Interview: Mario T. Garcia on The Latino Generation

Mario Garcia
Mario Garcia (photo by Tony J. Mastres)

In the following interview, Mario T. García, author of The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America, talks about why we should listen to the voices of this new Latino generation and what they have to say.

Q: “Latino” is a widely used and oftentimes misused term. How would you define Latino?

A: Latino is a generic term to include all people of Latin American extraction in the United States. This includes Mexicans, Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, etc.

Q: Why is it important for all types of Americans to gain a deeper understanding of Latinos?

A: Latinos now are the largest “race” minority in the country, some 55 million, or 16% of the population. By 2050 one out of every three Americans will be Latino. All Americans are being affected and will be affected by this demographic change, whether in school, at work, in neighborhoods, politics, the media, culture, sports. It is important that we understand Latinos and their background and history in the United States to avoid stereotypes and ethnic tensions. Knowing the long and rich history of Latinos in the country and their contributions to it by their work and military service, for example, will hopefully dissipate fears and hysteria about “strangers” and “illegal aliens.”

Q: What is the Latino Generation?

A: The Latino Generation is composed of the children of the so-called “New Immigrants,” principally from Mexico and Central America, that arrived beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. The Latino Generation is composed of second-generation Latinos. Ethnically and culturally they are in greater physical or technological connection with different Latino groups and hence relate better to the term “Latino.” They are also a generation that has grown up under intense anti-immigrant nativism that they have had to react to and that has affected their ethnic identity.

Q: The testimonios that make up The Latino Generation come from interviews you conducted with thirteen Latino college students, all children of immigrants. While gathering these testimonios was there any facet of them, unique or universal, that stood out to you?

A: In doing my interviews with my former students, what impressed me was their openness to discuss their lives, including issues such as the undocumented immigrant status of their parents in some cases, or their own undocumented status. I was also impressed that these second-generation Latinos had within one generation gone from working-class parents to first-generation college students. This is remarkable and unprecedented in Latino history in the United States. I came away from my lengthy interviews as if I had really gotten to know my students in a way that I could not have in my regular teaching relationships with students.

Q: You collected these testimonios over the course of several years. When and why did you decide to compile them into a book?

A: From the very beginning, my goal was to publish the interviews in a book about the Latino Generation. It took some time due to other research projects that were ongoing and that required my attention. Nevertheless, I never lost sight or hope that I could publish my collection of interviews.

Q: What are the benefits of telling the story of the Latino Generation through these oral histories?

A: The benefits are that readers will get to know the human background of these young Latinos at a time of still intense anti-Latino immigrant sentiment and at a time of continued discussions over comprehensive immigration reform. The stories of my subjects reveal that Latinos of immigrant background are no different than other young Americans in their hopes and dreams and in their humanity. My book puts a human face on Latinos so often just discussed in the aggregate as “illegal immigrants.” Their stories are the best reasons why we need comprehensive immigration reform in this country. This book should be required reading for every political representative in Congress.

Q: What does it mean to be a second-generation ethnic, and why did you choose to focus on this particular group?

A: In my research in addition to my book on the Latino Generation, I have focused to some extent on second-generation Chicanos/Latinos because it is this generation—whether today or in other times of the 20th century—that reveals that Latinos, like other Americans ethnics, change and acculturate within the United States. They become more “American” than their parents. The stereotype that Latinos, unlike immigrants from other places such as Europe, don’t change and just want to live amongst themselves and speak their own language is disproved by the second-generation experience. The second-generation becomes bilingual and bicultural and more effectively negotiates the American system than their immigrant parents. Social change is at the heart of the historical project and studying second-generation ethnics such as the Latino Generation is a testimony to this.

Q:You must have conducted many interviews over the years. How did you decide which voices to feature?

A: In addition to the 13 Latinos featured in the book, I interviewed several others. Based on the reaction of reviewers to the manuscript and in my attempt to produce a book of reasonable length that can be used in classes, I edited out a few other interviews that I thought were not as strong or contained some repetition with those I included.

Q: Many readers may wonder after reading your book what its subjects are doing now. Have you kept in touch with any of them? Can you tell us about their feelings regarding this book?

The Latino Generation: Voices of the New AmericaA: After each story, I have included a note on what each of my former students are now doing and it is impressive to see how they have developed in their chosen careers. After the interviews, I was in touch only sporadically with the students or lost touch with them. Once the manuscript was completed and the review process at UNC Press was advancing, I was able to locate all of the students and apprise them of the project. Some of them had forgotten about it and were pleased to know that it was still alive. I also sent all of them copies of their stories as I had written them up and they all responded with suggested changes and corrections. Of course, now that the book will be out, I am in close touch with my former students to update them. All of them are thankful that I have continued this project, and they are excited that their stories will be told. They did not see themselves as important historically, and now they realize that it is important to tell their stories about what it means to be Latino.

Q: You mention in your book that the history of immigration is closely tied to the formation of the Latino Generation. How so?

A: Immigration is a central aspect of the Latino Generation in that they are all children of either Mexican, Central American, or South American immigrants. Their coming-of-age years were within an immigrant context. Their identity and culture is affected by this immigrant experience. At the same time, as they acculturated within the country, they became bilingual and bicultural through the schools, through their exposure to other ethnic groups, and through the mass media. However, they are not just a product of dual cultures; they create their own culture taking from their immigrant culture and from their non-immigrant experiences and produce something that is uniquely their own.

Q: In this story, you attempt to move beyond the stereotypical views that many Americans have towards Latinos. How does your book attempt to combat these stereotypes?

A: The stories of these young Latinos reveal them as ordinary young Americans with many of the same experiences and hopes and aspirations as other young Americans of other ethnic backgrounds. Latinos are no different and perhaps here is what I want to convey in this book. Latinos are us and we are they. There should be no basis for irrational fears or hysteria that Latinos will fundamentally change American life and culture. Yes, they will add to it and the country will become to some extent Latinized but not in a way that fundamentally changes the culture. All ethnic groups contribute to what we mean by being “American” and the same has been true of Latinos. They change and we change and that is the process of social life.

Q: “Race” is, as you say, a term that is difficult to pin down. Is “Latino” a category of race, or is it something different?

A: Race is not a biological construct; there are not many races but only one race—the human race, but with different phenotypes. Race is a social construct that suggests that not only are there different races but that some are superior and others are inferior. This social construct is referred to as “racialization.” Latinos have been the victims of racialization over the years by their indictment by others that they are “racially” inferior. So race plays a role among Latinos but largely as an imposed stigma of inferiority that Latinos have struggled against. At the same time, even if one accepts that there are different “races,” Latinos are difficult to pin down as a particular race because they range from very white to very dark and everything in between. This is the result of history and the process of mixing between Spanish conquerors and indigenous subjects in addition to the importation of African slaves into Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas. Over centuries this “racial” mixing has continued to evolve.

Q: How can nativist or anti-immigration systems affect the Latino Generation? Are there ways in which these systems have been or can be overcome?

A: The Latino Generation has had to come of age during intense periods of anti-Latino immigrant nativism such as Proposition 187 in California in 1994 or more recently with anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Alabama, and other states. This has affected Latino generational identity in that this generation, I believe, has bonded as Latinos due to these attacks on their parents and themselves, since nativism often is a cover for anti-Latino sentiment. Latinos have responded not only by bonding as a generation but by mobilizing against such nativist laws. In 2006, millions of Latinos, including those of the Latino Generation, organized and marched in protest to these measures and attitudes.

A number of those who can be considered part of the Latino Generation beyond my study are Latinos who entered the United States with their parents without proper immigration documents. Some were literally babies or young children who through no process of their own became undocumented. They have grown up in this country, gone to school here, and some have served in the military. They are referred to as “Dreamers” because of their advocacy for the so-called DREAM Act in Congress that has been introduced but not passed. The act would provide a pathway to legalization and citizenship for these Dreamers. They have organized and protested for the passage of the DREAM Act. The Obama administration through executive ruling has allowed for these Dreamers to not be deported while they appeal legally their status pending the Dream Act. The Latino Generation is very much a part of the rise of Latino political power in the country.

Q: It seems that most, if not all, of your interviewees are from California. Do you see evidence of the Latino Generation in other parts of the country??

A: While my interviews were done for practical reasons with my students, all of whom are from California, I see many of the influences on them affecting other young Latinos throughout the country. Demographically, socially, and culturally, young Latinos reflect many of the same backgrounds as well as evolution with respect to their identity and culture. My study is a microstudy of a larger generational phenomena that is taking place all over the country.

Q: How do you view the future of the Latino Generation?

A: The Latino Generation will be in the forefront of advancing Latinos into unprecedented political, economic, and cultural influence in the United States. They are already doing this in states such as California where you can see the future. This does not mean that because of racism and nativism that the Latino Generation will not have to continue the historic struggle by Latinos against second-class citizenship, but that struggle is at the core of why this generation is already gaining influence and will continue to do so into the 21st century. In these movements, they will advance American democracy and hopefully create a more just and equitable society. I am confident that they will.

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Mario T. García is professor of Chicano studies and history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is co-author of Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. His new book The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America is available now.