Ilan Stavans, Amherst’s Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, is the author of A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States (Basic Books). With text by Stavans and illustrations by cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, the book presents the nation’s history through true stories of its “most overlooked and marginalized peoples: the workers, immigrants, housewives, and slaves who built America from the ground up and made this country what it is today.”

Close-up of Ilan Stavans in glasses and brown jacket
Ilan Stavans

Stavans and Alcaraz first collaborated in the late 1990s on Latino USA: A Cartoon History (Basic Books), which, according to the author, became a surprise hit, particularly in high school and college classrooms. “When the publisher of Latino USA decided to do a 15th-anniversary edition, he suggested that maybe we now look more seriously into doing another project,” says Stavans, “and Lalo said, ‘Why don’t we do something more epic, larger?’”

So, while the pair’s first book focused solely on the history of Latinos in the United States, the new book takes a broader view, depicting, in comic-strip style, the interconnected histories of Native Americans, European explorers, Mayflower Pilgrims, African-American slaves, Jewish immigrants, women’s-rights activists, AIDS victims, tech entrepreneurs, pop-culture icons and more.  

A Most Imperfect Union is informed by the writings of such historians as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Howard Zinn, by Stavans’ personal experiences as an immigrant from Mexico and by his work as editor of the 2009 anthology Becoming Americans: Immigrants Tell Their Stories from Jamestown to Today.

In addition, the book“is very much defined by the movies that I’ve watched in the last 15 years,” he says, “from Forrest Gump to Saving Private Ryan to Lincoln to movies like Born on the Fourth of July.”

In fact, the entire book traces a fictional director’s effort to turn American history into a movie, while Stavans and Alcaraz repeatedly pop up as characters in the cartoon panels, raising questions and arguing over which facts and figures should be included—hence the book’s subtitle: A Contrarian History.   

“I think that being a ‘contrarian’ is not playing with sabotage, with undermining thought, but inciting others to get involved in the act of thinking,” Stavans says, “to see ideas as interacting in a true marketplace, where they are tested, they are refined, and ultimately the best ideas are the ones that are embraced.”

“I’m a contrarian in the classroom; I love to take the devil’s-advocate position,” he continues. “I very much want my students not to think as I do, but to think. To think in whatever way they want, as long as they are thinking … thoroughly, profoundly, and they are thinking for themselves.”

His hope for the new book is “that it reaches the hands of people who are going to have questions about how to think of history. That is my purpose: to invite them to think of history not as monolithic—not as ‘This is it; you can’t question it’—but instead as something that you need to get involved in, be critical, and feel that it is yours.”