Ray Suarez On Latino Americans: Past Is Prologue?

Over 50 million Latin Americans live in the United States. Host Michel Martin speaks with veteran reporter Ray Suarez about his new book Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped A Nation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is Latino Heritage Month. That's a time when the country makes a special effort to acknowledge the contributions of Latino-Americans. To that end, tomorrow we will have a special one hour where we'll talk about issues of particular concern to Latinos today and new trends in areas like social media. If you want to get a taste of what's blowing up right now, you can check out the #NPRLatism on Twitter.

Today, though, we want to take a step back and talk about the 500 year history of Latinos in this country. This week, PBS will air an ambitious documentary series called "Latino Americans" that digs into that subject. We'll meet the filmmaker later this week, but now, we start the conversation with veteran journalist Ray Suarez. He's currently the chief national correspondent to the "PBS NewsHour." He wrote the companion book to the series called "Latino Americans: The 500-year Legacy That Shaped a Nation," and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

RAY SUAREZ: It's great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, as journalists, we often ask ourselves, why this topic and why now? So let me pitch the question to you. Why do you think this is the right time to tell this story this way?

SUAREZ: You know, the 2010 Census came along, and some of the best Hispanic number crunchers I know are at the Pew Hispanic Center and they had an in-house poll. And they all put numbers based on their best guess into a hat, and, you know, the Census Bureau released the Hispanic population numbers three states at a time over 17 weeks. And only one member of the staff guessed a number over 50 million, and when it came in - securely, 51 and a half million - well, that staff member won the pool.

But it just shocked everybody. It's a huge number. It was one out of every six Americans, and sociologist Marta Tienda from Princeton University calls this the Latino moment. And what better moment to get started with a Latino series and a book on the history than now? I mean, people have to take the measure of what it means to have one out of six trace their heritage, not to Europe, not to Africa or Asia, but to the other countries of this hemisphere. It's a big deal.

MARTIN: You've said that you want to change the way the history of Latinos in the U.S. is taught in the classrooms. So why don't we get started? I mean, what is one misconception that you think many people may have about the history of Latinos in the United States that you think it's important to dispel?

SUAREZ: That they're all immigrants, that they had to come here from somewhere else and wanted something from us. Lurking underneath the very emotional arguments about assimilation and about what it means to America to take on large numbers of immigrants is this idea that people - that Latinos especially - are different from the Poles and the Irish and the Italians and the Jews of Eastern Europe. Different from all of them, Latinos somehow come here with their hand out, and in fact they didn't and it's important to say so. You know, they came and built railroads along with the Chinese. They came and mined in Arizona and the Rocky Mountain West. They broke the soil of the Imperial Valley in California and turned it into one of the most productive agricultural regions on planet Earth. For a group that came here for a handout, they really heavily miscalculated because they had to work damn hard.

MARTIN: Talk about some of the stories that are recounted in the book and in the documentary series that you think may not be well-known. One story that really captured my attention was another side of one of the famous chapters in American history - in Texas history, which is the defense of the Alamo. Do you want to talk about one of the figures there that you focus on in the book and his story?

SUAREZ: Juan Seguin is, I think, in some ways, the perfect distillation of the story I am trying to tell over the big arc of the book and the story that the documentary series is trying to tell because Juan Seguin is a citizen of Mexico. His family is very prominent in San Antonio, in the Mexican state of Texas, and he runs afoul of the central government in Mexico. He decides that he wants that government ousted.

A dictator has taken charge in Mexico City. There's a great restlessness among the Mexicans of Texas, and at the same time, Americans are moving in, mostly from the American South, to start farming and one of their biggest patrons is Juan Seguin's own father, Erasmo. And as what they see as the oppression from the central government increases, Juan throws in his lot with the Bowies and the Crocketts and the Travises and the Houstons and fights for Texas independence.

He runs off to get word to other elements of the Texan Army that the Alamo is under siege and needs relief. While he is gone, Santa Anna and his troops make their final big push and slaughter the defenders of the Alamo. And he comes back to the fort after listening for a signal that he was meant to hear before returning. He doesn't hear it. He rushes back into the fort and finds all the defenders of the Alamo dead. He goes on to play a role in the climactic battle of the war, the Battle of San Jacinto, which is commemorated with a monument and United States postage stamps and is a big deal in Texas. And he commands Spanish-speaking Texan troops to help defeat Mexico.

He becomes the first Spanish-speaking Senator of the new Texas Senate of the independent country of Texas, and all his speeches are simultaneously translated for the record. But then, as whites continue to move in from the United States to pour into Texas for the very desirable and easily watered farmland, they start to kick Mexicans off the land. He is trying to defend their interests and also help stand up this new, young country, and finally is the target of a whisper campaign that says that he's not faithful to Texas, that he's really kind of a Mexican agent. And he's harassed and marginalized and finally leaves Texas and heads back to Mexico, where he is also greeted with suspicion 'cause, after all, he had fought against Mexico in the war with Texas.

So he becomes a kind of man without a country and this makes him bitter. This leaves him sort of in two different places, but not anywhere at all. And in his very moving memoirs, which I read in preparation to write the book, he talks about how both countries viewed him with suspicion. The Texans could not accept that he was fully a member of their society, even though he had risked his life to fight for the Texas Republic. And the Mexicans could not any longer trust him after he had been a participant in that war. He dies in Mexico, unloved and un-celebrated, and then, only decades later, are his remains returned to Texas and buried in the town that bears his name of Seguin.

MARTIN: Do you think that the past is prologue in any way? Do you think that the story of Juan Seguin, somebody who - I mean, I think it's a surprise to many people that there were people of Mexican heritage defending the Alamo because the story is seen in a very different way. It's kind of Davy Crockett's story, but the fact that Juan Seguin went on to play such an important role - so do you think that the past is prologue, that this idea that you're never really never an American...

SUAREZ: Well, look...

MARTIN: ...No matter how much blood you shed? Does that feel still true?

SUAREZ: Fast forward 170 years, I mean, the stakes are little different. But think back to the NBA Finals when the San Antonio Spurs are playing in the finals, and one night - where they're the host court, the home court, singing the national anthem is a lovely little boy, Sebastian de la Cruz. And he steps out in a beautiful Mariachi outfit, with a tight-fitting vest and all the embroidery, sings a perfectly, lovely rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and it blows up in the Twitterverse, with people talking about, what the hell is this? Why can't they get an American to sing the national anthem? And thousands of messages like this because people like Sebastian - lovely little cutie pie that he is - doesn't realize how many of his fellow Americans don't look at him and see an American.

MARTIN: What does it mean to be Latino, because one of the points that you make in the book is that there were people of Latin-American, Mexican heritage in the United States before there was a United States, and that many of the people who've been here longer see themselves - don't see themselves in the same way as people who've been here a shorter amount of time...

SUAREZ: You know, I...

MARTIN: ...And you also point out that the rate of intermarriage is very high...

SUAREZ: Rate of intermarriage is very high.

MARTIN: ...Among Latino-Americans. So...

SUAREZ: You know, I think if we dug down into those numbers and looked at the individuals involved, we might find that people of darker complexion are less likely to be able to freely marry out or move into a suburb or get their kids, unremarkably, enrolled in a local public school, those sorts of things. I suspect that. I don't have any hard and fast data for that. But, yes, Latinos are marrying out at a very high rate. I just think...

MARTIN: Well, just from the book - from the book, you say, for example, a quarter of all marriages involving Latinos are to a person of another ancestry. Of the more than 275,000 mixed marriages counted in 2010, half were between Latinos and what the Census Bureau calls non-Hispanic whites. And so do you ever think that, you know, maybe 50 years from now, will anybody see himself or herself as Latino?

SUAREZ: Ah, great question. Great question because I'm wondering what this all means when I look at my own kids. I'm one of those people who didn't marry in and my kids are free, by virtue of being upper-middle-class, to construct their own identity in a way that's a privilege not granted to all other Americans. I fully admit that and so would they, I think. They're young adults.

But, at the same time, there is a cultural deposit in a sense of self that I think is carried in a lot of these kids that will have it mean something when their own kids are adults. And, at the same time, for an unknown number - and it's really hard to predict from the vantage point of 2013 - it'll just be a sort of detail, an interesting fill up, a family story. It won't be of very large consequence.

When I was a reporter in the Midwest, I went out and covered the end of farming in Cook County because the final - the last existing farm in Cook County was going to do its last harvest and then sell out and have a suburban subdivision built on it. So I headed out to talk to this farmer who was planting corn and soybeans on the last farm in Cook County, and I noticed on one of the main drags in this part of the county was the same last name as his.

So when I got to the farm, I said, hey, is that your family? And he said, yes, absolutely, that's my family that that street is named for its. And I said, oh, where were they from? And he says, Germany, I guess. And I thought, wow. Germany, I guess. It could have been Austria. It could have been Bavaria before it was part of a unified Germany. It could have been something that was a really present part of his historical memory about his own family.

But that answer to me was incredibly revealing, and I thought about my own grandchildren or great-grandchildren. If somebody says to them in 2075, you know, where's that name from, where's your family from? And one of them may say, Puerto Rico, I guess. And, you know, that's a full possibility, but it sort of rocked my world a little bit because Puerto Rico is a very real place to me, with my very real relatives living there and the very real history of my family there.

And to think about a future America, where some guy or gal, who may or may not look like me even a little, says, Puerto Rico, I guess - that, you know - what it will mean to be Latino in 2050 may be a reaction in some part to how well integration and a move into the middle class goes. If it goes badly, that actually may be a crucible to continue to form identity in a way that an easy transition into the American whole would not.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you've covered everything. I mean, you've covered, you know, politics. You've covered the developing world, you know, economics over the course of your career. Has the way you see yourself as a professional changed over time as the demographics of the country's changed...

SUAREZ: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Or your role?

SUAREZ: Absolutely, and, you know, it wasn't something that I was happy about or embraced, and, you know, I'm self-aware and comfortable in my own skin. I'm not ashamed of anything. It just wasn't how I saw myself working in this business as a professional.

And when I was a reporter in Chicago, I went to a political rally because a federal court case had forced a remap of the wards of Chicago. So several Puerto Ricans were going to be elected to the city council for the first time and into the state legislature. And I go to this rally, and a guy sees me at the rally and he's with his eight-year-old kid and he motions for me to come over. And he points to me and says to his son, you see this man? This is Ray Suarez, and he makes our community proud every day and you have to do your homework and you have to do well in school so that you can be like this man when you grow up.

And at that moment, I thought, oh, geez, spare me, you know. Really, I don't - I'm not a symbol of anything. I'm not a guy who gets up in the morning going out to be a symbol. But that got under my skin, and the longer I worked there in that community, the more I got comfortable with the notion that no matter what I think of myself, how others think of me, because I work in public and because millions of people watch me do my work, I have no control over that. So they are going to make the conclusions they make and I have to be comfortable with that idea.

So I learned to surrender to the idea of being somebody who's held up as an example to an eight-year-old. I thought about myself at eight or 10 or 11 or 12 being, you know, told, you got to be like this guy, you have to make people proud of you, and how, inwardly, I might have rolled my eyes. I would never roll my eyes directly to my parents. I was smarter than that. And I thought, oh, God, do I really want to be held up as a symbol to this kid? But I'm totally okay with it now, and I understand it and I understand myself, I think, a lot better than I did then.

MARTIN: That was Ray Suarez. He's the chief national correspondent at "PBS NewsHour." His latest book is called "Latino Americans: The 500-year Legacy That Shaped a Nation." There he is. He's with us from member station...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He's with us from member station WETA in Arlington, Virginia. Ray Suarez, Rafael, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SUAREZ: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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