From US-Mexico Border to Right-Wing Leaders: Books to Understand What’s Happening in Latin America

Lead Photo: Photo by Johner Images
Photo by Johner Images
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It has been a rough few years for Latinx and Latin American folks everywhere. In Central America, growing violence and environmental threats have led to many leaving their homes for the United States, where they are met with violence. In 2018, we saw these families separated at the border as well as tear gassed. Across Latin America, including Brazil, we have seen the election of increasingly right-wing politicians. And Puerto Rico continues recovering from Hurricane María without the help it needs.

As these bleak realities fill our timelines, it’s important that we also take a moment to understand how we got here. By understanding causes, we can shape effects, we can more effectively combat recurrence, and we can learn where the real problems lie.

The following list is designed to help you understand how we got here and where we ought to go next.

A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America by Óscar Martínez

Óscar Martínez is one of the best journalists currently writing about the Central American region. He also wrote The Beast, the train immigrants try to hitch rides to head north, but in A History of Violence, he traces the roots of the violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala back up to their roots in North America. It’s also vivid, well-reported, and a great read.

No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the US-Mexico Border by Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis

Where Martínez’s book reaches up to the sources of violence in Central America, Akers Chacón and Davis reach down, examining US racism and border policy and the effect that these have both on immigrants and the borderlands themselves. It’s a combination history book and rousing essay on the dangers and evils of borders.

Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World by José Trías Monge

Although the book was written well before the disaster that was Hurricane María, Trías Monge, a former Puerto Rican politician, makes clear how PR’s long colonial history and lack of status with the United States makes it particularly susceptible to economic dependence. He uses Puerto Rico’s 500-year history as a colony – first under Spanish rule and now under the US – as the source material for his argument. While it’s up to the reader to see how that argument is carried forward into the present, Trías Monge builds a great case for a change in PR’s status.

The Resilience of the Latin American Right by Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser

The election of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro marked to many outside observers a sharp right-hand turn in Latin American politics and policies. However, Luna and Rovira Kaltwasser argue in their book that this isn’t so much a turn as something that’s been there all along. While the book was published nearly five years ago now, it’s study of how the right wing has held on during years of leftist dominance hold lessons on that movement’s resurgence as well.

The Mulatto Republic: Class, Race, and Dominican National Identity by April J. Mayes

Although Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island, the historical relationship between these two countries has been anything but friendly. In this book, Mayes traces how ideas of race, colorism, and culture have helped to make the Dominican Republic what it is – and how it frequently defined itself against its neighbor. By tracing out the roots of this relationship, Mayes offer contributes to a different understanding in the future.

Indian Given: Racial Geographies Across Mexico and the United States by María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo

The land that makes up the US-Mexico borderlands has existed long before the border. Saldaña-Portillo’s book focuses on how the border and colonial settlement of it has either used the history of the Indigenous people that lived there or glossed over it to form and frame identity. She pulls this work into the present to illustrate how indigeneity undergirds the racial ideas that make up that border.

Citizens but Not Americans: Race and Belonging Among Latino Millennials by Nilda Flores-González

And now for a look at the future. Flores-Gonzálezdid in-depth interviews with nearly a hundred Latinx millenials on how they feel about race, belonging, and Americanness, to find, as the title suggests, that many feel as if they don’t belong to the greater American project. The book interrogates race and national identity in the present, for a generation that will doubtless shape the future.