Paul Ortiz has succeeded in weaving together the roles that African American and the Latinos have played in American history. And he has done so at a critical moment when many of us are appalled by how Latino immigrants are being treated. Ortiz has shown how an amalgamation of Latin and African-American traditions have worked to the benefit of both groups. And how the considerable achievements in politics and culture of the black community since World War II have helped to welcome Latinos.
Contrary to most accounts, Mexicans arriving at our south-western borders are not landless. The U.S. war with Mexico (1846 to 1848) had created a precarious land settlement that gave this impression. Ortiz likens it to the gradual stripping the rights of former American slaves over the land they cropped after their Emancipation. (Slavery was abolished in Mexico by proclamation in 1810, and officially in 1829, earlier than in the American South.)
Native Americans were treated differently. The Seminoles in Florida, for example, were herded onto reservations. Children were often separated from their parents and sent off to boarding schools. The Cherokees were relocated farther west, and they were forced to walk there. Hence the Trail of Tears.
Ortiz has little is say about the pogroms and massacres of Chinese laborers in California in the 1870s. Or the hanging of cigar makers who had crossed picket lines in the Tampa Bay area. The 1870s saw a general improvement in the treatment of the agricultural work force as New World economies became more integrated into the growing North Atlantic trade. The former slaves were producing valuable crops: cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane. Professor Ortiz has sutured these various groups together in many different ways.
He has also integrated them with labor unrest amongst industrial workers in the North. The major influx of Europeans – Irish, Germans, Italians – into the industrial cities had occurred a decade or two earlier. They should be added to the mix of refugees.
Their effect on the job market and organized labor continues. Ortiz claims that the General Strike declared on May Day 2006 was the biggest single strike in American history. And it included migrant laborers from countries “south of the border.” Professor Ortiz’s rewrite of history argues that labor unrest should be part of this collective front.
The Progressive politics of the last century should not be misrepresented. Corporations and employers had consolidated their power over the working classes. By 1910 that combination had created the greatest industrial power in the world. However, not everyone received what they considered to be their fair share. And the differences within the work force weakened further attempts to enact reforms.
Ortiz describes what he calls “emancipatory internationalism.” The abolition of slavery in the U.S. led to the end of slavery in the West Indies and elsewhere. He advocates a return to an alliance with organized labor that made emancipatory internationalism possible. Slavery had been financed by North American banks and that fostered military interventions. We have largely ended our “gunboat diplomacy” and turned to negotiating leagues and trade agreements that created a working relationship between North Americans and Latinos.
But, alas, we still have amendments to make. For example, minority groups continue to be subject to mass incarceration. Ortiz argues this means of controlling insurgencies and defending an economic system based on persistent inequalities is divisive. African Americans and Latinos must continue their joint efforts to rewrite our history. And perhaps most importantly, to go after those inequalities.