Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States

By Hector Tobar. Riverhead. 307 pp. $24.95

Before 1980, the U.S. Census did not even record Hispanic origin when it surveyed the country's residents. Today, Hispanics have surpassed African Americans as the nation's largest minority group, and the latest Census estimates (July 2003) indicate that there are 40 million Hispanics in the United States, 13 percent of the nation's population. Hispanics' importance has also burgeoned politically: Just 2 percent of voters in the 1992 national exit polls, they were 8 percent of voters in last November's polls.

This rapid increase in demographic and political importance will continue for decades. Census projections indicate, in fact, that by mid-century Hispanics will be one-quarter of the U.S. population. Quite a change for a group that wasn't even on the census radar screen a few decades ago.

But who exactly are the nation's Hispanics? They are poorly understood by most Americans, who have only the vaguest sense of the Hispanic population's remarkable diversity and geographic spread.

Attentiveness to the complexity of Hispanic life in the United States is the great virtue of Hector Tobar's new book, Translation Nation. A former national Latino affairs correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and currently its Buenos Aires bureau chief, Tobar showcases diversity through vivid vignettes of Hispanics currently living and working in different areas of the United States. This book is the perfect corrective to the fuzzy profile of the nation's No. 1 minority group that many Americans carry around in their heads.

The most interesting stories are those that take us far, far away from the standard tale of Latino immigration to Los Angeles (which is Tobar's own personal story, also recounted in the book). My favorite starts with Gregorio, a former goatherd who, at the age of 50, moved to Texas, got fake papers and traveled around the country doing a wide variety of migrant labor jobs. When Tobar met him in McAllen, Tex., Gregorio had signed up with a labor recruiter to ride a bus to Anniston, Ala., and start work in the Tyson chicken factory there. Tobar, who had gone underground as a down-and-out Guatemalan looking for work, signed up with the same recruiter and went to Alabama with Gregorio. Once there, they lived in a cluster of trailers along Alabama State Highway 9 entirely occupied by other Hispanics bused in from Texas for the same purpose.

Tobar returned four years later to find that this nucleus of Hispanic workers had expanded into a real Hispanic community. While Gregorio left to do yet other migrant jobs, many workers stayed, and others arrived to work at Tyson and other local jobs. Community members built a Catholic church and have settled in for the long haul.

And so it goes all over the South. In Dalton, Ga., Hispanic workers were brought in to work in the carpet factories. Now Hispanics make up more than half the school-age population, and the local public schools have cheerfully adapted by using bilingual teachers and special programs. The local Hispanic community now supports a Spanish-language radio station, three Spanish-language newspapers and the wildly successful Dalton International Soccer League, with 36 teams. And the city even officially celebrates Mexican Independence Day.

Tobar describes other burgeoning Hispanic communities in the South, as well as a number of similar communities that are arising in the Midwest and the mountain states. The process repeats itself: Hispanics flow into a town or city to fill jobs, which produces a Hispanic community, which leads to institution-building, which makes the community even more attractive to Hispanics seeking work. The next thing you know, the town or city has a substantial Hispanic population with a vibrant culture that helps reshape the entire area.

Tobar's stories convincingly illustrate this process and should leave no one in doubt about the powerful influence the growth of the Hispanic population will have on communities throughout the United States. That's a real strength of his story-based approach, which allows you to visualize the process unfolding in specific places. The weakness, however, is that the stories he tells can also be repetitive, often making essentially the same points and not breaking any new ground.

The last half of the book goes off in different directions, including discussions of Hispanic political power in specific communities, from Miami to San Antonio to Bell Gardens, Calif. Throughout, Tobar is at pains to link the discussion to an important question: What is it that unites those whose origins lie in so many different countries -- Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, etc. -- into a group with any coherence?

Tobar argues that a sense of identity -- latinidad -- links these diverse subgroups and that it is based on a common identification with family ties and history in these lands to the south. The strength of that connection, made possible by the ease with which people can now travel back and forth between their new home and their old one, is something most Hispanics share. A European immigrant in previous eras, Tobar asserts, pretty much had to stay put once he got here. Not so today's Latino immigrant, who can and does return home and keeps his connection to his roots alive.

No doubt there is considerable truth to this analysis. But I was still left with a number of unanswered questions. Are things really as different today for Hispanic immigrants vis a vis earlier immigrants as he suggests ? And what about Hispanic immigrants compared to those from other societies -- isn't it now easier for all immigrants to return home and maintain their roots? If so, will groups from other regions of the world therefore develop their own versions of latinidad? And what about the role of class -- the kinds of jobs Hispanics tend to have -- in cementing Hispanics of diverse origins together, not to mention their common residence patterns?

Its analytical framework may not be completely successful, but Translation Nation does achieve what I take to be its main goal: making the tremendous diversity, dynamism and geographical breadth of our blossoming Hispanic population come alive. That's a valuable contribution to understanding where our country is going in this new century, and I am grateful to Tobar for providing it. *

Ruy Teixeira is co-author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority" and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

A barbershop at the Brighton Shopping Center in Los Angeles caters to Hispanic immigrants; at right, Spec. David Placencio Jr. of the New Mexico Army National Guard hugs his mother Genoveva in El Paso after spending a year in Iraq.