Review: ‘Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture’

Before discussing Ed Morales’ new book, it’s important to define what its title means. ‘Latinx’ is the gender-neutral terms for people of Latin American heritage. Latino, the traditionally used term, is, by its Spanish definition, masculine. Thus, many people feel that it’s an exclusionary term that associates Latin American people with men, by default.

Latinx is, unsurprisingly, a book about the politics and history of the plethora of Latinx identities, which extends well back into the Middle Ages. Morales starts off the book by relating the beginnings of Spanish identity, when what is now Spain was a Muslim colony called Al-Andalus. Muslim Moors (or Berbers) from northern Africa conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s, a land inhabited by Catholics and some Jews. Morales writes about the complex relationship between these three groups and how the Moorish dynasty helped form the Spanish ethnicity that we know today.

In 1492, the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced out the Moorish dynasty (as well as the native Jews) and, ironically, set out on their own colonial expedition the same year. Christopher Columbus, rumored to be a Jew himself, thus started the transplant of the Spanish identity onto almost all of Central and South America, what we now call Latin America.

Morales follows this historical progression in the following chapters of Latinx. The Spaniards brought the ethnic hang-ups that they had left over from the Moorish regime with them to the Americas. They enslaved the natives under the encomienda system and established a racial hierarchy called mestizaje. Morales writes that the, “Spaniards and Portuguese inherited the historical roots of racist views towards sub-Saharan Africans through their intimate connection with [Moorish] Islam customs, cultures & practices. Muslim practices of enslavement divided slaves between field and house work according to skin color. Lighter skinned slaves were favored over the darker skinned.” The nature of Spanish colonialism, in which swarms of male conquistadores held all the land/power and enforced the racial hierarchy by taking native wives, created the famously sexist machista culture, which persists in Latin America to this day.

Importantly, Morales makes sure to write about Florida and the American Southwest (Aztlan), which most people forget belonged to the Spanish Empire for a couple centuries. In a paradigm-shifting bit of trivia, the author places, “the origin of the American cowboy in the 1850s, when a group led by Jose de Escandon crossed the Rio Grande to collaborate with Richard King, who founded the King Ranch.” By restating this history, he’s demonstrating that Latinx are as American as anyone, having occupied and culturally shaped what is now the USA for as long as the country has existed. This runs quite contrary to what many American nationalists claim today, with their foreign invasion/clash of cultures rhetoric.

‘Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture’ by Ed Morales. 368 pp. Verso

Morales then writes about the modern Latinx-American citizenry in the final, bulkiest section of the book. A major topic is how Latinx view themselves. The Latinx self-paradigm is shaped by nationality, religion and different notions of ‘race.’ The author notes that, “The US developed a racial matrix based on strict separation of races, rather than adopting the relatively fluid models of Iberian colonization, which engaged in a kind of exponential racial variation through both forced and negotiated miscegenation.” Latinx living in the US must internalize and externalize different ethnic identities when interacting with Caucasian, Asian, African, Native and Latinx communities. For instance, being black (negro/negra) in Latin America has some very different cultural permutations than being black in the US.

The book is particularly focused on Cuban-Americans, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans (who are Americans, by definition). These three ethnicities have been closely tied to the US ever since the Mexican-American War, in which the US annexed half of Mexico, and the Spanish-American War, in which the US seized Cuba and Puerto Rico. Cuban-Americans, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans have had a huge impact on American electoral politics and culture, especially music. Morales writes a lot about the entwinement of politics in Latinx salsa, rock, jazz and hip-hop. Readers are also treated to many excerpts from Latinx poems and essays. Though, the book gives a not-so-fun fact about Latinx in Hollywood: only 1% of lead roles in movies are given to Latinx actors!

American cultural hegemony over Latinx is also explored in the book. It explores how Latinx, particularly first-generation migrants, have been politically and economically encumbered. Latinx are mostly treated as objects by Democrats and Republicans alike, rather than as constituents. Politicians pander to either xenophobia or milquetoast platitudes about equality. Small wonder Latinx vote at a disproportionately low rate. As a result, Latinx are severely underserved not just on the immigration issue, but matters of employment, education and countless other issues.

As the book’s subtitle suggests though, this is starting to change, just from sheer demographic changes. ‘Latino’ is now the 2nd most commonly given ethnicity in the US Census, behind ‘White.’ About 60% of Latinx are millenials or younger; thus, they will come to exert an ever-increasing influence of the labor market and pop cultural mores (Cardi B, anyone?). Latinx also have a disproportionately high purchasing power, $1.4 trillion, and social media presence. Morales illuminates the multi-billion dollar efforts to market to this young constituency, such as the NBC-owned Telemundo television network and countless focus groups.

Though Latinx have under-utilized their voting power thus far, their population boom alone is making them more of a factor in elections. They disproportionately populate the biggest Electoral College states, such as New York and California, and swing states like Florida and Arizona. Pundits have spent many a segment extolling the Latinx voter bloc. Even the Republican National Committee recommended doing voter outreach to Latinos after Romney’s 2012 loss (guess Donald Trump never got the memo). Morales writes about Latinx voter enrollment efforts and misconceptions about Latinx social conservatism, particularly among the famous Cuban-Floridian voting bloc.

Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture is a thorough look at the history of the group of people called ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino.’ The effects of colonialism and banana republic neo-colonialism on people living in Latin America- and those who migrated to the US as a result- are exposed. The Latinx experience has been one of both cultural immersion and subversion of multinational power structures, such as racism and labor exploitation. There is no monolithic Latinx archetype- Latin America is a mix of Caucasians, natives, Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians. Though nominally Christian, worshippers in countries across the hemisphere have incorporated indigenous icons and beliefs, such as the Virgin of Guadeloupe and Santeria. Such diversity challenges American perceptions of Latinx and the racial hierarchy as a whole.

Morales exposes these contradictions through history, data, poetry and personal anecdotes from his Nuyorican upbringing.