12/19/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

The Chronicles of Gringolandia

"Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past," President Obama declared in a televised address on Dec. 17 as Raul Castro simultaneously addressed Cuba: after a half-century, diplomatic relations between the United States and the Cubans will be normalized, following the return of USAID officer Alan Gross, secured with a special intervention by Pope Francis. "Todos somos Americanos," Obama said.

Indeed, from the Aleutian Islands to Tierra del Fuego, we are all Americans. In their crackling, breezy, and important graphic novel A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2014), the focus lies on the portion of the North American continent between the longitudes of "New York island and San Francisco bay," as Woody Guthrie would say.

Yet as Obama surely knows, the past is still very much with us. Americans like to think that they live in a perpetual present, as author Ilan Stavans, a Jewish-Mexican immigrant to the US in the 1980s, writes in A Most Imperfect Union, lavishly illustrated by his compadre Lalo Alcaraz. But that is another illusory convention that, like many others, gets knocked down in the manner of a summary execution, except these are bullets of historical revisionism, à la the late Howard Zinn. In the acknowledgements, Stavans records that "for general information, I looked at Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (2003), which left a deep impression on me when I first read it." That shows quite well here: this book is rife with accounts of marginalized figures in US history, people who helped improve the society but did not get their due.

Cuba itself gets a singular mention within the context of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which is mentioned in passing only to launch another point: the event, which nearly led to the erasure of much of the Americas, "underscored the danger of nuclear technology, but science was also being used for good," Stavans writes, drawn in this cel as Dr. Ilan Stavans, Doctor of Literature and Proctol... The doc illuminates a vignette on a "working-class Black woman with no scientific expertise" named Henrietta Lacks. As Stavans explains (emboldened text from the original),

In 1951, Dr. George Otto Gey, head of tissue-culture resarch [sic] at Johns Hopkins University, developed a technique for growing cells from human cancer tissues in the lab. As part of his research, he used cells extracted from a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks, who was suffering from a severe case of cervical cancer. These cells -- known by the name Hela, a shortened form of Lacks's name -- would become among the most used in the world, and were instrumental in vaccine development, gene mapping, cloning, and other areas of scientific research.

Tragically, however, "Despite the great benefit provided by her cells, neither Lacks nor her family ever benefitted from this research economically." At the very least, she is now recognized. This history as a method of atonement is well-trod ground and what used to be interpreted as more or less "contrarian" is now for many a commonplace view: the United States was built in large part by slaves, on top of land stolen from indigenous peoples. Thanks to historians like Zinn, this is by now an established view of US history, and it is largely accurate.

Stavans and Alcaraz achieve an even greater feat, laying out a grand sweep from the first landings by the European explorers-conquerors, through the many cataclysms that shook the land and its people -- descended by those settlers, waves of immigrants, and the progeny of slaves -- up to the current moment, when the military preeminence of los Estados Unidos is unquestioned. From a backwater of the British Empire to the last remaining global superpower is quite a journey. And at times it's a funny one, too, lampooning the absurd contradictions at the national core of "the last best hope of Earth," to quote Abraham Lincoln, the great liberator.

Yes, Lincoln freed the slaves -- alright, "more than two-thirds of them." His Emancipation Proclamation, written while the civil war still raged, "forever redefined the American social tapestry." Aside from Brazil, the US was late to abolition; the ghost of slavery haunts the land to this day in the forms of what followed, the virtual re-enslavement of sharecropping and pervasive, systemic discrimination that has led to a yawning wealth gap among other social ills. The words of the Declaration of Independence do not sound the same to everyone who is by birthright an American citizen. That category includes immigrants like Stavans, who writes of the Mexican-American War that in 1848, "the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, also known as the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement Between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic, was signed. As a result,

A large portion of Mexico -- what is now known as the Southwest -- became part of the United States. Today the ceded area spans all or part of eight states: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming.

In the corner, Alcaraz angrily exclaims, "Yet another treaty that's never been honored!" While Washington can normalize relations with Cuba, it does not look likely that it will return these territories to Mexico. The facts on the ground are far too entrenched after 150 years. The war with Mexico "was another expression of America's doctrine of Manifest Destiny." And by the mandate of heaven, America was meant to span from sea to shining sea, because it was our manifest -- i.e., obvious -- destiny. John Quincy Adams, the 6th president and son of the second, wrote in 1811 that such "divine providence" decreed that "the whole continent of North America" is willed by the Almighty "to be peopled by one nation. Speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs."

Below him a Cubano scoffs, "Divine providence? ¡Joder! And you gringos wonder why everyone hates you..." The history of "Gringolandia," as Stavans and Alcaraz affectionately dub the United States, is composed of unsung figures like José Martí, "a Cuban journalist, activist, and poet, [who] fought for the independence of his homeland, even in exile. He spent much of his life in Florida and New York, where he reported on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty."

Stavans admits in the foreword that he is prone to "often criticize the United States for those aspects of its culture and national character that make me uncomfortable: its insatiable appetite for pleasure, its plastic-surgery aesthetics, its love of consumption, its frequent ignorance of history, its xenophobic disposition, its condescending political correctness, its arrogant foreign policy." He concludes, "To help our country live up to its full potential, we must sometimes call our love of that country into question." Amen, brother.