Brian D. Behnken
African Americans and Latino/as have had a long history of social interactions that have been strongly affected by the broader sense of race in the United States. Race in the United States has typically been constructed as a binary of black and white. Latino/as do not fit neatly into this binary. Some Latino/as have argued for a white racial identity, which has at times frustrated their relationships with black people. For African Americans and Latino/as, segregation often presented barriers to good working relationships. The two groups were often segregated from each other, making them mutually invisible. This invisibility did not make for good relations.
Latino/as and blacks found new avenues for improving their relationships during the civil rights era, from the 1940s to the 1970s. A number of civil rights protests generated coalitions that brought the two communities together in concerted campaigns. This was especially the case for militant groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Mexican American Brown Berets, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, as well as in the Poor People’s Campaign. Interactions among African Americans and Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban/Cuban American illustrate the deep and often convoluted sense of race consciousness in American history, especially during the time of the civil rights movement.
Elda María Román
Latina/o literature can be understood both in terms of its historical emergence and development as well as its engagement with and representation of history. The formation of a canon called Latina/o literature is a contemporary phenomenon. Institutions that have published, disseminated, and shaped this literature into a discernible entity emerged in the 1970s as extensions of political activist movements. In the 1990s, the establishment of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project also made possible the recuperation and publication of literature written before the 1960s. Studies of Latina/o literature now explore texts dating back to the 16th century, include 19th-century exile and dissident writing, and trace the evolution of Latina/o literature through the 20th and 21st centuries. While most writing and scholarship has been produced about Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans, literature by Dominican Americans, U.S. Central Americans, and U.S. South Americans is increasingly gaining visibility. Since the mid-20th century, most Latina/o literature has been written in English, though many writers incorporate Spanish or Spanglish. This tradition now spans a wide range of themes, experiences, and genres.
Allison Brownell Tirres
Latino Americans have intersected with the law in complicated ways throughout American history. Latinos themselves are a diverse and heterogeneous racial, ethnic, and cultural group, with members hailing from all parts of the Spanish-speaking world and representing all variations on the spectrum of race. Each group has a unique origin story, but all have been shaped by law and legal process. Legal historians and legal scholars explore the role of law in incorporating Latino groups in American society, the effects of law on Latino communities, and the struggles of Latino lawyers, activists, and ordinary people against legal discrimination and for equality. The civil rights story of Latinos bears strong resemblance to that of African Americans: In each case, members have been subjected to de jure and de facto discrimination and social subordination. But the Latino civil rights story has unique valences, particularly in the areas of language discrimination and immigration law and policy. Latino legal history demonstrates the complex ways that Latinos interact with the color line in American law and politics.
Laura Isabel Serna
Latinos have constituted part of the United States’ cinematic imagination since the emergence of motion pictures in the late 19th century. Though shifting in their specific contours, representations of Latinos have remained consistently stereotypical; Latinos have primarily appeared on screen as bandits, criminals, nameless maids, or sultry señoritas. These representations have been shaped by broader political and social issues and have influenced the public perception of Latinos in the United States. However, the history of Latinos and film should not be limited to the topic of representation. Latinos have participated in the film industry as actors, creative personnel (including directors and cinematographers), and have responded to representations on screen as members of audiences with a shared sense of identity, whether as mexicanos de afuera in the early 20th century, Hispanics in the 1980s and 1990s, or Latinos in the 21st century. Both participation in production and reception have been shaped by the ideas about race that characterize the film industry and its products. Hollywood’s labor hierarchy has been highly stratified according to race, and Hollywood films that represent Latinos in a stereotypical fashion have been protested by Latino audiences. While some Latino/a filmmakers have opted to work outside the confines of the commercial film industry, others have sought to gain entry and reform the industry from the inside. Throughout the course of this long history, Latino representation on screen and on set has been shaped by debates over international relations, immigration, citizenship, and the continuous circulation of people and films between the United States and Latin America.
Puerto Rican migrants have resided in the United States since before the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, when the United States took possession of the island of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, groups of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States as contract laborers, first to sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, and then to other destinations on the mainland. After the Jones Act of 1917 extended U.S. citizenship to islanders, Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in larger numbers, establishing their largest base in New York City. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, a vibrant and heterogeneous colonia developed there, and Puerto Ricans participated actively both in local politics and in the increasingly contentious politics of their homeland, whose status was indeterminate until it became a commonwealth in 1952. The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the “great migration” from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the “Puerto Rican problem.”
Puerto Rican migrant communities in the 1950s and 1960s—now rapidly expanding into the Midwest, especially Chicago, and into New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia—struggled with inadequate housing and discrimination in the job market. In local schools, Puerto Rican children often faced a lack of accommodation of their need for English language instruction. Most catastrophic for Puerto Rican communities, on the East Coast particularly, was the deindustrialization of the labor market over the course of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, in response to these conditions and spurred by the civil rights, Black Power, and other social movements, young Puerto Ricans began organizing and protesting in large numbers. Their activism combined a radical approach to community organizing with Puerto Rican nationalism and international anti-imperialism. The youth were not the only activists in this era. Parents in New York had initiated, together with their African American neighbors, a “community control” movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s; and many other adult activists pushed the politics of the urban social service sector—the primary institutions in many impoverished Puerto Rican communities—further to the left.
By the mid-1970s, urban fiscal crises and the rising conservative backlash in national politics dealt another blow to many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. The Puerto Rican population as a whole was now widely considered part of a national “underclass,” and much of the political energy of Puerto Rican leaders focused on addressing the paucity of both basic material stability and social equality in their communities. Since the 1980s, however, Puerto Ricans have achieved some economic gains, and a growing college-educated middle class has managed to gain more control over the cultural representations of their communities. More recently, the political salience of Puerto Ricans as a group has begun to shift. For the better part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans in the United States were considered numerically insignificant or politically impotent (or both); but in the last two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), their growing populations in the South, especially in Florida, have drawn attention to their demographic significance and their political sensibilities.