The mall gets a little Latino soul

Magical Urbanism

June 16, 2000

At the heart of this absorbing and important book is a paradox. Mike Davis documents the extraordinary Latino presence in the United States, yet the existence of this population remains largely invisible for many Americans. The Latino representation in national politics (President Clinton's former housing secretary Henry Cisneros being a conspicuous exception), entertainment (there is no prime-time series featuring Latinos), pop music and movies (the recent La Ciudad excepted) is meagre. Despite the phenomenal growth of Latino residents and their families - now numbering 32 million and predicted to reach 59 million by 2025 - the dominant image among Americans of this population remains one of illegal immigrants taking the worst jobs.

In Magical Urbanism , Davis argues convincingly that the apparent invisibility of Latinos is a distortion. In fact, the Latino population is inducing profound changes, especially in American cities. Latinos are urban people, he writes, and follow the well-worn immigrant path of being concentrated in cities, often living in the most deprived areas. However, their industry is revitalising the delapidated housing stocks and Latino culture is restoring an open, urban space. Davis writes that "across the vast pan-American range of cultural nuance, the social reproduction of latinidad , however defined, presupposes a rich proliferation of public space". What he brilliantly terms "architectural Americanisation", the traditional isolationist mindset of planners, is being reshaped by a Latino population whose conception of urban space is "the daily intercourse of the plaza and mercado", not the soulless shopping malls familiar from regular suburban high-school massacres.

Cultural transformation faces formidable barriers. First, the border between the US and Mexico has become a brutal one. Since the Mexican debt crisis of the 1980s, which prompted a surge of emigration to el norte , and despite the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the journey for many Latino immigrants is a miserable one. Davis argues that checkpoints constitute "blatant instances of racial profiling in federal policy", and characterises the tougher response of the Clinton administration, adopted in 1994, as the "unilateral militarisation of the border". The rise of armed American vigilantes hunting down illegal immigrants along the border is the extension of this martinet policy.

Second, the presence of Latinos has stimulated negative responses from many Americans, self-anointed political (for example, former California governor Pete Wilson) and citizen defenders of Americanism. This hostility has spurred a renewed impulse to Americanisation, represented, for instance, in fierce conflict over bilingual education and in initiatives such as California's Proposition 2 (English for children), which, as Davis memorably describes, cements a "false antinomy between immersion and bilingual methods" of education. Davis's account of the bilingual conflict is excellent, marshalling evidence that exposes the English-only proponents' arguments as simplistic and unproductive. The more general failure of the urban school system is laid bare: "US educational institutions are doing little to raise the qualifications of Latinos to the level of other groups."

For Davis, a major reason for the American failure to comprehend the scale of the Latino transformation is the legacy of African-Americans' segregation, responsible for the "stubbornly binary discourse of American public culture". He anticipates the displacement of this dichotomy as the growth in the Latino population soars in the next generation and Latinos become the major minority in many cities and nationally outnumber African-Americans.

The demographic trends are empirically indisputable; whether the Latino population is so distinctive from other American traditions - rather than simply another version of Americanism - is more doubtful. As Davis notes, Mexican-Americans in the middle decades of the 20th century adopted the white side of this binary divide, pragmatically to sidestep the segregationist order. That choice has left its mark. Assimilation with American identity was thus ensured. Finally, the fact that Latino immigrants have been coming to the US for well over a century and have arrived voluntarily, proud of their traditions, ensures that Americanisation itself already imbibes from Latino cultures, leaving less scope for transformation than Davis envisages.

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City

Author - Mike Davis
ISBN - 1 85984 771 4
Publisher - Verso
Price - £12.00
Pages - 168

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