Héctor Tobar Peers Deep Into ‘Our Migrant Souls’

The 2024 Book Prize Event, “What Is a ‘Latino’?” Explored the Work and Struggle of Building Community in L.A. and America

Natalia Molina (left) and Héctor Tobar discussing Tobar's book Our Migrant Souls, winner of the 2024 Zócalo Book Prize.

The city of Los Angeles, the world’s most famous zócalo, and the word “Latino” are connected by a shared history—a history of people and cultures and languages colliding, explained journalist and novelist Héctor Tobar. Tobar is the winner of the 2024 Zócalo Public Square Book Prize for Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino,” and he was speaking at an event honoring his book and the themes of the prize: community, human connectedness, and social cohesion.

The event at the ASU California Center at the historic Herald Examiner building, titled “What Is a ‘Latino’?”, opened with a recorded reading by the 2024 Zócalo Poetry Prize winner, Melanie Almeder, and then the presentation of the 2024 Zócalo Book Prize by Tim Disney, who generously sponsored both awards. “This book drove deeply into the dissonance, the paradox, between our very human compulsion to categorize, separate, and other-ize on the one hand, and our equally human capacity for decency, love, and connection on the other,” said Disney, before turning the microphone over to Tobar.

Tobar then delivered a brief lecture that wove together many threads—much like his book and the history of the word “Latino” itself. “To be Latino,” he said, “is to be a product of the sometimes violent, sometimes amorous mixing of cultures.” The people who built the town known today as Los Angeles, in 1781, didn’t think of themselves as Latino; they were classified according to race and caste labels invented by Spanish authorities. Many of those labels were offensive, Tobar noted, and became even more offensive and granular as the people of the New World mixed more and more—though the process also allowed social mobility that would have been impossible in Europe.

Two centuries later, when Tobar was born in a Los Angeles hospital in 1963, both of his Guatemalan parents were listed as “Caucasian” on his birth certificate, “invited into the safe, privileged ground of American whiteness” in Los Angeles of that time, as other groups had been before them. But decades later, with increased migration from Latin America into California, the ground shifted again—and Tobar, who had always called himself “Guatemalan,” became “Latino,” a word enshrined in the stylebook of the Los Angeles Times, where he was the “Latino columnist.”

“Unfortunately, ‘Latino’ hides our Indigenous and our African heritage, and replaces it with a term whose etymology goes back to Europe and Rome. Like every other ethnic and racial term, ‘Latino’ places a simple, one-dimensional label on relationships that are filled with complexity and nuance,” said Tobar. “Sometimes we wear those terms proudly, and other times they fit us like loose clothes, or like a sign someone stuck on our back. And sometimes, if we don’t fit them, we make up new ones.”

He continued, “To say today that Latino people are a race means only one thing. It means we have a relationship to the United States that is racial.” Yet if race is about power and labor, it is also about resistance and community, said Tobar. “We should treat those [race] labels as artifacts of a human journey, as myths made up to explain what a people are, and as a true story people tell about their families and their dreams. ‘Latino’ is a story of empire, of exploitation, and it’s a story of the work and struggles that have made us into a community in our barrios and the gathering places and the zócalos we call home,” he concluded.

“Like every other ethnic and racial term, ‘Latino’ places a simple, one-dimensional label on relationships that are filled with complexity and nuance,” said Tobar.

American historian and 2020 MacArthur Fellow Natalia Molina—who writes about interconnected histories of race, place, gender, culture, and citizenship—joined Tobar onstage for a moderated conversation and audience Q&A. They talked about their own Latino and Los Angeles stories, the students Tobar teaches at UC Irvine, and where they find hope for the future.

“A central figure in your book is Wong Kim Ark,” said Molina. What role does he play in Our Migrant Souls?

Tobar explained Ark’s story: born in San Francisco in the late 1800s, he was the son of Chinese immigrants during a time when little legal migration was allowed. After a trip to China, he returned home and was put in immigration detention for months. In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled in Ark’s favor—that anyone born in the U.S. was an American citizen. Ark’s story resonated with Tobar on many levels, including the fact that his parents were in the U.S. on tourist visas when he was born. Later, Tobar learned about the Chinese community in eastern Guatemala, where his father is from. “Everywhere you look in American and Latin American history, you see this braiding” of peoples and histories, he said.

That braiding is part of the lives of his Latino students, who helped inspire the book—which Molina called “a love letter” to them. She asked Tobar, “What changes have you seen across the years in your students?”

“People have a way of processing traumas and processing things that embarrass them and turning them into something powerful,” said Tobar. For example, the terms “Chicano” and “Cholo” were an insult and a race term, respectively, that eventually took on new meanings. Young Latino people have taken embarrassment or self-consciousness around how they speak Spanish and claimed it for themselves: They are “No Sabo” kids. They have also turned the bureaucratic term DACA on its head, with unDACAmented and DACAmented.

On a more sobering note, Tobar thinks his students “are living in an age with less opportunity than we grew up in. And of more difficult choices.” But they also have an “incredible ease with multiculturalism,” he said, recounting how many of them write about their interracial relationships and families.

“They want to learn more,” said Molina. “They expect those stories to be out there.”

“They’re less tolerant of the erasures, I hope,” said Tobar.

That hopeful note is central to Our Migrant Souls, which chronicles the pain of Latino history but also the celebration. “What do we need to do to keep that hope alive, to keep the story of Latinos as one of hope?” asked Molina.

“It’s personally never allowing my curiosity to be totally satisfied,” said Tobar, who has found inspiration in queer history. It’s about “embracing the idea that somebody’s going to surprise you in as many positive ways as negative ways,” he said. He added, “There’s lots of accusation, there’s lots of name-calling. But let’s go beyond that and let’s imagine the future we want to create and what that might look like. That to me is the lesson behind this journey of exploration.”

In the audience Q&A, Tobar dug deeper into the multitudinous meanings of “Latino,” and offered more hopeful visions of the future.

“There’s going to be another term later, right?” asked one audience member, echoing Tobar’s argument that “Latino” denies African and Indigenous roots. “What’s going to be next [and] how can we influence the development of that next term?”

“My own personal project now is to understand the roots of Los Angeles and its Indigeneity,” said Tobar. It’s a difficult project—he hasn’t been able to pin down the roots of his own Indigenous heritage—but he believes “Indigeneity has shaped our way of being in Los Angeles. I think that’s one of the ways we can think about what Latino means. It’s absorbed so much indigenous and African culture. It’s our job not to treat it as something exotic but as something that’s as much of our being as the Pilgrims.”

After the Q&A, speakers and audience members gathered for Guatemalan food from Casa Chapina and signature cocktails and mocktails from Vucacious. It was the evening’s second opportunity to mingle and talk. Before the program’s official start, a smaller group of audience members gathered at The Hoxton, across the street, for Zócalo’s inaugural “reading hour,” Zócalo Reads.

Tobar read an excerpt from his book, and then audiences sat and read quietly, or had conversations with strangers about what the border means in their lives, why they love/hate the words Latino or Chicano, and more.

Sarah Rothbard is a senior editor at Zócalo Public Square.
EDITOR: Eryn Brown
*Photos by Chad Brady.
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