May 2023

Héctor Tobar redefines his community

Interview by
With Our Migrant Souls, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author documents the fullness of Latinx experiences.
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Héctor Tobar has been busy. On a Zoom call to his home in California, he tells me that his new book, Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino,” is an “attempt to summarize 30 years of learning, reading about race in the United States and the Latino experience, and trying to understand Latino as a category in the lens of U.S. race history.” This is a pretty serious undertaking—but no one is better suited to lead the charge than Tobar, whose book surveys the Latinx community’s diverse relationships to migration, empire, identity and kinship.

Tobar is a veteran Latino author, writing on par with other modern masters such as Ada Limon and Valeria Luiselli. One of his most significant contributions to not just Latino literature but literature as a whole is Deep Down Dark (2014), which tells the true story of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days. Writing that book taught Tobar a vital lesson: “If I really wanted to create a work that would capture the fullness of their experience, I had to think about their full experience,” he says, “about working people and the ambitions in their lives, their hopes and dreams for their children, their affairs, the complications in their lives, the dysfunction, the glories. It makes for a much more satisfying read.” This lesson has influenced his writing philosophy ever since, especially in Our Migrant Souls, which makes significant strides toward documenting the fullness of Latinx experiences.

Read our starred review of ‘Our Migrant Souls’ by Héctor Tobar.

When I ask Tobar about the necessary steps to redefine Latino, he lays out his mission. To start, he says, we can “open up critical spaces to Latino writers [who are] trying to create work that will push Latino letters.” But in order to do that, we have to get past the stereotypes. Nowadays, readers and literary professionals see Latino as a marketing concept more than anything, Tobar says—largely because “our literary and cultural production is mediated through New York and American publishing.” But he thinks Latinx people can reclaim the meaning of Latino by unwrapping its history and asserting a new definition: “Latino is an alliance among peoples.”

When he says this, it’s a revelation: a whole continent-and-a-half of people, united under one word. How has such a large collection of people’s existences gone this long without serious examination? Tobar reminds me that there has been a long history of struggle leading up to this moment. “We fought for the idea that the experience of our people was worthy of intellectual inquiry,” he says. “The system that has produced these [prejudiced] ideas is ill. It is sick and inflicting harm upon us, and we need to change it; we need new ideas.”

“We fought for the idea that the experience of our people was worthy of intellectual inquiry.”

Book jacket image for Our Migrant Souls by Hector Tobar

This is why Tobar’s novels always feature working-class intellectuals, such as the housekeeper in The Barbarian Nurseries. Rather than rooting his narratives in harmful ideas and stereotypes, he roots them in the experiences of real people, the kind he says you can find anywhere and everywhere in this country. He knows this is true from his years working as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, when he would walk the streets and talk to people, learning about them and hearing their stories. The latter part of Our Migrant Souls is based on a similar approach: using a road trip across the United States to highlight the mestizo (mixed) nature of this nation, showing through testimonies and anecdotes how ingrained Latinx people are in the culture. 

We can trace this mixture back to the beginning of humanity’s story, to migration. “Migration is a constant in human history,” Tobar says. In the book, he reflects on his own family’s migrations, not just to the United States but throughout Guatemala. There have been “unending permutations of migrants in my life,” he says. This is true of all Americans, no matter our ethnic backgrounds. But Latinx people are disproportionately vilified for migrating, which is why Tobar maintains that “U.S. immigration policy is a collective humiliation of the Latino people.” Whether through detention centers, fear mongering or simply forcing people to walk through the dangerous, vast desert, a whole population of people is being erased. “[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] will use any tool at its disposal,” Tobar says. “It’s a really cowardly situation.”

“Almost any facet of human experience is going to frustrate an attempt to put a label on it.”

This is why Tobar’s mission is so important: If Latinx people cannot redefine Latino in order to use it to our advantage, it will continue to be used to categorize and hurt us. When I ask him how we can defy labels, he tells me, “Think about Guatemalan. What does that mean? Every ethnicity is a pan ethnicity! If you look at any label, you will find a whole sort of quantum mechanics of people crashing into each other. . . . All of us are the constant mixing of entanglements.”

Tobar believes “this fad, this mania of applying labels on ourselves, is really counterproductive, cruel, anti-human and unintelligent. Almost any facet of human experience is going to frustrate an attempt to put a label on it.” It might seem paradoxical, then, to write about Latinx people and Latinidad (i.e., the diaspora of Latinx peoples), but Tobar doesn’t think so. “There’s many different ways of approaching the truth, and there’s many different truths,” he tells me.

“That’s true,” I say, and we laugh.

Author headshot of Héctor Tobar by Patrice Normand/Agence Opale

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Our Migrant Souls

Our Migrant Souls

By Héctor Tobar
ISBN 9780374609900

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