In the tradition of Pierre Bourdieu’s The Weight of the World, an award-winning sociologist and his students explore the lives of people working at the bottom of the social order in one of America’s most economically segregated cities.
Austin, Texas, is renowned as a high-tech, fast-growing city for the young and creative, a cool place to live, and the scene of internationally famous events such as SXSW and Formula 1. But as in many American cities, poverty and penury are booming along with wealth and material abundance in contemporary Austin. Rich and poor residents lead increasingly separate lives as growing socioeconomic inequality underscores residential, class, racial, and ethnic segregation.
In Invisible in Austin, the award-winning sociologist Javier Auyero and a team of graduate students explore the lives of those working at the bottom of the social order: house cleaners, office-machine repairers, cab drivers, restaurant cooks and dishwashers, exotic dancers, musicians, and roofers, among others. Recounting their subjects’ life stories with empathy and sociological insight, the authors show us how these lives are driven by a complex mix of individual and social forces. These poignant stories compel us to see how poor people who provide indispensable services for all city residents struggle daily with substandard housing, inadequate public services and schools, and environmental risks. Timely and essential reading, Invisible in Austin makes visible the growing gap between rich and poor that is reconfiguring the cityscape of one of America’s most dynamic places, as low-wage workers are forced to the social and symbolic margins.
- Introduction: Know Them Well (Javier Auyero)
- 1. Austin, Texas, in Sociohistorical Context (Maggie Tate)
- 2. Santos: The Gold Hunter (Jacinto Cuvi)
- 3. Clarissa: “A Woman Who Fell on Hard Times” (Kristine Kilanski)
- 4. Inés: Discipline, Surveillance, and Mothering in the Margins (Jessica Dunning-Lozano)
- 5. Chip: The Cost(s) of Chasing the American Dream (Eric Enrique Borja)
- 6. Raven: “The Difference between a Cocktail Waitress and a Stripper? Two Weeks” (Caitlyn Collins)
- 7. Kumar: Driving in the Nighttime (Katherine Jensen)
- 8. Ethan: A Product of the Service Industry (Katherine Sobering)
- 9. Keith: A Musician at the Margins (Amias Maldonado)
- 10. Xiomara: Working toward Home (Jennifer Scott)
- 11. Ella: Fighting to Save a Few (Pamela Neumann)
- 12. Manuel: The Luxury of Defending Yourself (Marcos Pérez)
- Afterword: Plumbing the Social Underbelly of the Dual City (Loïc Wacquant)
Know Them Well
A tiny symbol, if one were needed, of all the million circumstances of the other fellow’s life, of that blizzard of details that constitute the confusion of a human biography—a tiny symbol to remind me why our understanding of people must always be at best slightly wrong.
Philip Roth, The Human Stain
No social study that does not come back to the problem of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
It all began with a nagging discomfort that slowly metamorphosed into an incredible, expansive collective energy. It was the spring semester of 2012, and I was teaching a graduate seminar on poverty and marginality in the Americas in the Sociology Department at the University of Texas at Austin, my academic home since 2008. On a weekly basis I subjected my students, a heterogeneous group from my own discipline as well as from anthropology and social work, to the typical graduate seminar drill—three hundred pages or more of reading, electronic notes, and long hours of intense discussions devoted to reviewing past and present analyses of the nature and experiences of poverty and marginality in Latin America and in the United States, examining the most controversial issues and debates and exploring research topics emerging north and south of the border. The discomfort did not take long to emerge: although they were in agreement with diagnoses about the economic and political sources of dispossession, students were uncomfortable—distrustful and on more than one occasion angry—with the ways in which many a text represented the lives of those living at the bottom of the socio-symbolic ladder, including their daily predicaments, their beliefs, and their hopes. Oftentimes entire, and quite diverse, categories (the urban poor, young poor men, poor women) were reduced to one or two salient portrayals (single mother, welfare recipient, sex worker, drug dealer, gang member); other times the complex and changing character of their lives was truncated in order to make (more or less sophisticated) social scientific arguments. Doubts about how well researchers knew the people they were representing, and how well they were representing these people, lingered.
Readings from Pierre Bourdieu’s now classic The Weight of the World changed the terms of our conversation and first planted the seed for this book. The Weight of the World was the product of many years of collaborative work under the direction of Bourdieu, France’s best known sociologist. A group of twenty or so researchers examined the social, political, and economic forces producing novel forms of suffering, mostly in contemporary France (with two chapters devoted to the United States), and the many ways in which individuals—a teacher, a social worker, a factory worker, a migrant, an artisan, and others—deal and cope with the external forces that deprive them not only of their means of economic subsistence but also, and just as importantly, of the recognition and respect they once enjoyed. The book’s publication was a major event in France, and it became an instant bestseller because, among other things, it depicts the suffering caused by a shrinking labor market and a retrenching welfare state through a series of lively, eye-opening (and oftentimes heartbreaking) one-on-one interviews with ordinary folks. Usually silenced in public debates, these people and the stories they told speak to larger pressing problems. They talked in highly personal terms about the social, economic, and political sources of their troubles—and about their unceasing struggles to regain control over their lives and maintain a sense of dignity in their existence.
Rereading chapters of that book, and with the students’ shared discomfort in mind, it occurred to me that we could try something along similar lines in the city we call our home—an exploration of current forms of social suffering in Austin, Texas, a thriving, rapidly growing, highly unequal, and segregated technopolis. It was not, at the beginning, a well-conceived plan. There was no grant money to support the fieldwork it would require, and there were neither material nor symbolic rewards in sight for those willing to be part of it. I would be lying if I said that I have a clear idea about why students jumped at the opportunity—after all, the cutthroat competition that defines the field of academic production typically militates against collaborations of this kind.
The work that went into making this book was not part of a research project with a clearly defined objective, design, or timetable. Yet we were clear—adamant, in fact—about one thing. It was going to be a collective enterprise: students were not working as “research assistants” for a “principal investigator”; they were the protagonists of an intellectual adventure. Together we defined the end (and aim) of the journey in ambitious yet vague terms: we would write a book that people outside the restricted and restricting confines of academia would enjoy reading and that would make them think and reflect about the place where they live and the people whom they live alongside. It would be a book that would not be circumscribed to Austinites but could speak to the manifold ways in which inequality and social exclusion are lived and experienced in the United States. By attempting to gently and persuasively force readers to acknowledge the suffering they normally do not see, we thought of our group as engaging in a collective effort in public social science.
We first set up a Google Group (named OSA, for “the other side of Austin”) where we circulated readings about a variety of topics: from Austin’s socioeconomic indicators to the rapid urban transformation currently taking place in other similar American cities. We then began to meet, every month at first but eventually every week, in after-work sessions that were at first chaotic and later a bit more systematic but always long and vibrant. (“These nights,” one of the collaborators reflected, “are what make me happy to be in graduate school.”) Over potluck dinners at various group members’ homes, we first talked in general terms about what our individual and collective efforts would entail, and we then began to carefully choose the subjects to be included in the book and, simultaneously, the criteria for including some and excluding others (more on this below). As students got to know their subjects, we discussed (and read about) best practices in in-depth interviewing and life history construction. As the project moved on, a parallel conversation emerged regarding writing. How could we best represent the lives of others in ways that made for engaging, readable stories? As this conversation progressed, the subjects of the students’ interviews became the characters readers are now about to meet.
The Other Side of Austin
Even in a surface reading of Austin’s newspapers, online news sources, and monthly magazines one cannot fail to notice a set of parallel (though hardly contradictory) images and trends. Glowing descriptions of a fast-growing city, a city for the young and creative, a “cool” place to live and raise a family, and a city of internationally famous events like South by Southwest and Formula One compete with (more or less concerned, depending on political orientations) portrayals of increasing socioeconomic inequality and residential class, racial, and ethnic segregation. As Maggie Tate lucidly describes in the first chapter of this book, and as seen in many other American cities and metropolitan areas, wealth and poverty, material abundance and penury, are booming right alongside one another in contemporary Austin. As elsewhere, the sharpening of social inequality magnifies the effects of social insecurity (from job instability and precarity to fears of downward social mobility) and reconfigures the cityscape. Rich and poor residents are increasingly separated from each other in highand low-income neighborhoods, with little mobility in between. New exclusive areas of prosperity emerge, while deprivation forces others to the edges, the crevices, or, as we intuitively put it early on in our meetings, “the other side” of town.
From the beginning of this project we knew that for all its intuitive appeal the notion of another “side” was somewhat misleading: although it accurately encapsulates the residential displacements that are currently taking place, and the clustering of high rates of poverty in specific geographic areas, it implicitly conveys the idea of a dual city inhabited by people who are disconnected from one another. The individuals who clean residential homes, care for children while parents go to work, fix office machines, drive the cabs we take, cook and wash dishes in the restaurants where we eat, dance in clubs (some) men visit, and fix roofs around town do not live in another world. They (most often) live at the margins of the city—margins defined by daily environmental risk and the poor quality of housing, public services, schools, et cetera—but they are, as many a social scientific study has repeatedly shown, a constitutive part of the daily life of all city residents.
Conceptual and empirical flaws aside, the image of a less glamorous “side” of this creative, fast-growing, and hip city has a double virtue. On the one hand, it calls attention to the kinds of class, ethnic, and racial inequalities that are now a defining aspect of cities like Austin. On the other hand, it forces us to think hard about the predicament of those at the losing end of the urban boom who are nowhere to be seen or heard in public accounts of the city’s “creativity,” “coolness,” “weirdness,” or “hipness.” This was the political impetus behind the making of this book.
The social sciences, and sociology in particular, are on relatively secure ground when it comes to describing and explaining objective inequalities of class, race, and gender and the mechanisms that generate them. We are on less certain terrain when it comes to understanding the many ways in which individuals, alone or in groups, make sense of and cope with these inequalities. These experiences matter because they oftentimes do the cultural work necessary to perpetuate the social order, but at other times they serve as the basis for challenging it. As a group, we wanted to explore this more subjective dimension of inequality.
At a very basic level, we wanted to know what was going on in the lives of those working at the invisible bottom of the socio-symbolic order. We wanted to first understand (and then to write about) these lives as complex products of individual and social forces, of what Philip Roth aptly calls “that blizzard of details” that form a person’s biography and the social, economic, and political circumstances beyond the individual’s control. In other words, we wanted to examine, up close, the intersection of biography and history (the task of what C. Wright Mills famously called “the sociological imagination”) at a particular moment in time, focusing on a few poignant examples.
“If localized, microscopic studies were really dependent for their greater relevance upon [the] premise . . . that they capture the great world in the little,” writes anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “they wouldn’t have any relevance.” What are the eleven characters portrayed in this book representatives of? What do their stories show that others do not? These were the critical questions that recurred in different ways as each contributor delved more deeply into the subjects’ lives and wrote each chapter. Let me be clear: Clarissa, Raven, Santos, Kumar, Inés, Chip, Ella, Manuel, Keith, Xiomara, and Ethan do not “represent” city life; they are not Austin writ small. They do, however, stand for something. They incarnate the lived experiences of inequality and social marginalization, the ways in which inequality and exclusion are intertwined with individual lives and embedded in the intricate seams of biographical issues. The question of how many Clarissas, Ravens, Santoses, Kumars, Ineses, Chips, Ellas, Manuels, Keiths, Xiomaras, and Ethans are out there is thus replaced by a scrutinization of the complex ways in which life histories are linked with structural inequality.
In other words, we did not choose the subjects for this book because they represent the entirety of daily life at the margins. No subject can do that. We chose each subject because she or he sheds light on particularly relevant features of the daily life of the dispossessed in a growing, increasingly unequal city: the lack of affordable housing, the meager safety net, the disciplinary and punishing state, the poverty generated by a highly polarized labor market, et cetera. But each chapter seeks to illustrate not only the operation of larger forces behind the backs and above the minds of the destitute but also, and as importantly, the subjects’ engagement with those forces and their more or less sustained resilience in the face of oftentimes overwhelming odds.
Stories and Characters
We all agreed that before the writing was to begin, it was imperative to get to know the subjects well, to spend time with them, to immerse ourselves, as much as we could, in their lives, to figure out—in Geertz’s famous phrasing—what the devil they thought they were up to. Only then, after many hours of talking with them and following them around, would contributors begin to write up each story. And here, in the write-up, lies both the difference between this book and The Weight of the World and the most difficult aspect of our joint enterprise.
After transcribing their many one-on-one interviews, the authors began writing each chapter, an activity that involved a trying balancing act. In the book that served as our main inspiration, contributors had edited their interviews and written a brief opening narrative to situate the particular transcript. Encouraged by current nonfiction writing in Latin America, I persuaded my students to undertake a different task. Instead of simply transcribing and editing the most important, luminous parts of the many hours of interviews, they needed to construct a narrative out of the interview material. They needed to become the writers, the authors, of a story. When the graduate students accepted the challenge of writing (as different from, and more demanding than, the transcription and editing of interviews), their subjects became characters in a story whose reconstruction was the intellectual responsibility of each author (we decided, in most cases, to use pseudonyms to protect the characters’ identities, and in some cases we altered identifying details of their stories). As the authors were conducting interviews and writing each story, the group discussed the material and suggested ways of sharpening the connections between biographical and social aspects and, just as important, of improving the narrative (more on this below). After that, each author shared a draft with the subject, who gave revisions and, eventually, the final approval for publication.
Thus, in our attempt to see the ways in which the social order imposes the material and symbolic circumstances under which men and women live their lives and make history, our intellectual effort was not different from the one undertaken by the contributors to The Weight of the World. The difference lies in the way in which the material produced jointly by researchers and subjects is presented here. The chapters to follow were, to reiterate, fashioned by the authors out of many hours of engaged conversation and active listening, and also out of the collective discussions we had as a group about what would be the most important set of social, economic, and political dimensions to highlight in each particular chapter. For all the attention given to individual details, the chapters emphasize the operation of the social order in the making of each character’s biography.
The basic premise underlining the construction of each story and the portrayal of each character was deceptively simple: the authors should seek to understand their subjects (and to convey this understanding in their writing); they should try to imagine themselves in the characters’ places, or, in other words, they should strive to take (to dare to take) the characters’ points of view—which are nothing other than views of the social world from particular positions in the social structure.
The agreed-upon task, then, was to write a story that would delve into individual, idiosyncratic trajectories but would also illuminate the economic, social, and political forces that mold them. Some of these forces are particular to this city, while others are more general to the United States or operate in all contemporary capitalist societies. Out of Roth’s “million circumstances” that shape each biography, the authors constructed a narrative that showed in clear relief the presence of one or more of those external forces and the work they did in shaping and constraining individual choices. The interpretive keys planted throughout each story—sometimes in the form of an absent welfare state or a present punitive one, other times in the form of a particularly exploitative job or a particularly harmful piece of legislation—push readers to realize that the chapter they are reading is, say, not only about an adolescent’s daily efforts at improving himself and “making it” but also about a particularly vindictive migration policy; about a poor single mother’s plight but also about a disciplinary state; about a woman’s downward mobility and search for some sense of control but also about an almost nonexistent safety net for the most vulnerable; about a young woman’s pernicious addiction but also about a malignant and violent patriarchal order; about the misfortunes of one particular manual laborer or housecleaner or musician but also about the bifurcated nature of a labor market with extremely low material and symbolic rewards and a high physical toll at its bottom; about ups and downs in the life of one woman in a poor neighborhood but also about the historic nature of residential segregation.
We are not animated by a voyeuristic desire to pry into the suffering of others. Our shared underlying assumption is that sight (what we see and we don’t see about a city and its residents) has a politics (i.e., it is part of a power struggle), and our attempt here is to make a modest contribution to what is being said and seen (and what is being denied and hidden) in the city’s public sphere. We want readers to start seeing the city we all love (or any other American city, for that matter) in a different light, so that the next time they encounter or read a story about a Xiomara cleaning homes with dangerous chemicals, a Clarissa losing her home, a Kumar being harassed in his cab, a Manuel being deported, an Ethan going to jail, a Santos fixing roofs and mowing lawns, a Chip working hard to keep a job he has trouble performing, a Keith struggling to pay the bills, a Raven overdosing or being raped, an Ella doing community work, or an Inés worrying about her daughter’s school, they reflect back not only on the particularities of each story but on the contexts that have produced them.
A Work of Scholarly Love
Over the course of the more than two years that we worked on this project, I often wondered how I would be able to describe the economy of efforts and the economy of feelings that went into the making of this book. How could I convey in writing the exhilaration, the passion, the both intellectual and political commitment that we came to share over this time? Although I assumed the initial responsibility for the project— and took the initial leap of faith, betting not only on each contributor’s energy and dedication but also on the eventual publication of a book with truly unusual features—it took less than two months for the graduate students to take ownership. A shared sense of collective purpose emerged and sustained us over time—but not without difficulties. As we moved forward, we jointly settled debates (heated at times) about the best way of writing about other people’s lives, about the aspects to be emphasized (“the angle,” as we called it) and the most adequate balance between authors’ and subjects’ voices, about the ethical obligations toward our subjects and their ultimate right to approve the story to be published, and about the intellectual and political reasons behind our joint enterprise.
Each contributor experienced the construction of each chapter in a different way—more than once our work sessions transformed into instances in which authors vented their frustrations with their subjects, expressed excitement about new developments, interrogated their own feelings about the stories they were creating, and speculated about alternative interpretations. From my own perspective, and whatever the specific merits of this book, the time spent in its making was a marvelous pedagogical experience. At its early stages, I did (I confess) doubt the overall feasibility of the project and the likelihood of its publication. As each contributor made progress with each chapter, I wondered if the aspects that authors chose to emphasize were the aspects I would have chosen (and said so out loud). But the pedagogical value of what we were doing was never in dispute. Whatever ultimately happened with the stories the authors constructed (whether they found their way into print or not), each contributor was learning to listen, to interpret, to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes, to write, to collaborate, to criticize and be criticized. I never abandoned this conviction, and although occasionally I could not tell whether the final product was going to be good or not, I was certain that as long as we continued to meet, struggling to find the next word in each other’s chapters and fighting over possible interpretations, I was doing what I had to do, fulfilling my role as a teacher—encouraging and facilitating a cooperative way of learning from, and writing about, folks living under difficult, taxing circumstances.
The book begins with a chapter by Maggie Tate that shows that the persistence of inequality in contemporary Austin has seeds in the city’s earliest days. This chapter digs into Austin’s history to unearth lesserknown roots of durable inequality and places the city’s past and present in the context of broader understandings of American urbanism and industrial growth. The socially produced invisibility of narratives of inequality and oppression is highlighted against the backdrop of the hipness, creativity, and tolerance that have made Austin a city to be celebrated. This historical and social context provides the foundation from which the individual narratives in this book emerge.
In the second chapter, Jacinto Cuvi reconstructs Santos’s life. A jackof-all-trades, Santos walked to the United States all the way from a small village in Mexico’s southwest. After years of wandering through many states, he settled in Austin, where he worked in crews that built bridges and hospitals, installed pipes, and set up telephone lines. Now old and ailing, dependent on his family for daily survival, he took the opportunity afforded by the many interviews with Cuvi not only to reflect on the ups and downs of a life defined by the double condition of being a poor migrant and an informal worker but also to express his dreams of financial relief. Taken out of context, Santos’s illusions about “winning big” might seem unrealistic (and his desire to purchase a unicorn, pointless fantasy), but Cuvi’s reconstruction helps readers to make sense of them—to see them as products of a difficult life and as attempts to fill what undoubtedly is one of the most hurting needs: the absence of clear future prospects.
Reading next about Clarissa in Kristine Kilanski’s chapter, one cannot help but think, all at the same time, about the callousness with which the social world treats the most vulnerable, the role of chance in determining sudden downfalls, and the human perseverance that emerges in the face of terrible circumstances. The insistence with which Clarissa seeks to be treated as a “real person” and her endless search for respect and dignity (intricately associated with her ceaseless attempts to detach herself from negative stereotypes associated with homeless people like herself ) illuminate society’s rather skewed distribution of not only material but also symbolic opportunities and rewards and the strenuous efforts that individuals on the losing end have to make to live a life they consider decent.
Like Santos, Inés illegally crossed the border into the United States, traveling with her daughter Araceli “strapped” to her back. A thirtyeight-year-old woman and single mother of two, Inés works full-time busing tables and replenishing the all-you-can-eat salad bar at a deli that primarily serves local college students and professionals. Over the last three years Inés has lost many hours at work due to the demands of the local Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) her daughter has been forced to attend. A cross between a penal and an educational institution, the DAEP attempts not only to discipline Araceli but also to control Inés’s life. Jessica Dunning-Lozano’s chapter takes readers into the unexplored, Kaf kaesque universe of the DAEP (a direct product of Bush-era zero-tolerance policies in schools) and into the lives of a mother and a daughter trapped in its punitive dragnet.
In the next chapter, Eric Borja describes how Chip’s many years of hard work have paid off—he was able to “put the kids through college.” But, as is the case for many a manual laborer in contemporary America, his strenuous work and long hours of commuting did not secure a stable life for him and his wife. Now he resides at the edges of a city whose cost of living he can no longer afford. Chip’s callous and increasingly unresponsive hands, his overused vehicle, his steadily deteriorating eyesight become, in Borja’s reconstruction, the defining elements of a life that is hanging by a few precarious threads.
It would be easy to focus on the most extreme aspects of Raven’s life (her recurrent addiction to pills, her stripping, her escorting) at the expense of her ordinary, but mostly fruitless, attempts to secure a stable job in the formal sector. Her “bad” choices, which make for an all too stereotypical “fast life,” appear at first glance to be solely of her own manufacture. But upon closer look, Caitlyn Collins’s reconstruction reveals a woman who, despite being marked by abuse, neglect, and sexual violence, is in a determined (though oftentimes risky) search for recognition—a recognition that, in Raven’s eyes, can come mostly from men, be they more or less stable boyfriends or more or less good clients. Her unflagging optimism in the face of considerable heartache is a testament to the resilience and tenacity of the human spirit, particularly and especially for those occupying the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
A political refugee from Nepal, Kumar works twelve hours a day, six days a week driving a cab around town. Katherine Jensen’s chapter devotes equal attention to the particular set of circumstances that brought Kumar to Austin and to the trials and tribulations of driving a taxi on the night shift. Yet Kumar copes with the descent to nighttime cab driver from the lawyer and political science professor he was in Nepal by finding solace in his passion for writing poetry and love for his recently reunited family, and by morally differentiating himself from others near but just below him at the bottom of the socio-symbolic structure.
High-end service work might be one of the last places that comes to mind when thinking about social suffering, but at a luxury hotel catering to the young and successful, a hub for local celebrities and wannabes, Katherine Sobering encounters Ethan—the “$30,000 millionaire” living on the $30,000 salary of a hotel manager. That contrast, and his constant yearning to belong to a glittering crowd that only wants to be served, goes a long way to helping readers make sense of Ethan’s rollercoaster life, his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and ultimately his legal distress.
No book about the landscape of labor and daily life in Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World,” could be complete without the story of a musician. Amias Maldonado illuminates singer Keith’s struggles to keep doing what he loves—writing music, rehearsing, and performing—in a city that claims to share the same passions but seems to have less and less space for folks like him. As Keith points out, Austin may profess to be the capital of live music, yes, but “not here, not in this zip code.”
The last three chapters direct readers’ attention to collective forms of dealing with the risks and penury that define the lives of those struggling; and they provide a sliver of hope—a “collective light” at the end of a trying tunnel. Like many others currently living in Texas, Xiomara crossed the border into the United States on foot and has been struggling at the lower end of the labor market ever since. Jennifer Scott reconstructs the path that Xiomara, together with a few colleagues and the support of a local grassroots organization, took to successfully establish her own cooperative business in an effort to improve working conditions for herself and others. As with Ella and Manuel in the chapters that follow, Xiomara shows us that collective action can mean a real difference—in her case better and more stable wages—in the lives of those living at the economic, social, political, or legal margins.
The next chapter takes us to a historically black neighborhood on the East Side of Austin, where Ella grew up and now lives. Ella’s responsibilities as a single mother and her work as a plumber, a nurse’s aide, and a halfway house monitor did not prevent her from becoming an active participant in community affairs. Now retired after many years of hard work, Ella devotes most of her time to a group of black and Latino teenage boys in her neighborhood, whom she feels almost everyone else has already given up on. In Pamela Neumann’s recounting, Ella displays a truly inspiring determination to make a difference in the lives of those who, like her, have experienced neglect and discrimination firsthand.
At the end of this volume, we meet Manuel, a high-achieving college student and community activist. His undocumented status acts as a sort of Damoclean sword looming not only over his future opportunities but also over his present daily life. Born in Mexico twenty years ago, he was brought to the United States by his parents when he was eight years old. He learned about his undocumented status after getting into a fight in middle school, when his parents told him he did not have a luxury that others at his age and school took for granted—the luxury of defending himself. He was admonished that if he stood up for himself, either with fists or with words, his entire family could be deported. In the hands of Marcos Pérez, the story of Manuel not only illuminates the at once insurmountable and unjustifiable obstacles imposed by the political system on adolescents, but also reveals the makings and meanings of a social movement that feeds and is fed by the resilience and optimism shown by folks who, like Manuel, live in highly vulnerable conditions.
As said above, the points of view expressed by our book’s characters are taken from specific points in the social space—a social space characterized by objective forces and regularities beyond the individuals’ control. The authors of each chapter constructed the interview questionnaire, asked follow-up questions, and interpreted interview transcripts and notes from field observations in light of their subjects’ positions and trajectories in their social worlds. In other words, the lines of inquiry that each contributor developed in the making of each chapter (the specific questions they asked, the themes they focused on, and the themes they discarded) did not emerge out of thin air (or out of the particular idiosyncrasies of individuals’ lives) but out of an attentive consideration of the objective parameters within which the characters live.
The crafting of this “angle” and the defining of these objective parameters were driven by each student’s area of interest within the discipline of sociology. First, authors intentionally selected subjects whose social locations and fields of work complemented their own areas of research. For example, Katherine Jensen specializes in race, migration, and the asylum process, making her an apt writer of Kumar’s story as an asylum seeker and cab driver. Caitlyn Collins studies gender inequality in the workplace, so her expertise made her a good match in comprehending Raven’s labor market experiences in the licit and illicit service sector. Jessica Dunning-Lozano’s work, which lies at the crossroads of education, inequality, and racial domination, served her well in her understanding of Araceli’s and Inés’s experiences with the school system and their entanglement with the punitive state. And the same could be said about Jacinto Cuvi’s expertise on the informal economy, Kristine Kilanski’s on poverty, gender, and work, Jennifer Scott’s on poor people’s survival strategies, and so forth. Second, student researchers spent considerable time before, during, and after the interview process familiarizing themselves with the scholarly literature relevant to their subjects’ lives, and they continued this research while writing their chapters. Third, our awareness of the objective parameters shaping the respondents’ lives translated into very specific ways of conducting interviews and of understanding what subjects said. For example, one subject’s trip to the emergency room and mounting unpaid bills acquires particular analytic relevance in view of the state of poor people’s health care and the retrenchment of the (already paltry) welfare state. And so does an accident at work in the context of the highly exploitative character of the construction industry; a seemingly anecdotal comment about miles put on an already weary car in light of the polarizing dynamics of real estate and the expansion of precarious work; a weekly count of hours spent behind the wheel in the context of the highly exploitative cab industry; a casual comment about types of clients in view of the class-, race-, and ethnic-based differences in strip clubs; or an apparently banal description of the daily life of an undocumented youngster in the midst of highly restrictive (and merciless, one could say) migration policies.
Another benefit to the sort of longitudinal interviewing approach we employed—in which students met with their respondents over a period of many months, and up to two years—is that students could follow up on anecdotes heard months before, observe what happened as a job change unfolded, or ask additional questions that arose while writing field notes after accompanying a subject on his or her work shift. Holding regular group meetings over two years also lent us opportunities to collectively reflect on each author’s subject in considerable detail—to delve into one person’s interviews to date, to press another to reconsider perspectives, question assumptions, and uncover new paths of inquiry. We enjoyed mutual collaboration from the project’s inception, from data collection and analysis to the initial drafts and the many, many revisions of each chapter.
In these ways, the construction of the interviews and the interpretation of the subjects’ viewpoints were conceived of as recursive processes, a back and forth between what the subjects were asked about, what they said, and the objective forces at play—each process illuminating the other. Although very much present in the authors’ minds and as constant topics of debate during the lively group sessions that helped to construct each chapter, for narrative reasons the structural factors shaping the individuals’ lives are not fully displayed in the written text. They merit a description, albeit brief, here.
“From the 1970s to today,” writes Marianne Cooper, “income stagnation, growing inequality, increasing economic instability, soaring debt, and rising costs [in health care, housing, education, etc.] have steadily eroded the well-being of American families.” At the root of what Cooper calls a “reversal of fortune”—the widespread insecurity that now afflicts a majority of Americans but affects with extreme intensity those living at the bottom—are the rise of the service economy, the decline of unions, the impact of globalization, and most importantly, the adoption of neoliberalism as an ideology and as a set of concrete state policies.
The study of social suffering takes on particular relevance (and urgency) in the context of neoliberal governance in the United States, under which most previous forms of protection are being swiftly dismantled (e.g., welfare benefits, employer-provided health care coverage, traditionally defined retirement pensions, etc.) and the penal state is expanding exponentially in order to manage the effects of growing inequality at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In this neoliberal era, socially produced forms of suffering take on particularly alarming features.
This larger neoliberal context should be kept in mind when reading about the plight of the characters of this book. All are living in times when assistance to the poor has shrunk dramatically, and all are experiencing the consequences of lack of living wages, stable employment, educational access, health insurance, welfare aid, housing and unemployment assistance, et cetera. But the particular political economic context of Texas (we could call it “neoliberalism on steroids”) should also be highlighted in order to better understand the predicament of folks like Santos, Clarissa, Chip, Manuel, Xiomara, and the others. Three examples should suffice to illustrate this more local environment.
When a construction worker falls from a roof and is left to his own devices by the contractor, or when he is not paid overtime or cannot request a sick day, the largely unregulated character of the construction industry in Texas, and in Austin in particular, comes into focus. This industry, in more than one way, epitomizes the production of precarity affecting the lives of many who are living in the lower echelons of the social structure. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that, in one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country, the construction industry plays a key role in the local economy by being one of the most important employers in the city. According to the report Building Austin, Building Injustice, construction work in the city, whether it be the building of new housing, commercial buildings, or city infrastructure, is predominately low-wage work and increasingly comprised of Latino workers born outside the United States. Long hours and dangerous working conditions characterize most of the jobs in the industry. Abuses and federal and state employment violations run rampant (due, to a large extent, to the weak state labor laws characteristic of the laissez-faire environment in which the industry operates). These abuses and violations (which we see determining the lives of some of the characters of this book, or their relatives) include poverty level wages, failure to be paid (known as “wage theft”), meager employment benefits (such as lack of health insurance, sick leave and vacation days, and pensions), high rates of dangerous and unsafe working conditions, and denied legal protections. To witness: as of 2008, Texas is the only state in the country that makes workers’ compensation insurance coverage optional for any employer. “Austin’s rapid expansion,” concludes the report, “has come at the expense of construction workers’ safety, health, wages, and quality of life.” We ask readers to keep this in mind when immersing themselves in the lives of folks like Santos, Xiomara, and Manuel.
When an undocumented migrant walks four miles to work instead of driving her car, or avoids reporting an accident she was involved in even if it was not her fault, the operation of the Secure Communities program becomes poignantly evident. This program fosters cooperation between the local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Any individual who comes in contact with the police (for example, by driving without a license, a document that is not available to immigrants in Texas without legal status) can be arrested and deported. As a result of this program and the compliance of Austin’s local county jail with ICE detainers, over the last four years approximately 4,600 people were deported from Travis County.It is little wonder that widespread fear pervades the lives of the undocumented.
A particularly revealing illustration of punitive neoliberalism in Texas is the mounting role of private prisons in housing the undocumented. The Lone Star State has more immigration detention beds than any other state and also has the largest number of beds operated by private prison companies.2 The private prison industry, it should be noted, makes huge profits off of immigration detention—by, for example, using the detainees themselves to conduct much of the work within the facility (serving food in the cafeteria, performing janitorial work, etc.) at a pay rate of only one to two dollars a day.
When someone moves out of the city center because he cannot pay increasing rental prices or property taxes, or another individual dwells with her few belongings in a storage space or is pushed into homelessness, the increasingly exclusionary features of Austin’s housing market are made patently visible. In different ways, the stories of Chip, Clarissa, and Ella demonstrate the interplay between a fast and furious process of gentrification and the cumulative scarcity of affordable housing. They illustrate the highly skewed character of the booming housing market in the city, where prices rise faster than incomes and fewer and fewer low-income residents can afford to live. As recently reported in the Austin Chronicle, in a story suggestively entitled “Exiled from Main Street,” increasing numbers of low-income populations are now finding Austin unaffordable. As a result they are being forced to move to the city’s outskirts—displaced to areas with worse educational, cultural, health, and transportation services and, thus, diminished economic opportunities. This exclusionary process is disproportionately affecting Latinos and African Americans.
The above examples—Austin’s unregulated construction industry, the punitive Secure Communities program, and the increasingly segregated and polarized housing market—are only three of the social and political forces at play in the individual lives reconstructed by the contributors. Readers should keep in mind these influences, as well as others (harsher migration policies, exacerbation of punitive policies against the poor, increasing inequality in access to health services, etc.), in order to avoid leaving these pages with the mistaken impression that the misfortunes reconstructed here are simply the result of bad luck. True, being hit by car, as Clarissa was, could be viewed as one individual’s unfortunate circumstances, but her lack of health insurance—in a state with the highest rate of uninsured individuals and families in the country—and the exorbitant hospital bills she could not afford to pay, and that resulted in her losing her housing, were not. The same social logic applies to “accidents” at work and other seemingly individual misfortunes endured by the characters of this book.
Many of the subjects of this book express aspirations and expectations that, in principle, seem implausible given the difficulties they experience daily—from the desire to become a teacher without a degree in hand coupled with the almost certain prospect of a felony conviction, to the wish of obtaining a well-paid job in the formal sector without the requisite educational credentials or work experience. Before assuming an all too common “blame-the-victim” mindset and passing judgment on these hopes, as well as the subjects who express them, readers should be reminded that one’s dreams and expectations are intricately related to the degree of control—the power—one has in daily life. Given the bleakness and unpredictability characterizing the lives of many who populate these pages, having big dreams—albeit perhaps unrealistic— may be a basic means of survival. “The more power one has over the world,” writes Pierre Bourdieu, “the more one has aspirations that are adjusted to their chances of realization. . . . [B]elow a certain level, on the other hand, aspirations burgeon, detached from reality and sometimes a little crazy, as if, when nothing was possible, everything became possible, as if all discourses about the future . . . had no other purpose than to fill what is no doubt one of the most painful of wants: the lack of future.” That, in a nutshell, is the reality that many of the subjects of the book are confronted with. Inhabitants of a “forward-looking,” fast-growing city, they are—knowingly or unknowingly—stripped of prospects, and they express their predicament in these “little crazy” yearnings. A vision of an entirely different life may provide the buoyancy necessary to stay afloat amidst great turmoil—a life raft to cling to when a sense of powerlessness feels all too consuming.
The Clarissas, Ravens, Santoses, Kumars, Ineses, Chips, Ellas, Keiths, Manuels, Xiomaras, and Ethans of Austin and of many other cities in the United States are not simply playthings of political, social, economic, and legal misfortunes. Under circumstances not of their own choosing, they are active protagonists in the making of their own history and in that of the city in which they live. We hope readers join us in seeing that while the daily aggravations they have to confront are indeed to be lamented, their shows of strength against all odds, as well as their thirst—and endeavor—for recognition, are also to be acknowledged and respected.
“Sociologist Auyero and his graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin deliver exceptional in-depth longitudinal studies of 11 people living in precarious social and economic conditions in their city…Lucid and empathetic, these insightful portraits reveal how life histories are intertwined with political and economic forces beyond any individual’s control.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Engaging and accessible, the essays dovetail with today’s debates on social inequality and immigration. A scholarly study conducted with dignity and thoroughness.”
“These intimate, uniformly affecting profiles reveal how thoroughly Texas’s historic disregard for fair labor practices and basic social services pervades the lives of today’s working poor.”
“…serves as a testament to the value, continued relevance, and vital results of the application of the sociological imagination in efforts to better understand in context the diverse array of human lives that keep a metropolis humming, as well as a reminder of the costs to those who are pushed to the side as cities
pursue economic development and experience rapid change.
Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare
“A captivating study of urban life for the disadvantaged. Poignant portraits of inequality and social exclusion are provided through the eyes of the dispossessed, portraits of survival in a brutal social environment. And Javier Auyero and his colleagues expertly illuminate the conditions that foster such economic instability and social insecurity. This unique book is a must-read for individuals and policy makers seeking a deeper understanding of the growing inequality in urban America.”
William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
“Who does the hard work that keeps groovy Austin going, and what does it feel like? These multidimensional life stories show us that it’s a diverse group, but almost everyone has come from elsewhere to chase the Austin Dream, with its glimmers of postindustrial pleasure and promise. From the chicken-processing plant to the strip club, from the delight of intoxication and the simulation of aspirational class ascendency in the glamour zone of glitzy hotels, to the mundane daily routines and bodily brutality of addiction, accidents and injuries, it’s a hard fall and a revolving door of disappointments. Kudos to Javier Auyero and the talented group at the UT Austin sociology ethnography lab for bringing back from margin to center the life story method and workers’ everyday struggles and for keeping alive the promise of the sociological imagination.”
Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, author of Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens