translation nation: defining a new american identity in the spanish-speaking united states

Finding parallels to the Latino experience in Steinbeck, Du Bois and Tocqueville, Tobar chronicles how Latin American immigration is transforming U.S. society, from cosmopolitan Los Angeles, to heartland Liberal, Kansas and Dixie towns such as Ashland, Alabama.


"A triumph of observation...Crosswires Tocqueville's Democracy in America with Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries..."

--New York Times Sunday Book Review 


"In plain, stirring prose, this landmark documentary brings close the universals of exodus and displacement, as Tobar reveals the unsettling particulars of Americans who are restless and always longing for home, whatever that is."

Booklist (Starred Review)


Hector reaches the end of the journey recounted in Translation Nation: in La Higuera, Bolivia, the place where Ernesto "Che" Guevara was executed in 1967.

The idea for "Translation Nation" came to me one aftertoon in Los Angeles, after driving through downtown in one of those neighborhoods where Spanish is spoken more than English. I'd been writing about immigrant L.A. for a decade, I'd covered the 1992 riots and seen the first hints of a future explosion of political activism. What will American democracy look like, I wondered, in a community where almost all the people are sons and daughters of Latin America? I proposed a series of stories to my editor, Bob Baker, on the city desk of the L.A. Times. I wanted to call it, "If Tocqueville Knew Zapata," after Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century Frenchman whose "Democracy in America" describes the early American republic, and Emiliano Zapata the mustachioed Mexican revolutionary.  The series of stories that ran in the Los Angeles Times ended up being called "American Democracy in Latino L.A."

Eventually, I was promoted from the City Desk to the National staff, and my reporting on the Latino community expanded as I travelled the United States as a National Correspondent for The Times. I visited Rupert, Idaho, Liberal, Kan., Grand Island, Neb., Memphis, Tenn. and many other places where Latinos were beginning to settle, like latter-day pioneers, in the final decade of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.

In each one of those places I met men and women with an optimistic outlook (generally speaking) about their new lives in the United States, who saw their arrival in el norte as a shot at reinvention that was simply impossible in Mexico and the other countries they had migrated from. But they also embraced and nurtured their Latin American identities. They were bringing Spanish-language newspapers, soccer leagues and Spanish radio to places deep in the American heartland. They reminded me of my Guatemalan immigrant father, a man who arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960s and who, to this day, lives with a deep ambivalence about his decision to become a naturalized American citizen. For my father, the United States was an land of opportunity, a place where a man from a impoverished rural family could dream of owning a home and sending his kids to college. And yet, when I was a child he told me stories about the Latin American revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and about the role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the overthrow of Guatemala's democratic government in 1954.

I thought my father was unusual, but now you find people with this same outlook in nearly every corner of the United States. People like the barber I met in Rupert, Idaho who flew the Mexican flag on a storefront facing the main square of that traditionally Mormon city; or like the one-time chicken worker I interviewed in Dalton, Ga. who started a newspaper and filled it with calls to immigrant activism and explanations of how City Hall worked.  In many places, I met people who started the very first Latino community groups their Midwestern and Dixie cities and towns had ever seen. They were each a "Citizen One," the first person to catch the civic bug in their community and then to pass on the "fever" to others.

Almost everywhere I went, I discovered that the stereotype of the Latino immigrant as a politically apathetic and helpless individual simply didn't apply. Even under the most difficult circumstances, people find ways to create community institutions (church groups, committees that organize Cinco de Mayo parades). Twenty-first century Latino immigrants find themselves in a situation analogous to the early 20th-century "strivers" the African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois describes in his classic "The Souls of Black Folk." Du Bois described a people who had achieved only a partial emacipation from the oppression of slavery, but who worked every day, in countless ways, to expand the limited citizenship granted them in the Jim Crow era.   

A year after "Translation Nation" was published millions of people of Latin American descent took to the streets of the United States to protest the Sensenbrenner immigration reform bill and to demand a path to legalization and citizenship. It was the largest mass mobilization of Latinos in U.S. history, with marches in places like Liberal, Kansas and Atlanta, Georgia, strikes by immigrant workers, and a mobilization called "the Great American Boycott." A new chapter in American history had begun.


Hector and his translator, Samir, in Baghdad, July 2003


Translation Nation: table of contents.

Part One: Crossings

Chapter 1: Americanismo

Los Angeles, California

Chapter 2: Where Green Chiles Roam

San Ysidro, California; Tijuana, Baja California

Chapter 3: Brother Citizen, Brother Alien

Watts, California; Ameca, Jalisco


 The Fort Moore Memorial, neglected and somewhat forgotten in downtown Los Angeles, is the most important monument in California to the U.S. conquest of the Southwest in the Mexican War. It was dedicated in 1958. (Image: Wikipedia Commons)


Part Two: Pioneers and Pilgrims

Chapter 4: The Wanderers

Ashland, Alabama; Mc Allen, Texas; Piedras Negras, Coahuila

Chapter 5: In the Land of the New

Dalton, Georgia; Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas; Memphis, Tennessee

Chapter 6: Our Secret Latin Heartlands

Rupert, Idaho; Frankenmuth, Michigan; Grand Island, Nebraska; Liberal Kansas


One of the newest monuments in Southern California is the Cesar Chavez Memorial in the city of San Fernando. Dedicated in 2004, it includes this mural. (Image: Marco Antonio Torres, City of San Fernando)

Part Three: Manifest Destinies

 Chapter 7: Unconquered

Cordova, New Mexico; San Fernando, California; San Antonio, Texas

Chapter 8: The Old Men and the Boy

Miami, Florida

Chapter 9: Fathers, Daughters, Citizens and Strongwomen

Barstow, California; Bell Gardens, Maywood, Watts and South Gate, California


José Antonio Gutierrez: orphan and onetime street urchin from Escuintla, Guatemala, undocumented immigrant, and a U.S. Marine killed on the first day of the Second Iraq War

Part Four: E Pluribus Unum

Chapter 10: Una Nación Unida

El Reno, Oklahoma; San Juan, Puerto Rico; New York, New York; Baghdad, Iraq

Epilogue: Che and the Three Monkeys

La Higuera, Bolivia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Los Angeles, California; Ashland, Alabama


Los Angeles City Hall, 2006, as hundreds of thousands march for immigrants' rights.