Big Lit Meets the Mexican Americans: A Study in White Supremacy

Latinx novelist Michael Nava considers the unbearable whiteness of publishing.

By Michael NavaJanuary 2, 2020

Big Lit Meets the Mexican Americans: A Study in White Supremacy

1. Introduction: Everybody Loves Diversity

WHAT SELF-RESPECTING white progressive isn’t all in on diversity? Why, no one! Everyone’s for diversity. This includes all the main pillars of the American literary establishment, what I’ll call Big Lit — the Big Five publishers, The New York Times Book Review and its echo chambers in print and online media, MFA programs, independent bookstores, libraries, and book festivals.

For example, HarperCollins tells us: “We publish content that presents a diversity of voices and speaks to the global community. We promote industry and company initiatives that represent people of all ethnicities, races, genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, ages, classes, religions, national origins and abilities.” The New York Times proclaims its dedication to building a “culture of inclusion,” while the University of Arizona’s MFA program commits itself “to proactively fostering diversity and inclusion throughout its curriculum, admissions, hiring, and day-to-day practices.”

Some of these statements may reflect actual practices while others are simply corporate boilerplate. Whether they are sincere or not, the fact remains that most books agented, sold, reviewed, and distributed are mostly written by white people and are, moreover, mostly agented, sold, reviewed, and distributed by other white people. (In fact, the term “diversity,” as used in such statements, seems to reinforce rather than confront the notion that white, cisgender people are the norm and everyone else is a big, indistinguishable mass of otherness. But that’s a different essay.)

Big Lit is virtually a whites-only country club. Everyone knows this. The lack of racial diversity among the people who populate Big Lit is an open secret (see part 4, below). The market hegemony Big Lit once enjoyed has been seriously undercut by platforms like Amazon. Despite its waning influence, however, the fact remains that, as Ilana Masad put it, “the Big Five — Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins — is still where it’s at in terms of getting maximum exposure, resources and mainstream acceptance.” Moreover, Big Lit’s agents, editors, reviewers, MFA teachers, and booksellers purport to have a higher calling than chasing after the almighty buck. They believe they are more than mere corporate shills and bureaucrats, but rather cultural gatekeepers, at once arbiters and protectors of the American literary canon. Big Lit can still bring a writer to the public’s attention in a way that no independent or small press can possibly match. The opposite is also true: it can consign to near invisibility the work of entire communities of writers it decides not to take up.

This essay is a kind of case study of the Mexican-American literary community, a community whose writers Big Lit rarely takes up. But I don’t mean to offer another lecture about Big Lit’s lack of diversity (well, not entirely). Rather, I want to examine how the ideology of white supremacy works to brand an entire population of nonwhite people — here, Mexican Americans — as inherently inferior to whites, how that message is reinforced by means both legal and extra-legal, how it seeps into literary culture, and, how, ultimately, literary culture (i.e., Big Lit) consciously or unconsciously views this population through the lens of those white-supremacist beliefs.

This ingrained and complex racism can’t be ameliorated by platitudes about diversity or tokenistic representations of “diverse” populations. Frankly, I don’t know if it can be ameliorated at all. But let’s proceed.

2. A Simple Race of Rapists and Gardeners: Meet the Mexicans, Parte Uno 

When Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” during the announcement of his 2016 presidential bid, he was strumming a very old chord in white America’s consciousness. Since the mid-19th century, the denigration of Mexicans and, by extension, Mexican Americans has been an ongoing project of white America. The pivotal point was the US invasion of 1848 and the forcible appropriation of half the territory that comprised the nascent Republic of Mexico. Remember the Alamo? Mexico does. Then as now, Mexico saw the war for what it was: an unprovoked and unprincipled land grab. As a Mexican newspaper at the time thundered: “A government […] that starts a war without a legitimate motive is responsible for all its evils and horrors. The bloodshed, the grief of families, the pillaging, the destruction. […] Such is the case of the U.S. Government, for having initiated the unjust war it is waging against us today.”

For Americans, however, the war was the fulfillment of a divine mission called Manifest Destiny. Unlike 19th-century European incursions into Africa and Asia, the theater of American imperialism was its own backyard. Fueled by the almost religious conviction that the United States was destined to occupy the entire North American continent, Anglo America embarked on the near extermination of indigenous people and the conquest of Mexico. From the outset, Manifest Destiny was a racialist doctrine. As historian Reginald Horsman observes:

By 1850 the emphasis was on the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world. This was a superior race, and inferior races were doomed to subordinate status or extinction. [1]

President James Polk initiated the war by ordering American troops into borderlands claimed by both Mexico and the United States. When the Mexicans fired on them, Polk asserted, falsely, that Americans had been killed on American soil. Congress obligingly declared war. No one took seriously this fig-leaf justification. America’s true motives were laid bare in a contemporary North American periodical, the American Whig Review: “Mexico was poor, distracted, in anarchy and almost in ruins — what could she do to stay the hand of our power, to impede the march of our greatness? We were Anglo-Saxon Americans; it was our ‘destiny’ to possess and to rule this continent — we were bound to it.” (Mid-19th-century Mexico was a troubled, unstable polity but still: If your neighbor’s house is on fire, is the morally appropriate response to break in and steal everything of value you can lay your hands on?)

At the end of the war, over 100,000 Mexicans were trapped on what was now the American side of the border. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that these captive people would become naturalized American citizens, with all the rights and privileges thereof, and that their property rights would be respected. Those promises evaporated almost as soon as the ink was dry on the treaty. The promised enfranchisement, it turned out, was only federal, not state citizenship. This ploy allowed the states that were carved out of annexed territory to limit citizenship to something called “white Mexicans.” As for the property right guarantee, Mexican property owners bankrupted themselves fighting off American predators in American courts.

Arising at the same time as the hostilities between the two republics spilled into open conflict was Western genre fiction, emerging first in the form of dime novels. This genre provided the most popular and widely distributed representations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the mid-19th century well into the 20th. Its practitioners included writers like Zane Gray, O. Henry, and Stephen Crane, as well as countless pulp writers. Film and, later, television perpetuated these representations and gave them even wider currency. Central to the Western genre was the theme of Mexican racial inferiority, which these narratives used to justify the invasion and conquest of Mexico; indeed, Arthur Pettit, in his 1980 book Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film, explicitly calls the genre “conquest fiction.” It was also an extension to Mexicans of Anglo-Saxon racist beliefs developed to rationalize the enslavement of Africans.

Much of early Western fiction originated or was set in Texas, always a hotbed of particularly virulent anti-Mexican sentiment. Mexico had initially welcomed Anglo settlement in Texas, but the Anglos who arrived tended to be slave-owning Southerners with reactionary views about the purported inferiority of darker-skinned people. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 and in 1830 barred further Anglo immigration. These moves contributed to the Anglo-led secession of Texas from Mexico and the founding of the Texas Republic; basically, the white Texans wanted to maintain slavery. Their attitudes toward their erstwhile Mexican hosts was summed up by Texas patriot Stephan Austin, who on one occasion described Mexicans as a “mongrel Spanish-Indian and negro race,” and on another as “degraded and vile; the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian, and African is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.”

Antebellum pulp Westerns with titles like Mexico versus Texas, Bernard Lile: An Historical Romance, and Piney Woods Tavern; or, Sam Slick in Texas created a set of Mexican stereotypes that prevailed well into the 20th century, among them the lazy peon, the evil bandido, and the licentious señorita. In these works, according to Pettit, most Mexican males are “segregated into two distinctly inferior types: peon servants and mestizo bandidos. Of the two, the fawning peons bear startling resemblance to the shuffling Sambos of the era. Their greaser gibberish parrots stage-darky dialect and implies the same bumbling ineptitude and ‘comical’ cowardice.” As “half-breeds,” the mestizo bandidos are “a cut above the peons,” but “have no moral scruples. […] When the American heroes finally ‘unmask’ these poseur gentlemen and expose their wickedness, they either kill them or hurl them back across the color line into ‘brownness’ and disgrace.” The distaff side is represented by “Mexican woman […] graced with voluptuous figures but burdened by loose moral principles.”

Higher-brow publications like The Atlantic and Scribner’s Magazine were no less derogatory. An 1899 article in The Atlantic entitled “The Greaser” portrayed its Mexican-American subject as “the mestizo, the Greaser, half-blood offspring of the marriage of antiquity and modernity.” A travel piece in an 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine described the borderland between Texas and Mexico as “The American Congo”; the piece is a veritable encyclopedia of racist stereotyping, including this Trumpian observation: “The Rio Grande Mexican is not a law-breaker in the American sense of the term; he has never known what law was and he does not care to learn; that’s all there is to it.”

These caricatures of Mexican Americans were amplified and even more widely distributed as early moviemakers discovered the appeal of Westerns. Mexicans were, once again, cast as the dark-skinned foils to upright Anglo heroes; as Pettit summarizes:

[F]ilm titles and advertising made open use of the word greaser, at least up to the 1920’s: The Greaser’s Gauntlet, The Girl and the Greaser, Broncho Bill and the Greaser, The Greaser’s Revenge, Guns and Greasers, or, bluntly, The Greasers. The artistic and cultural sensitivity of these films match their titles. If adventure stories, they feature no-holds-barred struggles between good Americans and bad Mexicans. The cause of the conflict is often vaguely defined. Some greasers meet their fate because they are greasers. Others are on the wrong side of the law. Others violate Saxon moral codes. All of them rob, assault, kidnap, and murder with the same wild abandon as their dime-novel counterparts.

These silent-era representations continued into the talkies, culminating in what is, perhaps, the iconic cinematic image of a Mexican: Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre uttering the immortal but frequently misquoted lines: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Brownness, stupidity, laziness, cowardice, lawlessness, and sexual immortality: these became the signifiers of Mexicans in white America’s consciousness, reinforcing the notion that Mexicans are inferior to white people. This inferiority was race-based — that is, Mexicans were presumed to be inherently and in some inchoate sense biologically less intelligent, capable, and moral than white people. So deeply embedded are these cultural images that, after the death of the Western as a popular genre in books, movies, and TV, they simply shape-shifted into more contemporary versions.

Instead of the bandidos of yore, Mexican-American men transformed into gangbangers and drug dealers; the lazy peons became grocery-cart-pushing homeless people and hapless drug addicts; the flashing-eyed señoritas now tottered around suggestively on Fuck Me Pumps uttering heavily accented malapropisms. Often, however, these stereotypes don’t speak at all. In movies and on TV, you see brown people silently pushing laundry carts, pruning rose bushes, or stacking dishes into an industrial dishwasher, a sepia background against which the whiteness — and, thus, the superiority — of the real heroes and heroines gleams all the more brightly.

3. From Victims to Vanguard: Meet the Mexicans, Parte Dos 

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, there was Mendez v. Westminster in 1946, the first federal court decision striking down school segregation. Bet you didn’t know that. Let me explain.

California’s Orange County had set up “Mexican schools,” which all children of Mexican descent were required to attend from first to fourth grade. The ostensible reason was that they couldn’t speak English, but all Mexican-American children were forced into these schools regardless of their fluency. By the time the Mendez and five other families sued, these schools had 5,000 students. In the then-prevalent racial binary of black versus white, Mexicans were grudgingly considered “white.” This meant the plaintiffs couldn’t allege racial discrimination. Instead, they argued that the segregation of public schools impermissibly discriminated against their children based on ancestry and presumptive language deficiency.

The district court — the trial court in the federal system — agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled that the Mexican schools violated the Equal Protection Clause. In a decision that foreshadowed Brown, the court rejected the “separate but equal” argument advanced by Orange County — that is, segregation was permissible if the segregated schools offered the same quality of education. The court said:

“The equal protection of the laws” pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, text books and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.

In short, Orange Country’s segregation scheme wasn’t authorized by state law; thus, by extension, neither were other forms of segregation imposed on Mexican Americans in California by a comprehensive set of statewide Jim Crow–like laws. As the Constitutional Rights Foundation summarizes the situation: “By the 1920s, many Southern California communities had established ‘Mexican schools’ along with segregated public swimming pools, movie theaters, and restaurants.” (On a personal note, I can testify that my mother remembers being turned away from a Sacramento public swimming pool sometime in the late 1940s because she was — and is — undeniably mestiza in appearance.)

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, whites had used the same combination of discriminatory legal and terroristic extra-legal tactics they honed against African Americans on Mexican Americans. Like African Americans, Mexican Americans were disenfranchised, faced residential and education segregation, were denied the use of public facilities, and were in danger of being lynched. Yes, lynched — as Nicholas Villanueva Jr. demonstrates in his 2017 book, The Lynching of Mexicans in the Texas Borderlands, 571 ethnic Mexicans were lynched between 1848 and 1928; in addition, the Texas Rangers summarily executed at least another 500 Mexicans without trial.

As has repeatedly been the case, these discriminatory legal measures and extra-judicial assaults corresponded to high tides of Mexican immigration. Between 1900 and 1930, over a million Mexicans entered the United States — many, like my great-grandparents, as refugees from the Mexican Revolution. Nativist whites such as Madison Grant, author of the influential The Passing of the Great Race, deplored this invasion by a “mongrel race.” White America’s attitudes toward Mexican immigration have always been both exploitative and ambivalent. On the one hand, these immigrants are useful because they serve as a cheap source of agricultural labor in the West; however, because they are members of an inferior “mongrel race,” they have to be closely monitored and firmly kept in place.

The ease with which bare tolerance could shift to active hostility was dramatically illustrated during the Great Depression. During this period, an estimated 400,000 Mexican Americans, 60 percent of them American citizens by birth or by naturalization, were forcibly repatriated to Mexico. The pretexts given were that Mexican Americans were taking scarce jobs away from white Americans and were a drain on government relief assistance. (Sound familiar?) Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez’s 2007 book Decade of Betrayal documents at length the whole infuriating, tragic, yet sadly resonant episode. As they summarize:

In a frenzy of anti-Mexican hysteria, wholesale punitive measures were proposed and taken by government officials at the federal, state, and local levels. Laws were passed depriving Mexicans of jobs in the public and private sectors. Immigration and deportation laws were enacted to restrict emigration and hasten the departure of those already here. Contributing to the brutalizing experience were the mass deportation roundups and reparation drives. […] An incessant cry of “get rid of the Mexicans” swept the country.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, no?

Mexican Americans never passively consented to their victimization by white Americans. Following the end of the Mexican-American War, they fought the unlawful seizure of lands guaranteed to them under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in American courts (unsuccessfully for the most part) and protested the decisions by California, Texas, and Arizona to limit citizenship to “white Mexicans.” In the 1930s, long before the establishment of the United Farm Workers, Mexican agricultural workers organized themselves into unions and went on strike in California, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, and Colorado; they were met with brutal suppression. According to Carey McWilliams’s classic historical study, North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (1949), “[w]ith scarcely an exception, every strike in which Mexicans participated in the borderlands in the thirties was broken by the use of violence and followed by deportations. In most of these strikes, Mexican workers stood alone, that is, they were not supported by organized labor.”

In the ’40s, as we have seen, Mexican-American families successfully challenged the segregation of their children in public schools. Interestingly, also in California, a Mexican-American woman was one of the plaintiffs in the first case — Perez v. Sharp (1948) — that struck down an American miscegenation law when, as a “white” woman, she was denied the right to marry her African-American fiancé.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the birth of the Chicano Movement — the Mexican-American analogue to the Black Power movement, emphasizing racial pride and resistance to racism. That movement also gave birth to a body of literature that is now acknowledged to contain many of the ur-texts that form the basis of Chicano/a and Latinx studies programs.

And now? Who are these Mexican Americans? As of 2018, there are 59 million self-identifying Latinos/as in the United States, and 62 percent — 36 million of them — are Mexican American. While their numbers continued to be greatest in the western states, there are Mexican-American communities in every state in the union, with a significant presence in the Midwest and a growing presence in the South (God help them). In contrast to the aging white population, a 2007 survey revealed only six percent of “Hispanic Americans” to be 65 or older; the comparable percentage for whites was 15 percent. Thus, a brown workforce increasingly supports white retirees.

Contrary to the stereotype that most Americans of Mexican descent are recent immigrants, the majority of Mexican Americans are native-born. That percentage will only increase because Mexican immigration — even before Obama’s massive deportations and Trump’s war against immigrants — has been steadily decreasing, as a 2015 Pew Research Poll shows. That poll also dispels another stereotype, showing that almost 90 percent of native-born Mexican Americans are proficient in English. Moreover, Pew Research has also established that 83 percent of all Latinos and 91 percent of Latino millennials (including, of course, Mexican Americans) get their news in English.

While Mexican Americans generally face greater difficulties getting a college degree, the Department of Education reported a 126 percent jump in Latino students entering college between 2000 and 2015. Finally, while white Americans are increasingly pessimistic about their future, 77 percent of Latino/as — although realistic about the challenges — still believe in the “American Dream” — that hard work pays off and that the lives of their children will be better than their own.

In short, Mexican Americans comprise a youthful, increasingly well-educated, largely native-born and English-proficient, aspirational community. Far from being victims, Mexican Americans are the vanguard of a new America. In this America — which is now emerging — the percentage of whites is projected to slip below 50 percent by 2045, with Latinos/as, led by Mexican Americans, becoming the second-largest population group. This “minority/majority” America is foreshadowed today in states like California and Texas.

Yet, despite all this, Mexican-American representation in mainstream American culture, when it appears at all, remains either tokenistic, stereotypical, or both. In film, television, and books this emergent community is still largely ignored. And I’m here to talk about books.

4. The Unbearable Whiteness of Big Lit

As part of my research for this essay, I looked at the course syllabi for a half-dozen courses in Latinx or Chicano literature from colleges across the nation, in order to see which Mexican-American works and writers scholars deem canonical. This is the list I came up with (virtually all these books were taught at more than one school):

  • Americo Paredes, George Washington Gómez (written in mid-’30s; published 1990)

  • Tomás Rivera, … y no se lo tragó la tierra/and the earth did not devour him (1971)

  • Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (1972)

  • Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1984)

  • Arturo Islas, The Rain God (1984)

  • Ana Castillo, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986)

  • Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)

  • Alejandro Morales, The Rag Doll Plagues (1991)

  • Helena Maria Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995)

  • Norma Elia Cantú, Canícula (1995)

  • Reyna Grande, Across a Hundred Mountains (2006)

What most of these books have in common is that, with two exceptions, none were published by the Big Five or their predecessors; instead, almost all were originally published by small presses. While some were later picked up by Big Five publishers for paperback editions, most are still being kept in print by independent or university presses. Even The House on Mango Street, now generally recognized as a classic work of American fiction by maybe the only truly famous Mexican-American writer, was originally published by Arte Público Press, which remains the oldest and most distinguished publisher of Mexican-American fiction.

What this illustrates is Big Lit’s long history of ignorance or indifference to Mexican-American writers and the Mexican-American experience in this country. Yet to read any of these books is to experience a vision of America at once unique and familiar, for each in its own way tells a quintessentially American story. It’s just not a white American story. And because they don’t tell white American stories, very few Mexican-American writers find a place in Big Lit.

Big Lit is a very, very white place. [2] White people overwhelmingly populate the Big Five; as the now-famous publishing diversity study by Lee & Low Books reported, 79 percent of people employed in the industry in 2015 were white and only six percent Latino. A 2019 salary survey of the publishing industry undertaken by Publishers Weekly put the percentage of white employees at 84 percent.

Librarians, who are crucial to the sale and dissemination of literary texts, are also overwhelmingly white. A February 2013 editorial in The Library Journal entitled “Diversity Never Happens” observed that “African Americans and Hispanics are some of the strongest supporters of libraries, and yet they continue to be thinly represented among the ranks of librarians.” The editorial cites statistics showing that, while blacks and Latinos/as are more likely to use libraries on a monthly basis than whites, only eight percent of the 118,666 credentialled librarians were black or Latino/a. A 2017 statistical study reports that “89 percent of librarians in leadership or administration roles were white and non-Hispanic.”

Similar demographic information for other realms of Big Lit appears to be unavailable. No one seems to be keeping any record of what percentage of the writers who are reviewed — or the reviewers who review — in The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, or Booklist, for example, are white. In her 2012 study of book reviews published by The New York Times, Roxane Gay found that 90 percent of the books reviewed in 2011 were by white writers. Gay was attacked for her methodology, even though she freely acknowledged that her data was incomplete, but no one seriously challenged her underlying conclusion — that white writers are vastly and disproportionately overrepresented both as reviewers and subjects of reviews in comparison to writers of color.

There are over 1,300 literary agents in the United States, most of them in New York, but I could find no statistics about their racial demographics. I did find an anecdotal study from the late 1990s, in an article called “Dearth of Hispanic Literary Agents Frustrates Writers” by Ivan Diaz. Diaz asserted that neither the literary agencies canvassed in The Literary Market Place nor the roster of agents in the Association of Authors’ Representatives listed a single Latino/a agent. The number is now likely greater than zero, but I have no doubt that the profession remains at least as white as publishing.

Similarly, there are, to my knowledge, no statistics about the racial composition of students and faculty at the many MFA programs around the country. There are, however, plenty of anecdotal accounts of how students of color are received in these programs. David Mura’s excellent essay “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program” powerfully summarizes these experiences. According to Mura, if a student of color objects to a racist depiction in a work by a white student, she or he risks being accused of censorship, or else the objection is dismissed as a political argument outside the bounds of literary analysis. Moreover, the student’s objection often triggers guilt or anger in white students and teachers because it challenges their cherished beliefs that they are not racist, and so they respond by branding their colleague a troublemaker.

The whiteness of Big Lit has practical consequences for Mexican-American writers. If virtually every agent, editor, book reviewer, and librarian is white, then such writers will have a much harder time finding representation, getting published, being reviewed and recommended. Therefore, there will be fewer Mexican-American voices in the literary culture. And this, in turn, means that there will be fewer counterbalances to the racist depictions of Mexican Americans in mainstream culture — portrayals that allow Trump and other white supremacists to continue to vilify a large segment of the American population. White progressives in Big Lit may lament this situation — oh, those poor children in cages at the border! — but they take no responsibility for the perpetuation of white privilege, if not white supremacy, in literary culture. Why? Because that privilege benefits them.

5. It’s White Supremacy, Stupid!

Some of us remember the sign in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters during the 1992 presidential race: It’s the Economy, Stupid! This was a reminder not to be distracted from the only issue that really mattered: which candidate would deliver voters from the prevailing economic recession. The phrase has since become a kind of shorthand signifying that one shouldn’t get lost in the weeds and ignore the obvious. For us here, the obvious issue is this: the white people who make up Big Lit live in a culture whose history and practice enshrines the belief that Mexican Americans are inherently inferior to whites, and fundamentally they’re okay with that.

Of course, no one states their acceptance so baldly. The way it works is that white people are conditioned to assume that white is normative. In the literary world, this translates into the belief that the white experience has an inherent universality, while the experience of nonwhite people is of parochial interest. This is not a problem of education — indeed, the standard American university education continues to emphasize the primacy of white writers and their experience, and thus tends to support rather than confront this assumption. To achieve a literary culture that truly reflects America’s multiracial society first requires an acknowledgment that Big Lit’s views regarding the putative universality of white experience are rooted in the ideology of white supremacy.

Occasionally, Big Lit’s actions and rationalizations betray this assumption. For example, two of the Big Five sought to capture the “Hispanic” market by launching Spanish-language or bilingual imprints — HarperCollins’s Rayo and Penguin’s Celebra. Both shut down after only a few years operation. Why? Because those publishers assumed that most Latinos/as are Spanish speakers when, as the statistics cited above demonstrate, they are an overwhelmingly English-language community. These linguistic assumptions undergirding the “Hispanic” imprints perpetuate the notion that Latinos/as, including Mexican Americans, are mostly unacculturated immigrants, whereas in fact most of us are native-born and many of our families (mine included) have been Americans for generations.

Other commentators have noted that the Big Five apply a double standard when acquiring and retaining writers of color. According to Puerto Rican playwright Michael Mejias,

writers of color aren’t allowed to fail the same way white writers are allowed to. If one book by a white author doesn’t sell, no one at the publishing house says they shouldn’t acquire any books by white authors the next season. But if a book by, for instance, a Puerto Rican author doesn’t sell, the publisher may take its sweet time in “taking a risk” on another.

But aren’t disappointing sales a good reason to not continue publishing a particular writer or kind of book? That would be an acceptable explanation if the same standard applied across the board. To amplify Mejias’s point, however, if a white novelist from Brooklyn fails to make back her advance, that doesn’t mean her publisher won’t acquire other white Brooklyn novelists or even refuse to publish that particular author’s next book. Moreover, and here’s where the argument really falls apart, most books fail to make money, at least initially. Chris Jackson, editor-in-chief at One World, the only Big Five imprint dedicated to publishing writers of color, noted at the LARB/USC publishing workshop in July 2019 that 10 percent of books published by the Big Five support the remaining 90 percent. If most books are a risk, why is that risk disproportionately attributed to work by writers of color? Could something more than economics be driving those decisions? Duh.

“Hispanics don’t read.” Whether a Big Five editor ever actually uttered those words, it is widely believed by the Latino/a community to be a sentiment Big Lit harbors about us. According to nationally syndicated columnist Esther J. Cepeda, a “day or so after Sonia Sotomayor’s [auto]biography My Beloved World was released, I got a call from a New York Times reporter asking me how well the book would sell. She jumped in to the first question: ‘Why don’t Latinos read?’” As a 2017 article in Publishers Weekly entitled “Dear Publishers: Latinos Read Books, Too” put it:

The Big Five, like the larger media culture, are not representative of the U.S. but of the limited tastes of the elite of Manhattan and certain areas of Brooklyn. These cultural gatekeepers — publishers, editors, agents — are simply unfamiliar with Latinos. A bias seeps into their decision making, based again on the unwarranted assumption that Latinos don’t read.

It may be true that reading is generally on the decline in America, but the notion that Mexican Americans and other Latinos/as don’t read is clearly rooted in assumptions of racial inferiority — e.g., immigrant, poor, less educated, less intelligent.

In short, the ideology of white supremacy is at the root of Big Lit’s “diversity problem.” The reason Big Lit doesn’t seek out, encourage, publish, and promote Mexican-Americans writers is because the people who work in it don’t really believe that Mexican Americans are the intellectual or creative equals of — or that their stories have the same value as those of — white writers.

Hey, Big Lit: You think the Mexican-American experience can be expressed in a handful of stereotypes, most of which emphasize the intellectual and moral inferiority of Mexican Americans. Moreover, there is no reciprocity in our encounters. While we’ve had to figure out white people, you’ve never had to think past your stereotypes of us. While we’ve been paddling upstream against the current of your white-supremacist assumptions, you’ve been lazily drifting along in them. You know nothing of our historical experience, while all of us have had the false narrative of white American triumphalism forced down our throats. And while you mouth your support for “diversity,” any such initiatives that you control will be, at best, tokenistic. Indeed, the concept of “diversity” itself may simply be an attempt on your part to deflect attention away from white-supremacist assumptions by turning the issue of race into a discussion about mere representation.

Big Lit is a cultural pillar of a racist status quo that devalues nonwhite people while upholding the privileged position of whites. And frankly, once we get past your defensiveness and/or liberal platitudes, you basically acquiesce to that status quo. Because there can be no real diversity without a real and meaningful redistribution of power. That requires the surrender of actual authority — it means one less review for a white writer in The New York Times Book Review, one less seat for a white MFA applicant in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one less externship for a white undergraduate at Random House. In other words, it requires the actual participation of people of color beyond tokenistic representation, and that means fewer jobs for white folk.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that the white people who compose somewhere north of 79 percent of Big Lit would ever voluntarily and actively agree to — and work toward — an industry where their percentage slipped below 50 percent, as it will soon enough in the nation’s population as a whole. When it comes right down to it, Big Lit, you’re much more invested in maintaining your privilege, and passing it down to your white heirs, than in helping to create a literary culture that genuinely represents the fullness of the American project — warts, near-genocides, invasions, lynchings, and all. [3]

Of course, we’ll keep on calling you out, because you do respond sometimes — out of guilt, if nothing else. Maybe you’ll publish a few more Mexican-American writers, employ a few more Mexican Americans to do something other than work in your warehouses or sweep the floors of your offices, review a book or two about the Mexican-Americans experience, hire a Mexican-American writer to teach in your MFA program, highlight the works of Mexican Americans in your bookstore when it’s not “Hispanic Heritage Month.” We will also will continue to remind you that, in the histories yet to be written about the white-supremacist status quo that prevailed in America until demographics finally rendered it untenable (which, by the way, we will be writing), you will find yourself listed among the collaborators, right up there with the Scribner’s Magazine editor who commissioned “The American Congo.”


Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.


[1] This statement raises the question of whether Mexicans are in fact a race. Mexicans certainly think so, many of them embracing the concept of mestizaje, which views Mexicans as a unique mixture of European and indigenous ancestry. (José Vasconcelos, a post-revolutionary Mexican intellectual, famously dubbed Mexicans “the cosmic race.”) But does white America consider Mexicans to be a separate race? If race exists chiefly to be used as a bludgeon by people calling themselves white to oppress and discriminate against people they deem nonwhite, then absolutely.

My source for this conclusion is no less an authority than the United States Supreme Court. In Hernandez v. Texas (1954), Pete Hernandez appealed his murder conviction on the ground that Mexican Americans were excluded from the jury, thus denying him his 14th Amendment right to equal protection. Texas, taking a binary — literally black and white — view of race argued that, well, Hernandez ain’t black, so he must be white, and since his jury was all-white, no problemo. The court said, uh, no:

Throughout our history differences in race and color have defined easily identifiable groups which have at times required the aid of the courts in securing equal treatment under the laws. But community prejudices are not static, and from time to time other differences from the community norm may define other groups which need the same protection.

In the Texas county where Hernandez was tried, the court pointed out, Mexican-American children were forced to attend a segregated school through the fourth grade; at least one local business displayed a sign that stated “No Mexicans Served”; and, at the county courthouse, Mexican-American men were directed to use the “Colored” bathroom. Therefore, the court concluded: “The Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination due to a ‘two-class theory’ — that is, based upon differences between ‘white’ and Negro.” It thus reversed Hernandez’s conviction.

So, basically, in the US context, Mexican Americans are a race because they are subject to racism. Thank you, Earl Warren.

[2] I have been tossing around the term “white” as if it is self-evident who qualifies for that designation, but, as they say on social media, “it’s complicated.”

The 1790 Naturalization Act restricted naturalization to “any alien, being a free white person,” with no further definition. Some people, of course, were always beyond the pale, as it were: blacks, as well as Chinese and Japanese immigrants, for instance. But, surprisingly (or maybe not all that surprisingly), beginning in the 19th century and continuing well into the 20th, people whose skin color would seem to qualify them for club membership were excluded. This included, for example, the Irish, Eastern Europeans (especially if they were Jewish), and Italians. As these immigrants rose in social and economic status, and animosity toward blacks and other dark-skinned Americans grew ever more virulent, it was discovered that the Irish, Italians, Poles, and even Jews were white after all.

If, as this shift demonstrates, “whiteness” is to some degree performative — that is, dependent upon a person’s level of education and economic and professional status — then are successful Silicon Valley Indian-Americans white? Or rich Iranians who escaped the Islamic Revolution, settled in Beverly Hills, and are now featured on reality TV shows? Or fair-skinned, right-wing Cuban Americans like Marco Rubio and “Ted” Cruz? White, it turns out, may not be so much a racial classification as an invitation to the prom.

[3] As a famous saying has it, “history is written by the victors.” That quotation, variously attributed to Churchill or Machiavelli, pretty much summarizes the ethos of American culture, literary and otherwise. The victors here, of course, are white people, and the history they write is one of white triumphalism. A more truthful account of the American project, in both history and literature, would abandon the idea of winners and losers. It would instead begin by telling the story of perpetrators and victims, one side who was motivated by a false and pernicious ideology of racial superiority and the other side — comprising indigenous people, Africans, Mexicans, Chinese, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, and other groups — who was victimized by that ideology.

The story, however, would not end there. It would go to tell how these victimized people rejected their victimization — inspired, in large part, by the global assertions of equality, opportunity, and justice made by the American founders. They were supported in this — by that sector of white America that also believed in those promises and not just for itself. The story would consist of two heroic narratives: the first telling of the victimized who became the vanguard, who transformed their suffering into resistance, rejected the label of inferiority and asserted their full social, intellectual, and moral equality, valued creative difference over false assimilation, and chose to expand rather than reject their American identity; the second telling of the perpetrators who faced up to the violence they had inflicted on others, repented of it, and rejected the ideology that preserved their privilege — not in the spirit of noblesse oblige but out of a recognition that that part of their story is over, that to remain enslaved by that lie only leads to catastrophe, while forsaking it is the only path to self-preservation and, even, maybe liberation.

LARB Contributor

Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of seven novels featuring a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios. Nava is a six-time recipient of the Lambda Literary Award in the mystery category, as well as the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for gay and lesbian literature.


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