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Northwestern University

“What Makes Us Human”

Writer Hector Tobar brings his inspired stories to the Latina and Latino Studies Program's Spring Symposium

The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Hector Tobar has crafted an accomplished writing career illuminating the truths of Latin American communities in the U.S. and abroad as a self-described “unofficial Latin Americanist.”

On May 20, Tobar, the New York Times best-selling author of Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free and a former foreign correspondent in Mexico City and Buenos Aires for the Los Angeles Times, brought his inspired stories to Northwestern University and spotlighted the power of expression during the Latina and Latino Studies Program’s Spring Symposium.

“To be a thinking person is in itself a beautiful and rewarding thing and what makes us human,” Tobar says.

The writer, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Springfield, Ore., details his work and shares his perspective on key U.S.-Latin American issues.

How do you define your role as a Latino novelist and journalist?

I don’t consider myself a Latino writer, but an American writer and journalist who happens to have roots in Latin America and what I really try to do is bring a deeper understanding of the culture and history of Latin America to the outlets for which I write. That’s important because coverage of Latin America and Latino people in the U.S. has tended to be shallow and stereotyped, largely because of a lack of representation. Part of my mission is to eat away at the misconceptions and provide a richer, more textured portrait of these communities and people.

How would you characterize the contributions of Latino-American communities in the U.S. to American democracy?

Latinos are important to the vitality and energy of the nation. They are present in nearly every neighborhood and city in the U.S. and provide a quiet, but essential contribution to the structure of their cities with their work ethic. They are building houses, tending to the physical landscape and working in the service industry, and doing so while paying taxes and sending children to public schools. There is a great spirit of improvisation among these people — so many of whom came of age in places that denied access to opportunities — that is too often uncelebrated and taken for granted.

How can U.S. Latinos and Latinas make a difference politically, culturally and socially in the U.S.?

We have to be ambitious and should avoid thinking of ourselves as involved in an entirely defensive struggle. People think of us as being victimized by the failure to initiate immigration reform and, while that’s true, it’s also important to understand how much power we have to shape this country.

What significant projects are you working on now?

I’m currently working on my fifth book, a novel set in the U.S. and Central America in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It’s about a Midwestern family and the war and revolution in El Salvador.

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