Few works have offered as comprehensive an analysis of the history of Latin Americans in the United States as Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. This book, by the journalist, investigative reporter and author, Juan Gonzalez, was first published in 2000, with a revised and expanded edition appearing in 2011. It provides a comprehensive account of how Latin American history has intersected with that of the United States since the foundation of the country in the second half of the eighteenth century. This then leads into a discussion of the issue of Latin American immigration into the United States and the seemingly perpetual debate over immigration policy and reform in America.
At the root of Gonzalez’s book is a study of the history of the Americas stretching back to the discovery and first settlement of the continent by Europeans in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For much of that period a vast swathe of what is now the United States was actually ruled by the Spanish and then their successors in North America, the state of Mexico. The expanse of land stretching from Texas westwards through New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and into California and Oregon was ruled by the Spanish and then the Mexicans until it was wrested from Mexico following the American-Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. Thus, one of the major reasons why Latin Americans have always been entangled in the history of the United States is because America expanded into parts of North America which were traditionally held by Latin Americans. One of the main aspects of Harvest of Empire is an exploration of this entangled history. This is charted in the first third of the book, which Gonzalez entitles ‘Roots’ and which deals with the colonial history of North America.
The second part of Harvest of Empire, entitled ‘Branches’ then moves on to examine how the makeup of Latin Americans in North and Central America diverged in the nineteenth century as people whose identity was uniformly ‘Spanish’ began to understand themselves as being ‘Mexicans’, ‘Puerto Ricans’, ‘Cubans’, ‘Colombians’ and so forth depending on what part of Latin America they were living in as the vast Spanish Empire in the Americas collapsed into dozens of newly independent states. Another ‘branch’ of this shifting landscape occurred in the late nineteenth century when a new war broke out between the United States and Spain as the US supported independence movements against Spanish rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines in 1898. This marked a new period of American aggression towards Latin America, one which continued into the twentieth century as the US began to exert control over much of the western hemisphere by controlling the economies of much of the countries of Central America, the Caribbean and South America. In order to do so Washington often backed ruthless dictators in countries like Cuba, ones who would maintain American imperialism and business interests in return for the support of Washington. And this in turn began to create a new dynamic between the United States and many of the countries of Latin America. As these nations were kept impoverished and the people there oppressed by US-backed dictators, many poor people in countries like Puerto Rico, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, among others, began migrating north towards the United States in search of a better life to the north.
This in turn brings Gonzalez to the final part of his book, in which he traces the ‘harvest’ of empire. This charts the modern dynamic which exists between Latin Americans and the wider populace of the United States and how that has been impacted by the border issues in states like Texas and New Mexico. However, Gonzalez is clear in his argument that the immigration issue on the US-Mexico border is the direct result of two centuries of American policy towards Latin America. As such, the immigration ‘problem’, if it can be described as such, is the ‘harvest’ of America’s empire, thus the title of Gonzalez’s book. Overall Harvest of Empire is a wide-ranging study of the at times tortuous relationship between the United States and Latin America and how the immigration issue is directly related to American imperialism as it has been practiced since the early nineteenth century. Gonzalez’s argument is that it is only by understanding these dynamics in a clearer way that policy towards America’s fastest growing demographic group can improve.