This is one of the most thought-provoking books about the USA in years. Let's start with the author. His father is from Spain (Galicia) and his mother is English. He grew up in Britain and was educated there, and has taught at American universities. He is therefore bicultural, both English and Spanish, and his perspective is about as unique as you can get. He is a brilliant historian, apparently a good teacher, and an extremely good writer. He writes as an American immigrant, as an historian, and as an Hispanic. His purpose in writing is to throw light on the changing Hispanic influence on the USA.
The book really has three parts. The first details Spanish--not Mexican--exploration and settlement. In much of what is now the United States, the Spanish were here first, sometimes longest and most intensively. By that measure, we are historically Hispanic. He discusses California (one of his most interesting sections), explored and finally settled by the Spanish. So with New Mexico. Texas and Arizona too, but smaller populations. Those places were Hispanic and therefore...well you see the point. The intense and long duration of Spanish presence in parts of what is now the United States is usually glossed over, and many see Hispanics as invaders (when the Anglos were the invaders, in Florida for example). There are also parts of the USA that we forget have a long Spanish presence--Puerto Rico, Guam. He is absolutely convincing on the historic Hispanic presence. At the same time, he has a wonderful take on the settlement of the British colonies. The argument is that the British colonies expanded to the west and the Hispanics to the north, and where the two crossed is a fertile and contentious ground for conflict and cross-fertilization.
A second part, not really sequential, is the experience of Hispanics in the USA until recent times. The treaty ending the Mexican War guaranteed citizenship and rights for Hispanics who did not wish to leave for Mexico. These people were systematically hounded out of their land, denied representation and denied opportunity, sometimes by fraud and sometimes by lynching and other means of terror, particularly in Texas. The need for labor, the legacy Hispanic populations and politics in Mexico are all part of an extremely complicated social history involving the Southwest particularly. Hispanics were treated quite as badly as African Americans were, and were subject to the same institutional racism that denied equal access, and caused such horrific episodes as mandatory sterilization for some caught up in the criminal system. He details the struggle for equal rights, in a fascinating section. Note that it is by no means that Anglos are the bad guys and Hispanics in the white hats. In one section of some length, he explores the Mormon experience, extremely positive on that historical experience.
The third part looks at current trends and Hispanics in the later 20th century and in this new century. Hispanics have always been here, and immigration is vastly increasing the population, but now most of the increase is the children of the initial waves. Perhaps 60% have their origin in Mexico--but millions originate and millions still live in Hispanic United States, in Puerto Rico, American now for well over 100 years.
The book ends with what really is a separate essay. He looks at the idea of the Protestant work ethic a la Max Weber, and systematically demolishes it. His point is that much of what is usually identified as distinctly American is not, and is simply a variation on common themes existing in all the American nations. He does present a strongly favorable account of Catholicism, not to denigrate US Protestants, but to correct a number of baleful assumptions about Catholic immigrants. He notes that the vaunted American individualism exists, but that the community and even communitarian impulse is just as strong, and that most people in the USA participate in groups of many kinds. I suspect it is this section that has caused those extremely negative reviews several readers have written. This book is not an apologia for Catholicism. It does not claim the USA should be returned to Mexico. He's also not optimistic about the prospect of Spanish surviving. The Hispanic portion of the USA. a hundred million by mid century, is likely to speak English, be increasingly Protestant and be thoroughly Americanized. And in my opinion, that bodes extremely well for this country of mine. And his. And my/his country is multi-cultural, not just a melding of Hispanic and Anglo, but Asian, African American, Indian and the others we will be fortunate to have as new citizens.
This is not an easy read. But the subject is surpassingly important. You'll find out a lot of things, some trivial, some key, some sad, some joyful. But read the book!