Latina/o Studies – a Welcome Addition/Edition

Textbooks bore you? I am usually not a fan. Most textbooks lack arguments. They try – unsuccessfully – to make up for their missing authorial voice by adding graphics, colors and busy design. I prefer hearing from an author. I want to know where the person writing the book stands.

When I taught, I assigned monographs and articles when possible. Students who really did not know the subject, though, needed more. A solid textbook was the easiest and most reliable foundation. Determining just how much information and background was always an interesting pedagogical challenge. How deep or wide should one go? Spend too much time on the foundation and students lose interest. But broad comprehension is essential to make sense of complicated subject.

My college is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). More than 60% of our students identify as Hispanic, but many have never experienced Latina/o Studies as a formal subject of study. As we offer more classes on the subject, I have been reading up. It’s a dynamic field that has grown considerably in scope and sophistication over the past few decades. People of Latino heritage have had an important impact on American history and culture for centuries. However, the creation of the demographic category of “Latino” and “Hispanic” is less than fifty years old. The 1980 federal census asked about “persons of Spanish language” and it was only by the mid-1980s , the term “Hispanic” became commonly used. In earlier times, most Americans of Latin American or South American heritage were categorized in the census as white. The academic subject, Latina/o Studies, is of a relatively recent origin.

Bearing all this in mind, if you are interested in learning more about Latino Studies or about Latinos in America, I have a book for you: Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Chance, by Rogello Saenz and Maria Cristina Morales, a surprisingly good textbook with a distinct narrative voice. Saenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Morales teaches sociology at the University of Texas, El Paso, where she is an associate professor. It is an enjoyable and informative read, and it will get you up to speed with a narrative voice.

Saenz and Morales give a brief historical overview, stressing the diversity of experiences and histories of Latinos by country and region. They map out immigration patterns, making it clear that there has never been one “traditional” Latino history. Readers quickly see that the experiences of Mexicans in the United States is extraordinarily different from that of Puerto Ricans, or Cubans, or Peruvians. In fact, the very terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” can obscure or confuse.

Demographic data grounds the study. Before 1965, most Latina/o Americans had a Mexican heritage, with a smaller Puerto Rican group, followed by Cubans. Roughly one in seven Latina/os were born outside of the U.S. By 2017, 55% of the population growth in the United States is driven by Latinos. Numbers tell the story: 14.6 million Latinos in the US in 1980 and 50.5 million in 2010. Latinos are projected to be more than 30% of the overall US population in 2060. Interestingly, Latino population is clustered. More than half of the Latino population lives in just three states: California, Texas and Florida.

Saenz and Morales systematically review broad sociological concepts. Chapters look at political engagement, work, education, family life, religion, health, and crime. In each, the authors provide nation-wide data, contrasting the Latino history and experience with that of whites, blacks, and other demographic groups. They disaggregate the Latino experience by national origin. Variation is the norm, but themes emerge. Latinos with Cuban, Colombian or South American heritage have more wealth, opportunity and socioeconomic status than those from Latinos from the Caribbean, Mexico or Central America. There is great diversity within diversity.

The authors end with a look at Latinos in the mass media and an overview of current and future issues. They see increasing stratification among the Latino community in the United States, and anticipate that those internal differences will weaken political effectiveness. The three areas they identify as critical to Latino advancement and success in America are immigration reform, education and work. Further, they expect that the Latino population will play an increasingly important part in shaping America’s future. I think that they are right.

I recommend Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change even without a class or course – it’s that good. And you don’t have to tell anyone that it’s a textbook, either.

David Potash

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