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The Latino Metropolis

Los Angeles is not famous for being kind to those who love it best. It has been cruel indeed to Mike Davis, our homegrown Jeremiah who has for the past decade held up an oft-unflattering mirror to a town skilled at willful blindness. Having been driven from the city gates by a campaign of red-baiting disguised as fact-checking, Davis now -- according to the jacket of his newest work, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City -- lives in self-imposed exile at the very edge of the empire in Papa‘aloa, Hawaii.

He has not, however, given up on Los Angeles, which is the subject of his book despite the national ambitions of its title and a few cursory nods to New York, Miami and Chicago. A short, tidy work, Magical Urbanism avoids the apocalyptic excesses of Ecology of Fear (no mention at all of killer bees) and, may his foes grind their teeth, is more scrupulously footnoted than City of Quartz. It shares with much good social criticism a quality of obviousness, for it is the most obvious truths that are generally the most neglected, and that most desperately need to be spoken.

Which is to say, it is embarrassing that this book had to be written. Except to those cloistered urbanites who rarely get off on freeway exits or subway stops other than their own -- and this would include many folks working in the media -- it should be evident that the urban and suburban ethnic landscapes have changed remarkably of late. In Davis’ words, “The living color of the contemporary big city, dynamically Asian as well as Latino, is still viewed on an old-fashioned black-and-white screen.”

But despite their relative invisibility on screens large and small, Latinos achieved a plurality in the city of L.A. in the late ‘70s, and by 1998 “outnumbered Anglos in Los Angeles County by more than a million.” Similar, if less dramatic, transformations have occurred in most other American cities, and, assuming current population trends continue, “Shortly after 2025, non-Hispanic whites . . . will become a minority group” nationwide. “These are millennial transformations with truly millennial implications for U.S. politics and culture.” It is those implications that Davis attempts to sketch out, with varying degrees of success.

He fails most resoundingly when generalizing broadly about Latino culture, an entity which, if it exists as a single entity at all, has as broad and varied a terrain as the hemisphere itself. The real divisions and tensions between, for instance, recent Central American immigrants to L.A. and third- and fourth-generation Chicanos are glossed over entirely.

In an otherwise insightful chapter in which he analyzes the “labyrinth of laws, regulations and prejudices that frustrate, even criminalize, [Latino] attempts to build vibrant neighborhoods” while favoring developers, Davis rhapsodizes that “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. They also have a genius for transforming dead urban spaces into convivial social places.” Whatever grain of truth these sentences contain, one could enthuse about the Chicano genius for transforming near-dead Chevy Impalas into exuberantly personalized modes of transport without falling any deeper into patronizing stereotype. His unselfconscious use of metaphors of piquancy (“The cosmopolitan result is a rich, constantly evolving sabor tropical in food, music, fashion and language -- always freshly spiced by the latest arrivals from Latin America”) does not help matters.

One can nonetheless hope that, as City of Quartz did 11 years ago, Magical Urbanism will alter the way the rest of the country sees Los Angeles. While most other American cities still follow traditional immigrant-settlement patterns -- as in New York, where Dominicans cluster in Washington Heights and Koreans in Flushing, just as Germans once stuck to Yorkville and Jews to the Lower East Side -- L.A., Davis argues, is a “case apart,” an entirely different model in which Latinos form a “vast city-within-a-city.” “The Anglo-majority neighborhoods” of Los Angeles, he writes, “mostly near the beach or in the foothills, are becoming a gilded periphery to the bustling Latino metropolis in the coastal plain,” rarely visited by tourists or even many resident white folk, and still more rarely seen by a nation that imagines L.A. to be a slightly larger version of Melrose Place.

With his usual sharp eye for injustice, Davis recounts the challenges facing this emerging metropolis, from the militarized and industrialized border region to the less tangible “borders [that] tend to follow working-class Latinos wherever they live and regardless of how a long they have been in the United States.” The picture he paints is fairly bleak: Repressive immigration laws restrict immigrants’ job options to “the most shadowy and exploitative recesses of the urban economy,” while a failing education system, an unceasing “nativist hysteria that frequently rises to an occult pitch,” and massive federal and state disinvestment in cities hold out little promise to their children.

 

Resolutely Old Left in his solutions, Davis maintains that “rank-and-file controlled unionism remains the best hope for empowering urban Latino communities.” The “explosion of rank-and-file energy” of recent years -- beginning with the 8-year-and-running organizing drive at the downtown New Otani Hotel, taking victorious stops along the way at Farmer John and at USC, and culminating with the triumphant Justice for Janitors campaign -- lets him conclude Magical Urbanism on an uncharacteristic note: optimism.

Raul Homero Villa‘s Barrio-Logos tracks the last century and a half’s affronts to California‘s Latinos (focusing for the most part on L.A. and entirely on Mexican-Americans) and the Chicano responses to those assaults, through literature and the arts as well as through political activism. Villa examines the dialectical relationship between “barrioization -- understood as a complex of dominating social processes originating outside of the barrios” from onslaughts by Anglo mobs to freeway construction -- and “barriology,” a term, borrowed from the 1960s East L.A. magazine and art collective Con Safos, that Villa uses to evoke “a whole range of knowledge and practices that form the historical, geographical and social being-in-consciousness of urban Chicano experience.”

Villa does better when recounting the assaults of barrioization -- which he does in a fairly straightforward historical manner -- than when laboriously deconstructing barriological works, be they 19th-century Spanish-language newspaper editorials, the lyrics of Eastside rock bands or the poetry of Luis Alfaro. His analyses of such works display an opacity of prose that frequently approaches self-parody:

Drawing strength from both discursive (af)filiations, Los Illegals’ lyrics are urgent counterexpressions to the positivist platitudes of the metropolitan growth machinery, as they identify the nexus of repressive apparatuses and effects that produce a social cordon around the barrios and the low limits of possibility for many of their residents.

Despite such excesses, Villa commendably fits a great deal of Chicano literature and artwork into a social and historical context. The broadness of his concept of barriology, which includes the struggle of San Diego‘s Logan Heights community to build a park under a freeway exchange as well as novels and song, forces a complex view of the relation between politics and art, history and culture. In so doing it places a seemingly disparate collection of individual works and movements into a single tradition of resistance and pride.

The flip side of barrioization has always been the desire of Anglos to purify their ranks, also known as white supremacy. In Company Men: White-Collar Life and Corporate Cultures in Los Angeles, 1892--1941, Clarke Davis briefly touches on the white-supremacist leanings of L.A.’s onetime oligarchs:

In an atmosphere of self-congratulation, southern California‘s corporate elites talked openly of their desire to create a populace of primarily native-born whites, with people of Mexican descent available as a surplus labor force.

For the most part, though, in attempting to show how execs and employees “negotiated nothing less than the nature, demands and rewards of white-collar life, the meaning of corporate employment and, ultimately, the tenets of a new middle-class culture,” Davis focuses on factors internal to the corporate world. If the career ideal for generations of American men had been professional independence, business leaders had to figure out how to make being a cog in a wheel look good. To that end, large companies fostered company magazines and softball teams to encourage employees to assume their firm’s identity as part of their own, created the notion of an ever-climbable corporate ladder, and experimented with profit-sharing and pension plans to keep employees onboard.

All of this goes a long way toward explaining some of the more mundane aspects of modern corporate culture (like the pension plan) and reassuringly confirms that human beings are not naturally attracted to corporate work. It does very little, however, to put corporate culture in the context of the society it grew out of or the society it helped to spawn. To do that, Davis would have had to explicitly acknowledge, as he only peripherally does, that the rise of white-collar work in the early decades of the century took place in an atmosphere of labor unrest that approached class warfare. This context is not mere background: The rising professional middle class grew up seeing itself in opposition to the (disproportionately nonwhite) blue-collar workers whose physical labor it directed and supervised from behind administrative desks. Though you would never know it from Davis‘ account, the resulting fissures still scar America today.


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