Readers who enjoy Juan Gonzalez's "Forgotten America" column should pick up Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (Viking, $27.95), which is not so much a story of what is forgotten as what was never learned.
This primer - and Gonzalez's ever-enjoyable prose - grabs the reader and fills in the gaps left by a traditional American history education. Gonzalez recounts the history of the European invasion that decimated the Amerindian culture and people - an estimated 58 million native people died in the first 100 years of the conquest. In the English colonies, within 50 years of the Plymouth landing, about 90 percent of the native people perished.
But Gonzalez also provides a cultural history of two empires - the English and Spanish - and their transformation over the centuries into the two dominant New World societies, the Anglo-American and Latin American. "Latin America became a land of social inclusion and political exclusion," he writes. "English America welcomed all political and religious views but remained deeply intolerant in its social and racial attitudes. Latin America, subsumed by the force of its Indian and African majority, became a land of spirit, song, and suffering among its masses, its elite living a parasitic existence on immense estates. North America's white settlers, segregated from the races over which they held sway, developed a dual and contradictory identity and worldview: on the one hand, a spirit of will, work, and unwavering optimism among its small farmer masses, on the other, a predilection among its elite for cutthroat enterprise, land speculation, and domination of the weak and of non-Europeans." After laying this historical foundation, Gonzalez spends the second third of his book examining the history and sociology of the Latino communities - Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Panamanian and Central American - that comprise Hispanic America. From there he explores the Latino influence on American politics, the debate over the use of Spanish as an official language, the effect of free trade policies on Latin America and the struggle over immigration policy.
In the last chapter of Harvest of Empire, Gonzalez focuses on Puerto Rico, the world's oldest (and one of the last remaining) colony. He sorts through the arguments for statehood, commonwealth and independence - and finds all lacking. Instead, he believes Puerto Rico should combine parts of all three options and follow the example of the Pacific Trust Territories of the United States, which in 1986 chose to become an "associated republic." As such, Puerto Rico would conduct its own foreign policy; those born on the island would have dual citizenship; citizens of either country could emigrate to the other; the two countries would share a common market, common currency and common postal system; and while the United States would be responsible for the international security of Puerto Rico, U.S. military installations would pay a fair rent. "To generations of Puerto Ricans," he writes, "the psychological benefit that will accompany the end of this netherworld of colonial dependency will be incalculable. For Americans, it would wash away an old and ugly stain on this nation's most cherished ideals."
Gonzalez notes that by the middle of this century, Latinos will become the largest minority in the United States, and by the end of this century could approach one-half of the population. This profound change in the country's ethnic makeup is not a change to fear. "Ours ... is not some armed reconquista seeking to throw out Anglo occupiers from sacred lands that were once Latino," Gonzalez writes. "It is a search for survival, for inclusion on an equal basis, nothing more. It is a search grounded in the belief that, five hundred years after the experiment began, we are all Americans of the New World, and our most dangerous enemies are not each other but the great wall of ignorance between us." Joel Bleifuss
David Corn's nervy thriller Deep Background (St. Martin's, $25.95) evokes subversive early '70s thrillfests like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, reviving the left-liberal conspiracy narrative that almost disappeared during the Reagan years (except for Oliver Stone, who gave the genre a loopy, postmodern re-injection with JFK).
When President Bob Hanover is killed during a White House press conference, the nameless assassin, disguised as a member of the press corps, doesn't leave many clues about motive. Before shooting himself, he says "she knows" and "happy." The letter M, pierced by a dagger, is also discovered tattooed to his chest. The official line on the assassination is that the killer was a lone, government-hating white supremacist.
But Nick Addis, Hanover's brilliant and devoted young aide - who had been charged with trying to clean up (or cover up, he wonders) some messy business involving the First Lady and land deals in Louisiana - is drawn into the murky, unofficial assassination investigation, which leads him through the murderous undergrowth of U.S. politics. He is joined by Julia Lancette, a CIA analyst, and Clarence Dunne, the disgraced White House chief of security, neither of whom believe the official version - and who have curious leads that point to, well, a conspiracy.
Soon those leads end up dead, and the trio learn of a sinister, off-the-books government hit squad that might be linked to the assassination. Meanwhile, above ground it's business as usual: There are China trade deals to pass, and the new President Mumfries has his eyes on re-election, while Hanover's widow also covets the party nomination.
Though pastiche, technofear and post-Cold War ennui now mark the progeny of Three Days of the Condor, the virtue of Corn's narrative is that it has some of the groovy paranoid style that marked the early genre classics while playfully showing us the lay - and the lies - of the land around D.C.
Corn, The Nation's Washington editor, gives the novel extra flavor and fun with with various Beltway and extra-Beltway subcultures and supporting characters he unleashes on the protagonists. But the heart of Deep Background's darkness is part parable, part roman Ó clef about those young idealistic liberals who invested in the Clintonesque "vital center" only to end up having their consciences stained. Carl Bromley
Luis Gabriel Aguilera, author of the coming-of-age barrio tale Gabriel's Fire (University of Chicago Press, $22), refuses to be labeled a "Chicano writer." He prefers "human writer."
Aguilera's book does focus on the intricacies and experiences of a Mexican immigrant growing up in one of Chicago's Latino-Polish neighborhoods. And he isn't afraid to talk about this experience: the culture clash between him and his parents, the economic struggles of immigrants, the racial tension between Latinos and white students in the schools. But the vulnerability Aguilera exposes in his youthful persona allows the book to transcend the token Latino narrative and become an informative and often humorous memoir about a boy growing up.
As a teen in the '80s, Aguilera was tapped to join the Ultimate Party Crew, a group of teens occupied with partying and music. Various mentors helped Aguilera become an expert in mixing records, dancing and throwing parties, which he continues today with a self-made music production company called Full Spectrum.
Aguilera shows the relative innocence of the party crews: He nervously sweats before his first party; elsewhere he explains to a friend's mother how a window got broken during a bash at her house. But the party crew boys are acutely aware of the existence of more violent gangs - they constantly plan how to avoid them, with varying degrees of success. At the same time Aguilera is winning high school fame and girls with his Ultimate Party Crew jacket, he is also learning more serious life lessons as an assistant to Father Tom, a local priest. Under Tom's influence, he ruminates about his relationship with God and sex.
As a writer, Aguilera successfully revisits that time when the young mind ricochets from sophistication to na´vetÚ, hardness to softness, perspective to self-centeredness. Much of the book is street-level dialogue, with poetic spurts of descriptive prose mixed in. Aguilera's book leaves one with a sense of what it means to be a young person carving a place for himself in society. The thoughts recorded here are touchingly accurate wisps of a young man striving for meaning and identity. Kari Lydersen
Randall Robinson's The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (E.P. Dutton, $23.95) is a passionate polemic that argues the U.S. government must pay economic reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans and their African-American progeny.
Reconstruction-era Radical Republicans first provoked the discussion of reparations with their proposal to award freed men with property, to help give them a stake in a country steeped in white supremacy. But throughout most of the 20th century, the issue withered on the vine, taken up only on the radical fringes of black nationalism; the issue has been resolutely ignored by most civil rights organizations.
But now that is changing thanks to Robinson, a civil rights leader who helped spearhead the U.S. campaign against South African apartheid in the '80s. The Debt is a passionate, sometimes eloquent plea for a new understanding of our racial status quo. He writes: "Anywhere from ten to twenty-five million Africans died in slave ships en route from Africa to the Americas. A lifetime of bondage awaited those who survived the passage. This massive crime against humanity - the enslavement and exploitation of tens of millions of human beings - is an American holocaust. Yet one can scour the commemorative architecture of the nation's capital and find little evidence that America's racial holocaust ever occurred." Our cultural aversion to the tragedy of slavery also prevents us from addressing contemporary problems.
These days, conservatives like to enlist Martin Luther King Jr. in the crusade to dismantle affirmative action, selectively quoting the "I Have a Dream" speech. But Michael Eric Dyson has cleared the air with I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Free Press, $25). Dyson's book is a much-needed clarification of an important historical figure, making it clear that King not only supported affirmative action, but also most likely would have supported the renewed call for racial reparations.
Dyson, a coveted academic superstar now teaching at DePaul University in Chicago, hasn't composed just another hagiographical account of this venerated African-American leader. Heavy in substance, crackling with insight and deepened by Dyson's pop-cultural references, I May Not Get There with You is intellectual anti-freeze. Salim Muwakkil
Canadian journalist Naomi Klein's energetic meander through the world of global mega-brand consumer product marketing is sufficiently enjoyable to qualify as summer entertainment for readers settling back into their Nike shorts, with a Starbuck's frappucino in hand. But No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, $28) is also serious reportage on how global corporations are remaking culture in their own image - and the price that is paid, mainly by often distant sweatshop workers, but also by legions of temporary and part-time sales and shipping clerks in companies like Wal-Mart, Gap and UPS. It also chronicles how a global movement against these corporations is emerging from different strands of protest, from campaigns against sweatshops to artistic culture jammers. Klein's oddly titled book starts with the proposition that the central phenomenon of the past decade is the rising power of the corporate brand, not simply as a label to identify products, but as the symbol of a lifestyle, the embodiment of longed-for experiences (including nostalgia for a world destroyed by corporations) and personal identity (including creation of the idea of the global teenager as the prime market). Like social critic Thomas Frank, she details how companies attempt to define - or at least capture - hipness, market it expansively and expensively, and attempt to take over public space as well as private consciousness. But the more heavily corporations rely on this inflated brand identity, she argues, the more vulnerable they become to consumer revolts- and anything that might sully their literally precious image.
At times she overreaches with her analysis of life inside the logo, contending that the pursuit of corporate brand domination accounts for global sweatshops, permatemp workers and a wide range of social ills. But while the corporate branding strategy she criticizes is growing, it still accounts for a modest chunk of all economic activity. Also, there are more powerful forces than branding that account for the shift toward greater corporate irresponsibility toward workers.
While she starts with a cultural critique of brands, Klein shifts toward a social critique of how products are made. Initially, she seems sympathetic to groups such as the guerrilla subverters of corporate billboards or the consumer campaigns against companies like Nike, Gap and Shell. But eventually Klein concludes that the real hope for a movement against global corporations lies less in voluntary corporate codes, monitoring and consumer vigilance - and more in organizing workers and government regulation of corporate behavior.
While that seems to me the right conclusion, there is an odd disjuncture between that and her cultural analysis that needs to be bridged, just as there is a need to forge closer links between those largely youthful cultural protest movements and a global labor movement, about which Klein unfortunately has little to say. But just as protests focus on well-known brands and celebrities have helped to enlarge the movements critical of globalization, Klein's passionate analysis of the brands that dominate people's lives provides an appealing introduction to contemporary abuses of corporate power. David Moberg