Book Review

Rejoining the Americas

Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City

As the United States Army made its final push toward Mexico City in 1847, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass forthrightly declared that, “We do not want the people of Mexico, either as citizens or subjects. All we want is a portion of territory, which they nominally hold, either uninhabited or, where inhabited at all, sparsely so, and with a population which would soon recede.” For decades, history seemed to bear out Cass’ hope that the “Southwest” (a revealing term in its own right) would be a tabula rasa for the extension of Anglo civilization. Mexicans — nominally made Mexican Americans by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — remained in the region. In parts of New Mexico and the border areas of Texas and Arizona, they even maintained their majority status. But the descendants of those who stayed saw the victorious Anglos take the overwhelming preponderance of political, economic and sheer demographic power. Even proud former landowners joined the ranks of the hewers of stone and drawers of water, picking fruit or cleaning other peoples’ houses in what had once been Mexico.

A century later, World War II, defense spending and the flight to the suburbs helped the far West shed its colonial status and ascend to national power. Yet Los Angeles remained the nation’s whitest and most heavily native-born major city. It was also the home base of the Republican Right, creating the anti-tax groundswell that crested with Proposition 13, the referendum establishing tax limits which would greatly restrict government spending. Joining with other western states, California propelled Richard Nixon, and then Ronald Reagan, to the White House.

As Mike Davis makes clear in this artful little book, Magical Urbanism, things look very different from the vantage of 2000 than from the perspective of 1900, 1950, or even 1980. The meteoric rise of the Latino population is re-shaping the United States, and indeed, all of the Americas. This is clear enough in California, which this year became a “majority minority” state for the first time since the Gold Rush. In twenty-five years, the Census Bureau predicts, those who identify themselves as “Hispanic” will constitute 43 percent of the Golden State’s population —and Anglos merely a third. Texas will cross a similar divide, with Anglos predicted to become a minority in less than twenty years.

Signs of this demographic shift can be seen all over the country, not just in the Southwest or in traditional immigrant entrepots like New York City. More than one million Mexican immigrants live in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Formerly nearly all-white cities such as Salt Lake City, Portland, Oregon and Anchorage now have well-defined Spanish-surname populations in the tens of thousands. There are more Latinos than African Americans in both the Pacific Northwest and New England. No wonder the Republican Party chose to morph its convention into a multicultural extravaganza, banishing the rich white guys from the stage to the luxury boxes and hotel suites.

These trends will only continue. From 2025 to 2050, according to federal projections, Latinos will be responsible for two-thirds of the national population growth. The se habla inglés store signs already visible in Miami and L.A. may soon become commonplace. Slightly more than fifty years from now, the United States itself will be a “majority minority” nation. “These are millennial transformations,” Davis rightly claims, “with truly millennial implications for U.S. politics and culture.”

They also have great importance for Latin America. The demographic and economic weight of migrants to the United States is enormous. Fully half the population of the Mexican state of Zacatecas, for example, lives in El Norte, prompting Mexican gubernatorial candidates to campaign in California and propose the creation of legislative positions for United States residents. Deported Salvadorans have brought Los Angeles gangs and drug-trafficking connections back with them to San Salvador. The current president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernández Reyna, grew up in Manhattan, still holds a green card — and plans to return to the United States after serving his term. So-called migradollars (funds sent home by immigrants) keep rural communities in Mexico and Central America afloat, and are already a more important source of dollars than are export crops in several Latin American nations. In fifty years, the projected 96 million Latino residents of the United States would, if considered a nation, follow only Brazil and Mexico as the most populous countries of Latin America. The economic and military power of the United States has cast a long shadow over Latin America for more than a century, but soon the Colossus of the North will itself be a Latin American country.

Magical Urbanism takes stock of the potential for cultural and political revitalization that Latinoization brings to the United States. Optimism is not Mike Davis’ stock in trade — a brooding if sometimes humorous tone characterizes the writer who gleefully entitled a chapter in another book, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” But here he is downright celebratory in describing the vibrancy of urban Latino culture. “Tired, sad little homes undergo miraculous vivifications,” he writes of areas of Los Angeles. “Their peeling facades [are] repainted, sagging roofs and porches rebuilt, and yellowing lawns replanted in cacti and azaleas.” Urban public space, savaged by deindustrialization and suburban sprawl, can be rescued: “Latin American immigrants and their children, perhaps more than any other element in the population, exult in playgrounds, parks, squares, libraries and other endangered species of U.S. public space, and thus form one of the most important constituencies for the preservation of our urban commons.”

Davis’ sometimes exuberant language and use of phrases such as “tropicalizing cold urban space” and “magical urbanism” suggest an air of romanticism, an exaggeration of the communal values of the Hispanic cultures. By implication the public cultures of Anglos, African Americans, Asians and other groups must be sterile indeed. The social problems characteristic of most impoverished communities — violence, drug abuse, malnutrition — are duly noted but not dwelled upon.

But Davis is no naïf. Extended descriptions of resurgent segregationist politics and economic marginalization accompany his paeans to Latino cultural vitality. Unlike previous immigrants, Latinos, even native-born, enter the job market at the bottom of an increasingly stratified economy that has seen wages decline in real terms for the last several decades. The threat of Immigration and Naturalization Service raids, often used by employers to crush labor organizing, and the reluctance of some established unions to prioritize organizing new workers are further obstacles to economic mobility. Police hostility, the resegregation of public facilities such as parks, moves to eliminate bilingual education and continued public school inequality make Davis’ account as much a story of struggle as of triumph.

Amidst this political and economic adversity lie encouraging signs of democratic empowerment. Unions such as the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees have achieved remarkable successes in organizing low-wage immigrant workers, most notably in the recent “Justice for Janitors” campaign. Latinos are ascending to important leadership positions in these organizations. Electoral politics also provide an opportunity to wield significant power. Although low rates of naturalization and voting have hampered Latino political influence, recent anti-immigrant campaigns by former California Governor Pete Wilson, and the presidential candidacies of Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan, have begun to awaken “the sleeping dragon of U.S. politics.” In the 1996 presidential election, for example, Latino registration grew by more than a quarter, and actual voting increased by some 16 percent — in the midst of an overall turnout decline of 8 percent. An Arizona “English Only” initiative boosted Hispanic turnout and helped Bill Clinton carry the generally Republican state. Two years later, Democrat Loretta Sánchez defeated conservative Republican Congressman Bob Dornan (perhaps the looniest rep not from Texas) in Orange County, the former bastion of sunbelt conservatism.

The current presidential race also reflects the growing influence of the Latino population. While both parties have long cultivated the Cuban American electorate in the swing state of Florida, this year candidates are going to similar lengths to capture the Puerto Rican and Mexican votes, particularly in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California. Indeed, George W. Bush seems to have learned the lesson of Pete Wilson’s mean-spirited and foolish campaign blaming immigrants for all of California’s woes. While Wilson may have destroyed any possibility of a Republican gaining California’s electoral votes for the next generation, Bush has made an insistent if sometimes excruciatingly vapid appeal for the votes of Latinos. He has avoided inflammatory attacks on immigration and bilingual education in Texas and boasts (inaccurately) of winning a near majority of Hispanic votes in his 1998 reelection. His Mexican-American nephew, George P. Bush, was showcased at the Republican convention in early August. Although conservative economic and social policies do not advance the well-being of Latinos, for the moment it seems that the politics of anti-immigrant racism has crested.

Davis’ account is rich and provocative, gracefully blending large-scale socioeconomic data and arguments with telling anecdotes and the stories of ordinary people. It bears the mark of his earlier works, innovative studies of United States labor history, the development of Los Angeles, radical politics and the surprising interactions of natural ecology and human institutions in Southern California. Where most academic historians and political scientists write for other specialists, Davis tackles big subjects, makes sweeping pronouncements and seeks — and finds — a wide audience.

At times, though, his enthusiasm gets the better of him. Two years ago, a Los Angeles real estate developer, angered by what he perceived as Davis’ misrepresentation of the dark side of the City of Angels, launched a series of long missives questioning Davis’ research and exposing numerous factual errors and exaggerations. Subsequent examinations embarrassed Davis by confirming his occasional sloppiness. Together with his avowedly Marxist politics and his lack of a Ph.D., these accusations have made it difficult for one of the most widely published and read observers of California to find an academic job there.

Davis has overreached himself in Magical Urbanism, but not by playing fast and loose with sources or facts. Although the book’s subtitle is “Latinos reinvent the U.S. city,” at times it seems that it should be “Latinos reinvent Southern California.” While his delineation of the national and hemispheric dimensions of the rise of the Latino population is graceful, Davis is at his most observant when on his home turf. There are important differences, though, between race relations in California and elsewhere that a book of this size cannot adequately explore. African American/ Latino relations are both more difficult and more politically decisive in Houston, Dallas, Miami, New York and Chicago. Minority elected officials often find themselves fighting with one another for control of central cities marginalized by suburban, white economic power. Some lighter-skinned Latinos, particularly in Miami, may be following in the footsteps of European immigrants such as the Irish, by assuming the status of whiteness in order to gain full acceptance into the national community. The involvement of Hispanic cops in many of New York City’s appalling police shootings of unarmed black men gives some hint of the potential for a new racial animosity to overshadow what could be a powerful coalition.

Similarly, the hope that labor organizing “is the most powerful strategy for insuring the representation of immigrants’ socio-economic as well as cultural and linguistic rights” finds less confirmation outside the Golden State. Labor leaders elsewhere have been slower to organize immigrant workers, and more willing simply to enjoy their entrenched positions. In other places, Texas included, unions remain far too weak to fulfill this role.

But nations, like people, are not slaves of the past. Davis’ compelling portrayal of an epochal transformation of the United States is a plea to seize the possibilities of the future as much as it is an effort to understand the present. He is equal parts prophet and observer. In the decades to come, perhaps the defeat of Mexico in 1848 will prove to be a watershed not because it helped catapult an Anglo-Saxon country to new heights of power, but because it eventually created a truly multi-racial nation.

Ben Johnson teaches history at the California Institute of Technology. Next year he will teach at UT-San Antonio.

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Published at 12:00 am CST