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Know the West

Nuestra America


In recent months, millions of Latinos have taken to the streets over immigration — more than 50,000 in Denver alone. Hector Tobar’s Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States is a thoughtful and wide-ranging examination of the people who have come from the Americas to a country that calls itself "America."

Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the son of Guatemalan immigrants, notes that Latinos don’t think of themselves as a collective whole any more than do "white people." But unlike many previous immigrant groups, who had no choice but to learn English and adopt WASP-y customs, Latino immigrants can easily plug into Spanish-speaking social networks for work and play, food and music, even worship — no English needed. In places like L.A. and Las Cruces, N.M., Latinos constitute a plurality, the mainstream itself.

Today, the author says, immigration is a far less permanent experience than in the past. The Internet, telephones and jet travel ensure that new arrivals needn’t lose touch with their native soil forever.

Tobar predicts that the next and most dynamic wave of U.S. political life will come from the ranks of Latinos who are already participating in city councils and state houses around the country. Most controversially, he points to the resurgence of revolutionary Che Guevara as a secular saint of Latino political idealism, noting that Che’s ideas of social justice and democracy unite Latinos throughout the Americas.

One of the book’s drawbacks is its anecdotal character; it lacks the authority of a definitive study or statistical assessment. Tobar offers no grand solutions, but his book is a step — or several steps — toward a new and broader sense of American identity.