By the year 2005, Latinos will be the largest minority group in America. You don’t need to dust off reruns of ¿Qué Pasa U.S.A.? We understand if you’re surprised. After all, on television we’re practically invisible, and in real life we can be tricky to pick out. So, you’ll need a primer. ¿Comprende? Part comic strip, part literature, and part history manual, Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History, written by Mexican American Ilan Stavans and illustrated by Chicano cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, attempts to acquaint readers with Latino life.
The main players in these 450 years of history include a festive stock of characters from Latin American folklore: a calavera (the death symbol of Mexico), a toucan (the fictional hero of magical realism), and masked wrestler El Santo, whose nemesis is—you guessed it—Captain America. Stavans covers Christopher Columbus, Fidel Castro, discrimination, Gabriel García Márquez, and bilingualism. He does a fine job of pointing out how subversive politics shaped Latinos’ struggles, but the end result is too Mexican American-centric. What about all the human rights violations in Colombia and the U.S.’s “attempts” to help? Or the U.S.-Nicaragua conflict in the ’80s that resulted in the Iran-Contra affair? Stavans justifies his concentration upon his own heritage, explaining that “each historian ends up writing an account that is suitable, convenient to him.” By using tradition, however, he attempts to appeal to shared notions of Latino life, mostly with respect to keeping up the fight against racist stereotypes. “Tacos and soccer is what Latino culture is all about,” writes the author sarcastically.
Alcaraz pokes fun at his subjects without undermining history. Exaggerated and mischievous in some cases, his agitprop drawings appeal to Latinos’ sense of humor about themselves. In one instance, an appalled Statue of Liberty looks down at a sombrero-wearing Mexican hanging onto her leg for dear life. Tiny hearts float around them as he yells out, “Ay lob yoo!” Meanwhile the INS attempts to snatch him.
The reader is left to decide whether to accept the role that José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s minister of education in 1925, claimed for Latinos—that as mestizos, our adaptability as a mixed race has destined us “to conquer the globe in the near future.” Read this primer if you don’t want to be left out. It’s a 101 lesson on Latinos that may help you pass as one of us.