Ilan Stavans: What's civil rights history without Latinos?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book, "The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories," is coming out this month from Triquarterly. ]

The other day, while browsing through the excellent two-volume set on the civil rights movement "Reporting Civil Rights," published by the Library of America, I was flabbergasted by a glaring absence. In that almost 1,000-page-long fiesta of journalism about a crucial period in the country's past, the presence of Latinos is nil. Not a single mention is made of César Chávez and the farmworkers. The index includes nothing about Chicanos.

The set first appeared in 2003, and reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker, even The Chronicle failed to point out the omission. The anthology, which covers events from 1941 to 1973, showcases "eyewitness accounts of over 150 writers [offering] a panoramic perspective on the struggle to bring an end to segregation in the United States." The authors range from John Steinbeck to Murray Kempton and James Baldwin, from Joan Didion and Howard Zinn to Alice Walker. It includes Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail," accounts on busing, attacks on President Dwight Eisenhower and the effectiveness of sit-in movements. The advisory board responsible for the books is composed of a senior editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. papers, a distinguished faculty member at Emory University, the chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and a professor at Indiana University. In other words, a conscientious bunch.

Conscientious, but amnesic. The first strike organized by the National Farm Workers Union took place in the spring of 1965. The crucial "Plan of Delano," a proclamation that announced the birth of a social movement, was released then. John Gregory Dunne's reportage on the struggle for justice by Chicanos in Delano (Kern County) came out in 1967; two years later, Peter Matthiessen's journalistic description of Chávez and his "new American revolution" was published in book form. They are ignored. So is the work of the Los Angeles Times reporter Rubén Salazar, killed by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy during the National Chicano Moratorium in 1970.

And the short catalog of silence I've offered relates only to Chicanos. Forget about Puerto Ricans, Filipinos and "other minorities," as "Reporting Civil Rights" describes them tangentially and in a hurry in pieces by Robert Penn Warren and Lez Edmond. In an effort to trace the genealogy of the desegregation movement, the volumes start with a 1941 piece by Roi Ottley published in the New Republic titled "Negro Morale: Seething With Resentment." However, nowhere to be found are accounts of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case, in which the murder of a Mexican American in southeast Los Angeles generated hundreds of arrests and resulted in a corrupt trial, nor accounts of the infamous Zoot Suit Riots that erupted in Los Angeles during World War II. Nor are there descriptions of what Mexican American morale was like, all of which could have provided a fuller picture of the country's struggle for equality.

Anti-Latino feelings run rampant in the country today. We are regularly portrayed by politicians and media pundits as awkward, barbarous and criminal, even as subhuman. In the drive to protect its "citizens" from such dangerous parasites, our place in U.S. history is denied, as if thousands of Latino never marched for social improvement. It is offensive that a venerable institution like the Library of America, devoted "to preserve our nation's heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing," would fall prey to such an oversight. An era of civil rights that was only for one group and not the entire country isn't worth the memory.

But my bone to pick with the Library of America runs even deeper. Let me be honest: I adore the publishing house and have worked with it in the past in bringing out the work of the master Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. The staff's intelligence and professionalism are beyond reproach. But its vision of American history and of the nation's literary canon is anorexic. Even a superficial browsing of its online catalog is proof of it. It features, as it should, the writings of Henry James, Dawn Powell, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright and William Faulkner, the speeches and memoirs of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant, and the plays of Eugene O'Neill. Not one Latino makes the list. Not Julia de Burgos, considered Puerto Rico's best poet, not Tomás Rivera, the Chicano author of the striking novel "... And the Earth Did Not Devour Him." Not the Nuyorican poets, not even César Chávez. ...

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