America Libre Author Discusses Work, Cultural Stereotypes

Logan Buckley

“The origins of any political revolution parallel the beginnings of life on our planet. The amino acids and proteins lie inert in a volatile primordial brew until a random lightning strike suddenly brings them to life.” This foreboding quote, attributed to José Antonio Marcha, begins Raul Ramon y Sanchez’s debut novel America Libre, which was published in 2009 as the first volume of a trilogy. The sequels, House Divided and Pancho Land, followed in 2011 and 2012. It’s certainly indicative of what is to come: The novels tell the story of a Latino family in Los Angeles in a near-future United States where debates over immigration become toxic and racism toward Latinos and Latinas leads to violent conflict. The author discussed his writing last Friday with community members and Oberlin students.

Ramos was born in Cuba before Fidel Castro came to power, grew up in Miami and eventually moved to the Midwest. He worked for many years in advertising, witnessing the ways in which Latinos and Latinas were oversimplified and grouped together as a monolithic group despite the diversity of people covered by those umbrella terms. He described advertisers as “reaching for the lowest common denominator” in their attempts to market products to Latinos.

Eventually, Ramos decided that fiction was an avenue that would allow him to depict the diversity and complexity of Latino culture in the United States. He expressed a firm belief in the ability of books to increase tolerance by humanizing the “other” and also described the unique situation in which Latinos in the U.S. find themselves. While the country’s history of tension over immigration goes back to its founding, Ramos described the position occupied by many Latinos as being immigrants who can say, “My ancestors once lived on this land.”

His fear is that building tensions, perhaps sparked by a local event — in the books, an innocent Latina bystander is shot — could result in an ethnic war over territory in the United States. Ramos’s aim with the trilogy was to “create a negative future in [the] hopes that [it] never happens in reality,” citing as a model dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984.

Throughout the talk, Ramos emphasized the diversity of those people grouped together by the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” — people with different skin colors, countries of origin, native languages and more. In creating the characters in his books, Ramos strove to present characters that reflected the reality of life for contemporary Latinos and Latinas without being limited by stereotypes. Describing his approach to writing, Ramos said, “Anyone who chooses to write or communicate has to avoid the easy, the facile stereotype.”

The problem he and others are up against is illustrated by the story of a short-lived proposal to turn America Libre into a movie. Though producers liked the general idea, they immediately began proposing changes to the characters and plot in order to bring them in line with mainstream ideas of what Latinos and Latinas should or should not be — the main character must be single, for example, and there cannot be a blonde Latina character. The movie, said Ramos, “was headed to stereotype city,” so he pulled the plug, trusting the books to speak for themselves.

Following Ramos’s talk, he answered questions from the audience on topics such as media coverage of issues affecting Latinos today and the importance of seeing people as individuals to counteract racism and prejudice. Discussions of events such as the recent shooting of a teenager in the Mexican city of Nogales by the U.S. Border Patrol — and the lack of media coverage such events tend to receive — cast further light on the fears that Ramos depicts in his books.

Some questions raised by members of the audience remained unresolved, however. Several students asked Ramos about the viability of fighting racism and prejudice on an individual level rather than treating them as systemic and institutional problems, but no definitive conclusions were reached.