In her new book, “Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity,” Vice News/Telemundo/MSNBC correspondent Paola Ramos tries to put a human face on a debate so far dominated by academics and identity politicians. It’s a personal story for her, as she reveals early on, a coming-out tale that is firmly intertwined with the emergence of the Latino community as a whole.
Ramos’s sense of being Latino began problematically: In high school, watching her father, high-profile Univision newscaster Jorge Ramos, on the set with “women who appeared to have just finished a Latin American beauty pageant” led her to question her identity as a “Latina.” After many years of introspection, she began using the term “Latinx” after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, feeling that the X set free “the parts of myself that had deviated from the norms and traditions of the Latino culture I grew up in in a way that, interestingly, made me closer to, not further from, my own community.”
With this newfound ability to redefine herself, she became determined to paint a portrait of a largely misunderstood “community.” Recent debate on the nature of the Latino vote, for instance, has led many observers to question whether a fragmented ethno-racial group from 21 different countries even coheres as a political and cultural identity. So, in the spirit of the American road movie, “Finding Latinx” sets off on a journey crisscrossing the United States, looking for the heart of Latinx.
The chapters of Ramos’s book read a little like the structure of a short news documentary — she sets the scene in a place like the Central Valley of California by describing lush fields of fruits, nuts and vegetables, only to reveal the danger that the pesticides used to keep crops fresh pose for the workers who harvest them. Her portraits of subjects such as Byanka Santoyo, an environmental-justice activist, and Mónica Ramírez, who wrote a piece for Time magazine revealing sexual abuse of female farmworkers, have journalistic rigor, while slowly building an emotional connection with the book’s central idea about a generation coming of age.
Ramos’s interview subjects are often from the queer community, but she also engages with debates about Latinx racial identity and the criticism that “Latinidad” — an idealization of shared Latino cultural traits increasingly seen as superficial — privileges lighter-skinned people, even if they are apparently of mixed race. Black Latinx often face a double bind in the United States and Latin America: “Too black to be Latina and too Latina to be black.” Her interviews with the Afro-Colombian Ilia Calderón, Jorge Ramos’s co-anchor at Univision, and Leyanis Díaz, an Afro-Cuban from Miami, succinctly capture their grace under pressure.
Combining her acuity as a political staffer (she worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016) with her bilingual journalistic skill, she sketches barely known Mayan immigrant communities in Georgia and South Carolina, meditating on the principle of K’exel, which, Ramos tells us, “refers to the idea that when humans physically perish, their traits don’t leave the earth. . . . In other words, your spirit never dies.” She uncovers the irony, through one subject in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, that health care, including abortion and birth control, is better on the Mexican side of the border.
Ramos’s itinerary is impressively wide-ranging, including areas where you would expect to find the Latinx story as well as unexpected ones. In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., about 50 miles north of Manhattan, Ramos finds a community of Mexicans from Oaxaca who revived the downtown after destruction from a forgotten riot by locals after the 1992 Rodney King verdict. Back on the border, she revels in the little-told stories of Cubans who came to the United States by crossing from Mexico after the wet-foot/dry-foot policy was ended during the Obama administration. That policy allowed Cuban migrants who arrived on dry land without a visa to become permanent residents, while those intercepted at sea would be repatriated.
While Ramos’s Mexican father is well-known, her mother happens to be a Cuban immigrant, something that makes the author’s embrace of mixed-ness sensical while also propelling her to make connections outside of both her ethnic identities. But for all its broad investigation, one of the book’s most compelling sections is the retrospective on her hometown, Miami. She describes the strangeness of how blithely her high school friends engaged with Latinidad, an understandable attitude in the bilingual milieu of a city that is 70 percent Latino, hardly a center of marginalization.
In this chapter, she takes the bold step of interviewing Enrique Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban Miami denizen who happens to be the chairman of the right-wing extremist group Proud Boys, which Trump infamously name-checked during his rancorous first debate with Joe Biden. She explains Tarrio’s seemingly contradictory position as head of a group with white-supremacist ties as a product of his internalization of his parents’ trauma of exile, his embrace of Trump’s macho street sense, and a desperate play for acceptance and belonging in a polarized America.
While Ramos does not accept Tarrio’s extremism, she concludes that he is entitled to build his own narrative. “And that, in and of itself, is a Latinx story,” she writes.
I imagine that the downside of embracing the fluidity of “being Latino” is an acceptance of borderless, never-ending variation, or as the late Mexican American writer Gloria Anzaldúa would say, a “tolerance for contradiction.” Still, for me, part of the great promise of Latinx identity is its power to act as an antidote to authoritarianism, which seeks to scapegoat and demonize difference.
There’s no doubt that “Finding Latinx” artfully accomplishes its goal of defining Latinidad as a chance to create political and cultural coalitions in a way that recognizes common struggles, and the growing importance of the way those struggles thrive in that intersection. While pundits have spent considerable energy casting doubt on such a goal as the project of the elite, Ramos firmly grounds it in the voices of young, committed, everyday people who are just beginning to be heard.
In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity
By Paola Ramos
325 pp. $16.95 paperback