Latinos, and ultimately for all U.S. citizens and residents.”[3] To achieve this, U.S. born Latinos must educate themselves about the history of their nation, their descendants, and acknowledge the histories, experiences, and contributions of different Latin American groups.

            It is questionable who Oboler’s intended audience is. Could it be the privileged Anglo American who was born with full access to the national community, the “foreign other” who migrated to the U.S. and has struggled since their arrival, or the uneducated new generation Latino/a who was born in the U.S., but is not fully classified as a U.S. citizen for reasons further explored in this novel? I would argue it is the latter, the second and later generation Latino/a.

            The author creates an thorough analysis of historical events and the emergence of organizations that are not commonly placed in history books to educate her readers. Some of the events she sheds light on are: migrations from various Latin American countries to the U.S., The Bracero Program, Operation Wetback, The Mexican-American/ Chicano, and Puerto Rican Movements. Additionally, she introduces organizations like: La Raza, The Black Panthers, MeChA, and The Young Lords. The “foreign other” would have witnessed these events first hand and joined the aforementioned organizations, therefore dedicating chapters about their experience would simply be a reiteration. Moreover, the anecdotes she uses are excerpts from focus groups conducted on immigrant Latin Americans of this generation.  

            Although the interview excerpts support Oboler’s main viewpoints, the validity of the focus group undermines her findings and can further be considered a weakness. The focus group was conducted in the New York area. Therefore, the sample group is not representative of the general U.S. population. In addition, there is not a representative for each Latin American country in the group. This means that generalizations should not be made for all Latin Americans alike, instead she could have referenced the place of origin for each respondent, and the validity wouldn’t be compromised.  

            Furthermore, there is a great possibility that white privileged members of society would disprove her allegations. Occasionally, it seems Oboler is making whites solely responsible for homogenizing diverse Latino communities, placing them under one label, and keeping silence about the different experiences and histories attributed to them. This could possibly undermine her objectivity as a scholar. At times she makes general assumptions about white society. Although her accusations may be true, she has no empirical data or evidence to support them. More so, it causes the reader to have negative sentiments towards this group and overpowers her pedagogic efforts. Therefore, I am confident that the book is not tailored for members of white society.

            Overall, the book is emotionally engaging and convinces readers that the problem and the repercussions raised by the author exist. As a member of her target audience it elicits feelings of deceit and to an extent betrayal from U.S. institutions such as the education system and government. Thus, through her candid assertions, extensive research, and anecdotal references Oboler successfully persuades readers that the label “Hispanic” conceals the unique social and political experiences of different Latin American groups and motivates them to reveal these findings by educating themselves and the public.

[1] Oboler, Suzanne, Ethnic labels, Latino (Minnesota: University of Minnesota

     Press) 3.

[2] Oboler, Suzanne, Ethnic labels, Latino (Minnesota: University of Minnesota

     Press) 3.

[3] Oboler, Suzanne, Ethnic labels, Latino (Minnesota: University of Minnesota

     Press) 173.

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