What is Latino? Or, for that matter, what is Latina, or Latine, or Latinx? In Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino,” journalist and author Héctor Tobar (The Last Great Road Bum) tries to explain. Though maybe explain isn’t the right word. Through this book, readers won’t get an explanation of this broad, ancient, vital culture—this “alliance among peoples,” as Tobar calls it—but rather an experience of it. Using both his own personal narrative and testimonies from a rainbow of people of color (not just Latinx folks), Tobar manages to capture the breadth of Latinidad (i.e., the diaspora of Latinx peoples) in the United States and beyond. With moving passages about triumph in the face of adversity, tragic stories of those lost to brutality and a scathing critique of U.S. immigration policy, this book is a call to action, the first step in a redefinition of that elusive word, Latino, and an important piece in a more complete picture of humanity.
Readers, no matter their identities, will see themselves in this panorama of life experiences. The book is split into two parts. First is “Our Country,” in which Tobar takes a long, hard look at the state of the Latinx community today. This includes a careful, illuminating examination of empire and its history, analysis of the continual pillaging of Latin America by the United States, and a parsing of the idea of identity itself. What is an identity? Why does identity feel so important in today’s divided social media-centric society? Tobar uses poignant examples, such as Latina icon Frida Kahlo, to show how we construct our identities with the materials of our lives. Tobar also creates a narrative from his own place in history: From his parents’ migration from Guatemala to Los Angeles, to his childhood living next-door to the white supremacist who killed Martin Luther King Jr., Tobar’s experiences have fortified his understanding of the vital role race has played in his life. In the book’s second part, “Our Journeys Home,” Tobar takes a road trip across the United States, retelling the stories of the people he meets and showing how, no matter where we come from or what we have been through, we are all united in our humanity.
Ultimately, Our Migrant Souls is one of the most important pieces of Latino nonfiction in several decades. Tobar’s blend of philosophy, narrative and history puts him on the same level as literary giants such as Eduardo Galeano and James Baldwin. Turning the last page of this book, you will feel the weight of history on your shoulders—yet it is an uplifting experience.