Héctor Tobar explores Latino identity in new book, ‘Our Migrant Souls’

In his decades-long career, Héctor Tobar has become practically synonymous with Los Angeles. The journalist and author grew up in East Hollywood, and for years worked for the Los Angeles Times as a reporter and the newspaper’s bureau chief in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. 

He is also the author of two novels set in L.A.: “The Tattooed Soldier,” which follows a Guatemalan immigrant to the city during the 1992 riots and civil unrest – which he covered as a reporter and was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize – and “The Barbarian Nurseries,” about a Mexican woman working as a live-in maid in Orange County who must take care of two young boys when their parents disappear. And his book “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free,” was a bestseller that was adapted into the film, “The 33.”

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His latest book, “Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of ‘Latino,’” might well be his most personal yet. It blends memoir, reporting, and criticism in an effort to discover the meaning of the Latino identity. The book has drawn critical raves even before its release, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “sharply observed and elegantly written,” and Publishers praising it as “lyrical and uncompromising.”

Tobar lives in L.A., and is currently a professor of English and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He answered questions about his book via Zoom from his office in Irvine. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Q: This book begins with a prologue that’s addressed to a group of people. Who are the people you’re talking to?

I’m addressing my students here at UC Irvine. I wrote that passage after the end of the spring quarter of 2020, just as the pandemic was starting and we were all going off into quarantine. I had been reading my students’ stories, like I do every quarter. I ask my students to write me stories about the Latinx experience, and the students who are Latino, who are the children of immigrants, tell these really moving stories about the dysfunction, the trauma caused by migration and their families, about the resilience, about the discoveries of being a child of immigrants or an immigrant yourself in this wonderful state of California, and other places in the United States. So I just had all these stories in my head, and I felt the need to do something like what James Baldwin does in the beginning of “The Fire Next Time,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates does in “Between the World and Me,” addressing this younger generation. 

Q: There’s a passage in the book where you talk about how the category of Latino “can feel like the transit lounge of American identities.” Can you talk about that?

Latino is supposed to be an ethnicity, different from race. We now know that there is really no science behind the idea of different races of the human species, but Latino is supposed to be this ethnicity that has all these different races in it. So you can be White, Black, Asian, Jewish, whatever, and be Latino also. 

Look at the career of somebody like Oscar Isaac. He is Guatemalan and Cuban, but he doesn’t very often play Latino characters. He has sometimes, but mostly he plays all these different sorts of ethnic types. He’s been an Armenian doctor; he’s been an Egyptian revolutionary. He does all of these different roles because there’s a certain kind of ambiguity in his Latino racial and ethnic identity. I mention in the book this famous case of an African American guy from Detroit who told everybody that he was Cuban when he wasn’t. It’s a very easy thing to pull off because a Latino person can look like almost anything.

Q: In another part of your book, you write about being a “professional listener of crossing and arrival stories.” What is it about those stories that you find compelling?

I grew up a bookish, shy, young guy from East Hollywood, only child and parents divorced, all my extended family in Guatemala. So pretty lonely. Becoming a reporter and a professional interviewer when I was in my early twenties took me out into the world, and it made me listen to people. What I’ve always enjoyed is just learning the way we’re all interconnected. When you interview somebody, when you discover that you have things in common, or when someone says something and you feel it’s an echo to your own story, that’s a powerful emotional moment for both of you. The further you go into somebody’s history, the more likely you are to find these threads that we share in common.

It’s a professional curiosity, but it’s also this sort of philosophy that comes from the realization that people will likely surprise you. And you know it because it’s the opposite of a stereotype. In a stereotype, you meet somebody and decide, “Oh, I know all about him already. I know what he’s like, and I can fit him into my idea of what the world is like.” Whereas if you dedicate your life to interviewing, you find out that more often than not, they’re outside of the boxes. They’re coloring themselves outside of the lines. That’s what’s interesting as a storyteller is when people don’t obey the type, and most people don’t. That’s one of the lovely things about being a writer and an interviewer is tapping into that and learning that’s a universal human truth.

Q: You recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project called “The Los Angeles Novellas.” Can you talk at all about that, or is it too early to discuss?

It’s really early to discuss, but I’ll talk about it anyway. Essentially, the idea is to write nine novellas about Los Angeles’s history, beginning five centuries in the future, and going backwards to the first European contact in the 18th century in southern California. I want to tell the history of Los Angeles backwards through these novellas and journey through these different genres.

Right now, I’m writing the second one, and it’s science fiction, set 200 years in the future. Later, there will be a little bit of noir, a little bit of pastoral romanticism when I get to the 19th century. So that’s the plan, incredibly, hugely ambitious as it is, but just about every book that I’ve written has been too crazily ambitious. Sometimes I stick my landing and other times I just fall flat on my face. [Laughs.] So we’ll see what happens.

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