I had the pleasure of attending a talk yesterday given by my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval about his book, Latinos at the Golden Gate. As is often the case, the subtitle focuses the topic: “Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco”. There is some irony in the fact that it took a SoCal Dodger fan to write a vital history of Latinos in San Francisco, but good historians do this. (It’s one of the many reasons I went to grad school in English rather than History … I was far too lazy to devote myself to the hard work of researching historical themes. Whatever I might say about my status as a literary scholar, I would have made a terrible historian.)
The book goes back to the Gold Rush, examining the influx of Latinos from Mexico, Chile, and other countries. It’s a useful starting point, in that it helps our understanding of Latinos in The City today when we know something about how we got to where we are now. As someone who has lived 59 of my 60 years in the greater Bay Area, I was interested in seeing how little I knew about this history. In particular, while I think there is a tendency to see “Latinos” in California as people with roots in Mexico, Tomás details how people from many countries came here. The need to bond together against racism meant that all Latinos worked together in a spirit of latinidad, which helps explain why the title of the book is not Chicanos at the Golden Gate.
Still, it was an important sign that the Catholic church that served as the social and cultural center of the community was named Nuestra Señora De Guadalupe. While the church (located in North Beach, which is one of those tidbits that fascinate those of us who think we know San Francisco) was a crucial place for Spanish-speaking San Franciscans, and while that common language was a crucial aspect of latinidad, the church was named after the person who is a symbol for Mexican Catholics.
Sandoval insists on the notion of “creating community and identity”, reminding us that while Spanish tied the peoples of various countries together, the community didn’t just appear. It had to be created, within the context of the times (both past and present). The community he describes isn’t static … it is always being re-created.
As Tomás knows (I’ve talked with him about it before, and brought it up again before the talk began), my personal interest is fueled in part by the arrival in San Francisco of my paternal grandparents in the late-1910s. They came from Spain (via Hawaii), but for myriad reasons, they (and subsequent generations like myself, half-Spanish) occupy a tangential position relative to latinidad. There’s the association with Europe … Spain were conquerors, not indigenous to the area … and there is what I believe the most important item, that many Spaniards only came to the U.S. after living in other countries. (I think my grandmother had a sister in Brazil and another in Cuba.) If you came from Spain to the United States via a long stay in Mexico, for instance, you would likely identify yourself more as Mexican-American than as Spanish-American. Whatever the reason, there aren’t many Spanish-Americans, and as I’ve written here more than once, I’m never certain if I’m “hispanic” or “latino” or just some suburban baby-boomer white boy (which is how I was raised).
I recommend Latinos at the Golden Gate. The approach is necessarily academic, but the prose works beyond those confines. And I definitely enjoyed yesterday’s talk … I even got to finally meet Tomás’ wife, Melinda. Unsurprisingly, she was delightful, but then, I expected no less. Tomás is one of the best people I know, and he has great love for his family. They seem like a good team. (My wife wanted to know if I met any of the little Summers Sandovals, but that wasn’t to be … Tomás and Melinda took advantage of this weekend in the Bay Area to spend their first time alone without the kids for eight years. I think they enjoyed themselves … at the least, Tomás posted a picture on Facebook that he took of the Chinese New Year’s parade.)