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Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community

Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community
Power, Conflict, and Solidarity

Focusing on the Mexican-origin, working-class city of La Puente in Los Angeles County, California, this book examines Mexican Americans' everyday attitudes toward and interactions with Mexican immigrants--a topic that has so far received little serious study.

March 2004
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284 pages | 6 x 9 | 6 photos, 8 tables |

On the surface, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to the United States seem to share a common cultural identity but often make uneasy neighbors. Discrimination and assimilationist policies have influenced generations of Mexican Americans so that some now fear that the status they have gained by assimilating into American society will be jeopardized by Spanish-speaking newcomers. Other Mexican Americans, however, adopt a position of group solidarity and work to better the social conditions and educational opportunities of Mexican immigrants.

Focusing on the Mexican-origin, working-class city of La Puente in Los Angeles County, California, this book examines Mexican Americans' everyday attitudes toward and interactions with Mexican immigrants—a topic that has so far received little serious study. Using in-depth interviews, participant observations, school board meeting minutes, and other historical documents, Gilda Ochoa investigates how Mexican Americans are negotiating their relationships with immigrants at an interpersonal level in the places where they shop, worship, learn, and raise their families. This research into daily lives highlights the centrality of women in the process of negotiating and building communities and sheds new light on identity formation and group mobilization in the U.S. and on educational issues, especially bilingual education. It also complements previous studies on the impact of immigration on the wages and employment opportunities of Mexican Americans.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introducing Becoming Neighbors
  • 2. Theorizing about Mexican American-Mexican Immigrant Relations in "Occupied Mexico"
  • 3. "Where the Past Meets the Future": Centering La Puente
  • 4. "This Is Who I Am": Negotiating Racial/Ethnic Constructions
  • 5. "Between a Rock and a Hard Place, with No Easy Answers": Structuring Conflict
  • 6. "We Can't Forget Our Roots": Building Solidarity
  • 7. Constructing Puentes: Mexican American and Mexican Immigrant Mobilization
  • 8. Revisiting and Envisioning the Processes of Becoming Neighbors
  • Appendix: The Politics of Research
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Gilda Ochoa is Associate Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o Studies at Pomona College. She lives in La Puente, California


One gets sad because one is humiliated here, and unfortunately one's own race is doing the humiliating. I have been humiliated many times because I can't speak English.

Sara Valdez, Mexican immigrant

Migrating from Cuernavaca, Mexico, to escape an abusive husband and with hopes of "earning enough money to eat," thirty-six-year-old Sara Valdez arrived in 1989 in La Puente, a city in Los Angeles County, California. After acquiring a job in a neighborhood restaurant, she encouraged other family members to join her. She now lives with her two teenage children and her cousin in a converted two-car garage. She works from 5 P.M. until midnight, more than forty hours a week, as a waitress.

Sitting at her kitchen table, Sara speaks candidly about the difficulties she has encountered in the United States. As her voice cracks and tears well up in her eyes, she describes the humiliation she experiences because of her current economic situation and her limited English-speaking skills. Living and working in La Puente, a largely Mexican-origin community, Sara explains how it is "established" Mexican Americans who have humiliated her. Sorrowfully, she shares:

One's own people discriminate. It's sad. These are people that clearly are established. They have businesses and their own homes. They look down on one because of one's bad economic situation.

The coraje (courage out of anger) that led Sara Valdez to travel thousands of miles to leave her abusive husband is what she is drawing on now to combat the ridicule she currently faces. After long nights at work, she studies English at a local school:

It's a little hard to go to school because I usually get home from work at midnight, but sometimes as late as 2 A.M. It's hard to get up, but I am going to school because of coraje. I want to improve myself and have a better job for my children, so I tell myself, "What do you have to do to improve?" Because since I came here, I've been in the same little hole. I've gotten angry because they humiliate us and I ask, "Why?" And then I push my tiredness, and I go on.

Having lived in the United States ten years longer than Sara, María Ramos also migrated as a single woman, but she has a different story to tell. In 1979 she left her home in Jalisco, Mexico, at the age of twenty-two. The second-oldest of ten children, she crossed the U.S.-Mexican border, "running like contraband," to assist her parents economically. She met her husband, also a Mexican immigrant, in Los Angeles, and after living in East Los Angeles and various San Gabriel Valley cities, they purchased a home in La Puente in 1990. Mexican Americans facilitated her family's settlement in their new city. Gratefully, María retold how her Mexican American real estate agent was instrumental in placing her children into schools that were within walking distance. She also spoke fondly of a past Mexican American school board member who ensured that her oldest son was enrolled in a special program that provided assistance for his speech impediment.

It was in 1992 that I met both Sara Valdez and María Ramos. I was interviewing Mexican immigrant women as part of a project I was completing on immigrant settlement and incorporation in the United States. Looking at these women's experiences in a larger context, we see that they are a reflection and a manifestation of some of the macro-level dynamics occurring in California around immigration, language, and race/ethnic relations. At the time that these two women shared their stories with me, California was in the midst of an economic recession, and anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise. Mexican immigrants were the targets of such xenophobia and nativist sentiment. They were being accused of taking jobs away from U.S. citizens and of draining public services. Such anti-immigrant sentiment and the resulting legislation stemmed from societal concerns over the supposed detrimental impacts of immigrants on the U.S. economy, the dominant culture, and the national image.

For many California voters, such misperceptions diverted attention away from the ongoing impacts of global economic transformations. Such transformations have included the shifting of manufacturing jobs and transnational corporations from the United States into countries throughout Latin America. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) implemented in 1994 has hastened the movement of factories into Latin America as companies cross borders in their quest for maximum profits. Such U.S. capitalist expansion has increased the wage gap and further destabilized economies in Latin America, perhaps fostering additional immigration to the United States (J. Gonzalez 2000).

Current racial/ethnic demographics indicating that more than one-third of California residents are Latina/o have led some conservative groups to fret over what has been referred to as the "browning" of California and what these demographic changes mean for the hegemony of the English language, Anglo culture, and Whites. Among some, at issue is the belief that the growth of the Latina/o population and the Spanish language will result in the disuniting, the fragmenting, or the Balkanization of the United States (see Schlesinger 1991). In the 1990s such sentiment resulted in the passage of three California propositions—one that sought to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services, such as excluding children from the public school system (Proposition 187), another that eliminated affirmative action in schools and workplaces (Proposition 209), and a third that stemmed from the larger English-only movement and eliminated bilingual education (Proposition 227). All three propositions demonstrate that schools—as institutions that focus on socializing groups into society—have been primary locales where the debates on immigration and language have taken place. Since women are typically responsible for the health and education of the family and are often considered the transmitters of language, by attempting to limit social service and bilingual education, these propositions specifically targeted Latinas and the reproduction and welfare of Latina/o families (L. R. Chavez 1998; M. D. Gonzales 1999).

While the experiences of Sara Valdez speak to the impact that such a hostile climate has had on her life, when we compare her experiences with the ones shared by María Ramos, these disparate accounts might be attributed to the individual differences between these two women, including variations in class position, length of time in the United States, and English language skills. However, upon closer consideration, their narratives suggest something more—the oftentimes unspoken and understudied influences that Mexican Americans may have on the experiences of Mexican immigrants and on their integration into the United States. When looked at together, the narratives of these two women raise questions such as: What might lead some Mexican Americans to ridicule immigrants who speak Spanish? Why might others identify with immigrants such that they feel a sense of connectedness and a desire to provide assistance or to counter anti-immigrant sentiment?

Although questions such as these emerged from my interviews with Mexican immigrant women, when I turned to the academic scholarship to shed light on them, I found that despite the enduring presence of the Mexican-origin community and the burgeoning body of work on Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, research on the relationships between these two groups has been limited (Browning and de la Garza 1986; Gutiérrez 1995). Much of this scholarship has either focused on the impact of immigration on the wages and employment opportunities of Mexican Americans (Browning and de la Garza 1986; Sullivan 1986; G. Cardenas, de la Garza, and Hansen 1986; Poston, Rogers, and Cullen 1986; G. Cardenas 1986; N. Rodriquez 1986) or has quantitatively examined Mexican Americans' attitudes toward immigrants (Miller, Polinard, and Wrinkle 1984; Polinard, Wrinkle, and de la Garza 1984; Citrin, Reingold, and Green 1990; de la Garza et al. 1991; Espenshade and Calhoun 1993; Binder, Polinard, and Wrinkle 1997). While this work has illustrated the heterogeneity and complexity among the Mexican-origin population, the tendency has been to focus on the labor market. Notably absent is an understanding of how individual Mexican Americans and established communities have reacted to Mexican immigrants (Gutiérrez 1995) and a qualitative analysis of the everyday attitudes and interactions that occur in arenas which are often significant for women's lives—such as neighborhoods, schools, and churches (for exceptions see Menchaca 1995; Pardo 1998). As such, scant literature exists on Mexican Americans' perceptions of immigrants and on the factors and processes that might explain the experiences shared by women such as Sara Valdez and María Ramos.

There are several explanations for the limited work on Mexican American-Mexican immigrant relations. One explanation is that the dominant society has only recently made the distinction between U.S. residents of Mexican descent and Mexican immigrants (Gutiérrez 1995). Thus, within academic scholarship and public discourse, the diversity within the Mexican-origin community has sometimes been overlooked.

Second, much of the race/ethnic relations scholarship has been framed in opposition to or in comparison to Whites. In fact, up until the 1970s, scholars were largely concerned with White-Black and White-Mexican American relationships. While more recently there is an increasing body of literature on relationships among groups of color (for examples see Johnson and Oliver 1989; Lamphere 1992; Horton 1995; Saito 1998), some scholars are still working within the traditional Black-White paradigm of race relations. For example, rather than understanding the experiences of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants on their own terms, a few have framed the debate around whether the experiences of Mexican Americans are more like those encountered by Whites or by African Americans. Such binary thinking has tended to prevent an analysis of the heterogeneity among the Mexican-origin community and has centered the experiences of Whites, making their experiences the norm by which other racial/ethnic groups are compared.

Another explanation for the limited amount of work is that the study of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants has tended to be compartmentalized into two separate bodies of research, one that focuses on Mexican Americans as ethnic minorities and another which centers the experiences of undocumented and documented immigrants (Browning and de la Garza 1986). More recently, the sociological scholarship has turned to the important analysis of the children of immigrants (see Portes and Rumbaut 2001). However, with its emphasis on the "new second generation," this work typically neglects the experiences of Mexican American families and communities that have a long history in the United States.

In response to these trends in the literature, scholars have called for empirical research that explores the attitudes and perceptions of established Mexican Americans toward Mexicanas/os (Mindiola and Martinez 1986, 4; Niemann et al. 1999, 57) and for more ethnographies on Mexican-origin communities to better understand the group's heterogeneity (Zavella 1994). Moving beyond these dichotomies (Mexican American-White and Black-White) and centering the experiences of Mexican Americans, Becoming Neighbors adds to the growing scholarship on the perceptions of established residents of color to the movement of newcomers into their communities (for examples see Lamphere 1992; Horton 1995; Saito 1998).

Focusing on the city of La Puente, this book examines the experiences of Mexican Americans and their everyday attitudes toward and interactions with Mexican immigrants. In telling this story, this book addresses some of the gaps in the literature and heeds the calls for additional research. It does so by focusing on how Mexican Americans are negotiating their relationships with Mexican immigrants in the midst of dominant structures and ideologies. To this end, several questions guide this work: (1) How do Mexican Americans characterize their attitudes and interactions with Mexican immigrants? (2) What factors and situations are influencing Mexican American-Mexican immigrant relationships? In particular, how have dominant ideologies and practices impacted intra-ethnic relations? How are Mexican Americans' perceptions of self related to their attitudes toward immigrants? (3) How are Mexican Americans influencing the adaptation processes of immigrants? and (4) How are established Mexican-origin communities negotiating the changing demographics?

By centering the dynamics occurring within a community rather than solely in the labor market, this book offers insight on the processes and relationships in arenas such as schools, neighborhoods, and churches. Studies documenting relationships within the labor market have tended to provide important macro-structural analyses without significant consideration of workers' attitudes and interactions outside of the workplace. Likewise, given women's gender role responsibilities, which typically include community engagement, by exploring how Mexican Americans are negotiating their relationships with immigrants at an interpersonal level in the places where they shop, worship, learn, raise their families, and live, a nuanced understanding of women's centrality in Mexican American-Mexican immigrant relationships emerges.

The Setting

La Puente provides an ideal site to consider intra-ethnic relations among Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. The city is twenty miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles in the Eastern San Gabriel Valley, and it is bordered by the cities of West Covina and Industry. Valley Boulevard, a main industrial thoroughfare, and railroad tracks run along the southern section of La Puente, largely through the nonresidential city of Industry, physically demarcating La Puente from its middle-class, unincorporated neighbor, Hacienda Heights. Surrounded by three major freeways, the San Bernardino (Interstate 10), the San Gabriel River (Interstate 605), and the Pomona (Interstate 60), La Puente is three and a half square miles and has more than forty thousand residents.

During a time when the United States is growing increasingly multiracial/multiethnic, it is important to examine the factors, processes, and situations influencing conflict and solidarity among diverse populations. Moreover, the demographic shifts and political climate within the Los Angeles area make it a critical place to explore the complexities of contemporary race/ethnic relations, and the dynamics and processes under which Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants are becoming neighbors.

Demographic shifts have altered the racial/ethnic composition of the Los Angeles area such that the Latina/o population is expected to surpass the White population by 2 million by the year 2010 (Sabagh and Bozorgmehr 1996, 104). Currently, 45 percent of Los Angeles residents are Latina/o, and nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of the Latina/o population in the county of Los Angeles are of Mexican descent. As a result of immigration and the natural birth rate, the Mexican-origin population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the twentieth century, numbering more than 3 million in the county (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). As the largest group in the area, some refer to Los Angeles as the "Chicano capital" of the United States (Moore and Vigil 1993).

In Los Angeles, immigration and demographic changes have been occurring in conjunction with a restructuring of the U.S. economy and a backlash against immigrants and people of color. Because of the shift from an economic base of durable goods manufacturing to a service-based economy, cities throughout Los Angeles County have been experiencing a decline in high-wage, stable, and unionized manufacturing and industrial jobs and decreases in middle management and white-collar jobs. As in the past, immigrants and people of color have been blamed for this changing economy. This scapegoating has manifested in waves of nativism and state propositions such as the "Save Our State Initiative," Proposition 187, described earlier. For the Mexican-origin community, nowhere has this scapegoating been more evident than in Southern California (Acuña 1996).

La Puente is a microcosm of the shifts occurring in cities throughout Los Angeles County. From the time of its founding as a Mexican rancho in 1845, La Puente has had a Mexican-origin community—though after the U.S. conquest, this community became increasingly segregated—geographically, socially, economically, and politically (Sandoval 1994). By 1970, nearly half of La Puente's residents were Latina/o (Bureau of the Census 1971). Since that time period, more established Mexican Americans have been joined by Mexican immigrant neighbors, while large numbers of Whites have left the city. These changing demographics are apparent in La Puente schools, where the 2001-2002 Latina/o student population was nearly 90 percent and the percentage of students designated as English-language learners was about 35 percent (California Department of Education 2001). The city's logo, "Where the past meets the future," captures these changing demographics, and it raises questions about how community residents and institutions are responding to these shifts.

Qualitative Research Methods

Most of the data for this manuscript comes from interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, and printed materials collected between 1994 and 1996 and again in 2000 and 2001. I conducted sixty-four in-depth, semistructured, open-ended interviews with Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants in La Puente. I also completed twenty-five informal and formal interviews with residents of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. Interviews were conducted in either English or Spanish, according to residents' preferences. The interviews ranged from thirty minutes to four hours, averaging ninety minutes in length. While participants had the option of being interviewed in their homes, in my home, at local restaurants, at city offices, or at local schools, most opted to meet me in their homes. All of the formal interviews were audio-taped, fully transcribed, and subsequently analyzed for recurring themes and patterns. The quotations appearing throughout this book are verbatim from the transcripts.

Residents were asked open-ended questions on racial/ethnic identity, race/ethnic relations, their experiences in La Puente, and their attitudes on issues such as bilingual education, affirmative action, Proposition 187, and immigration. I used the grounded theory approach commonly used in qualitative research that stresses "discovery and theory development" rather than hypothesis testing (Charmaz 1983, 111). The format of the interviews was designed to allow people the flexibility to construct their own categories and meanings of the topics discussed and to speak about their experiences and perceptions in ways that are significant to them (Lofland and Lofland 1984). One of the advantages of utilizing semistructured and open-ended interviews over other methods is that they provide a space for individuals to voice their perceptions and experiences, opening up the possibilities for a deeper understanding of intra-ethnic relations. The decision to use the voices of the participants through extensive quotes throughout this book is consistent with my goal of placing Mexican Americans at the center of this study.

While interviews form the basis of this book, as a La Puente resident I attended city council meetings, community meetings, parent meetings, community-wide events, and school-based meetings in order to better understand the circumstances that influence group relations. As well as being extremely interested in the issues discussed at these meetings, my attendance was critical in strengthening my understanding of the dynamics occurring in the city.

Most of my participant observations focused on the schools because this was one arena that many residents discussed. While there are three school districts in the area, the majority of La Puente residents attend schools in the Hacienda-La Puente Unified School District (HLPUSD). Therefore, I focused my observations on this school district, attending district board meetings and parent advisory meetings at one of the two main high schools. Following these meetings, several individuals invited me to their homes and to local schools where two parent groups were forming—Parents for Quality Education and Puente Parents.

Several additional data sources were utilized to provide a structural context for understanding intra-ethnic relations. Historical information contextualizes the city and the experiences of its residents. Census data demonstrate the city's changing demographics. Finally, local newspapers and school records provide information on past and present events. This use of macro-level data to understand micro-level qualitative observations and in-depth interviews is characteristic of recent approaches to urban ethnographies (for examples, see Burawoy et al. 1991; Lamphere 1992; Goode and Schneider 1994; Horton 1995; Bourgois 1996; Saito 1998) and is useful for providing a broader understanding of how prevailing ideologies and structural factors may influence individual attitudes and interactions between immigrants and established residents (Lamphere 1992).

I do not claim that this study is exhaustive or generally applicable to all Mexican Americans. Rather, I seek to provide in it, as a qualitative study, a detailed understanding of how a group of Mexican Americans and one Los Angeles community are contending with race/ethnic relations in the midst of demographics shifts and in relationship to social, cultural, and economic transformations. Thus, this study's findings provide insight into the complexities of intra-ethnic relations and should be seen as part of the growing body of scholarship on Mexican-origin communities. It is my hope that the stories that unfold here may lead others to unravel the dynamics occurring in different communities and among future generations of Mexican Americans.

The Participants

For this study, I interviewed both Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants in the La Puente area. However, throughout the data analysis and writing process, it became apparent that it would be difficult to adequately include the detailed narratives of both U.S.-born individuals and immigrants on their own terms. Therefore, it is Mexican Americans—individuals of Mexican descent who were born and raised in the United States—whose stories take center stage in this book. While a systematic analysis of Mexican immigrants' attitudes toward and interactions with Mexican Americans are saved for another time, interviews with immigrants new to the United States and with those who have spent most of their lives here, long-term immigrants, are included to provide a larger context for understanding Mexican Americans' experiences. Also, in Chapter 7, as La Puente residents work collectively to impact change, we hear from Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants and are offered insight into what the future suggests for intra-group relations and collective action.

The majority of Mexican Americans whose personal narratives inform this book live in single-story, three-bedroom tract homes. Their homes were built when most La Puente houses were constructed, during the 1950s post-World War II housing boom. At the time that we met, many respondents were in the process of buying their homes or were living with their parents. Many are longtime residents, living in the city for an average of thirty-one years. Nine of the individuals were born and raised in La Puente.

As illustrated in Table 1.1, the thirty-nine Mexican American respondents are diverse in terms of age, generation, level of education, and occupation. Their ages range from fourteen to seventy-six years. At the time of their interview, their mean age was forty-six, placing their average year of birth in the 1950s. Sixty-two percent are second generation, having at least one parent who emigrated from Mexico. Thirty-three percent are third-generation and 5 percent are fourth- and fifth-generation Mexican American. While places of birth vary, 97 percent were born in the Southwest, in the states of California (74 percent), Texas (10 percent), New Mexico (8 percent), and Arizona (5 percent). Of those born in California, 72 percent were born in the Greater Los Angeles area. With respect to educational level, nearly 60 percent completed at least one year of college, mostly at local community colleges or public universities; 5 percent were still in high school at the time of the interview. The average year of schooling was nearly fourteen, with 15 percent of the respondents having earned postgraduate degrees. Regarding occupations, more than 40 percent were engaged in sales or such administrative support positions as clerical workers and instructional aides. The second most common occupational category was managerial and professional, which included elementary school principals, teachers, and the chief financial officer of a local family business.

These individuals expressed a range of language skills—from speaking only English, to understanding Spanish, to being able to converse in both English and Spanish. When asked if they spoke Spanish, 74 percent reported that they did, though they described their levels of fluency in various ways. and some expressed their desires to improve their Spanish-language skills. Some explained that they spoke enough Spanish "to get by" but that they were unsure of themselves when they did speak it. Others spoke Spanish on a daily basis with their in-laws or neighbors or at their work sites.

As well as interviewing Mexican Americans, I completed twenty-five in-depth interviews with Mexican immigrants. These included interviews with nine fairly recent immigrants who at the time of their interviews had been in the United States from one to ten years and fourteen interviews with immigrants who had spent most of their lives in the United States. However, since the focus of this book is on Mexican Americans, Table 1.2 includes only the demographic backgrounds of those immigrants whose experiences, attitudes, and activities are explicitly included in the book.

Though this research has come to an end, I remain a La Puente resident. I am deeply indebted to all who have opened their doors to me. While I began this project with an interest in better understanding intra-ethnic attitudes and interactions, through listening, observing, and learning it became apparent that I could not dissociate intra-ethnic relations from a discussion of the role of schools in structuring relationships.

Schools Structuring Intra-Ethnic Relations

Since this study focuses on the perceptions and experiences of adults—rather than of youth—some may wonder why the schooling process and experiences within schools are a main topic of examination throughout this book. While I did not set out to focus on schools, conversations with residents and struggles around bilingual education made it evident that it would be difficult to complete a community study on intra-ethnic relations without considering the dynamics within schools. Throughout their interviews, a significant number of people vividly reflected on their own schooling. They remembered experiences of language repression where they were punished by school officials, held back in school, or ridiculed by their peers for speaking Spanish. Some recounted teachers' stereotyped perceptions of Mexican-origin students, and a few discussed the Eurocentric course curriculum that prevailed throughout their K-12 education. These early experiences have stayed with them as adults, and they easily recalled them when asked to talk about their Spanish language abilities and their educational experiences.

When they were not reflecting on their own educational experiences, residents discussed the education that their children and grandchildren were receiving or their contemporary observations as school officials. For example, those who had children enrolled in local schools had much to say about the relatively low quality of education that they believed their children were receiving in comparison to students in wealthier schools and in other districts. In addition, individuals who were working in the La Puente-area schools (as instructional aides, teachers, or school principals) drew on their daily activities to describe their views on bilingual education, their perceptions of teachers' interactions with Mexican-origin parents and students, and their attempts to foster positive Mexican American-Mexican immigrant relationships.

Aside from being an issue of importance for La Puente residents, schooling proves to be a critical topic to explore in a study on intra-ethnic relations for two additional reasons. First of all, as an institution, the educational system is a reflection of the larger society. The structure of schools, their policies, and their practices mirror and reproduce the dominant values, ideologies, and inequalities apparent in the social, political, and economic structures of the United States (Bowles and Gintis 1976; Giroux 1983). For example, a key function of schools has been socialization where an emphasis has been placed on integrating immigrants and groups of color into society by teaching them the dominant values, attitudes, norms, and expectations (Parsons 1951). This has been carried out through "Americanization" and "newcomer" programs designed to teach the English language and U.S. laws and customs. As a result, school policies and practices such as Americanization, the emphasis on assimilation, and the differential placement of students into different career and college tracks have worked in ways to reinforce racial/ethnic hierarchies and dominant structures of society (Oakes 1985; G. Gonzalez 1990; Valenzuela 1999). Such practices have hindered the educational and economic advancement of the Mexican-origin population and have influenced Mexican Americans' perceptions of self, their experiences with the Spanish language, and their intra-ethnic relations with immigrants.

Likewise, when we consider who has been in decision-making positions, Whites, Mexican Americans, and Mexican immigrants tend to possess unequal status and authority in schools. Therefore, consideration of the dynamics occurring within schools highlights the ways that interactions may be influenced by the structure of organizations and differences in race/ethnicity, generation, class position, and access to power (Lamphere 1992). By focusing on individuals' experiences in schools, then, we acquire a greater understanding of the macroscopic issues and dynamics occurring in society and their implications for Mexican Americans.

Finally, since schools are designed to serve the community, they are among the few public arenas where established residents and immigrants engage in sustained interaction (Goode, Schneider, and Blanc 1992, 176). Nevertheless, little of the research on schools has focused on race/ethnic relationships. Instead, the tendency has been to understand the factors influencing educational outcomes (for examples see Gándara 1995; Romo and Falbo 1996; Darder, Torres, and Gutiérrez 1997). Thus, this study also contributes to the small but growing qualitative scholarship on how schooling influences race/ethnic relations (see Goode, Schneider, and Blanc 1992; Valenzuela 1999). In this case, we see the current and long-term influences of school policies and practices on race/ethnic relations among a group of Mexican American adults.

Focus and Organization of the Book

In the chapters that follow, I argue that Mexican Americans' identities, attitudes, and interactions with immigrants may be situationally specific and are influenced by structural factors (such as exploitation, inequality, racism, and discrimination), dominant ideologies (such as assimilation and Anglo superiority or white supremacy), and cultural commonalities with immigrants (in particular, the Spanish language). Within this context, the in-depth interviews and participant observations reveal the dynamics and processes under which Mexican Americans in this study are actively engaged in negotiating, building, and strengthening their relationships with immigrants. As well as documenting the possibilities for Mexican American-Mexican immigrant solidarity, Becoming Neighbors illustrates how identities and relationships may vary historically, geographically, generationally, and situationally.

A continuum of conflict and solidarity is used to capture respondents' varied, multifaceted, and at times overlapping attitudes. Their attitudes toward Mexican immigrants fall along a continuum of conflict and solidarity that includes antagonism, a shared connection, and political mobilization. While many express beliefs that fall more readily along one end of the continuum than the other, individuals' attitudes tend not to be mutually exclusive or static. Their attitudes cannot be used to categorize or typologize people. Rather, their beliefs and behaviors are oftentimes situational and are influenced by external factors and a shared connection to the Spanish language. To capture this fluidity, Becoming Neighbors is organized into eight chapters around this conflict-solidarity continuum and the factors, processes, and situations influencing conflict, solidarity, and mobilization.

Chapter 2, "Theorizing Mexican American-Mexican Immigrant Relations in 'Occupied Mexico,'" provides the theoretical framework for understanding Mexican American-Mexican immigrant relations in California. Emphasizing the significance of U.S. colonization, exploitation, racism, and discrimination on the unique experiences of the Mexican-origin community, this chapter documents the limits of dominant race/ethnicity frameworks that have tended to focus on cultural factors and assimilation. It argues for an integrated approach that considers how structural factors and dominant ideologies have influenced the life chances and experiences of Mexican Americans. It is these same external processes, combined with cultural factors, which have historically and are contemporarily influencing identities, attitudes, and interactions. An assimilationist imperative has impacted some respondents' beliefs that immigrants should "become Americans" by learning English and the dominant customs and values; for others, the adoption of a power-conflict perspective has strengthened their sense of connection with immigrants, their critique of the racial/ethnic hierarchy that perpetuates the assimilationist imperative, and their commitment for social justice.

In Chapter 3, "'Where the Past Meets the Future,'" I trace La Puente's history from its early days as a Mexican rancho to its current status as a U.S. city. The information presented on the persistence of asymmetrical power relations—illustrated in the area's history of exclusion and in the contemporary debates surrounding the Spanish language and Mexican immigrants—gives a backdrop for understanding respondents' narratives.

Part of the process of understanding intra-ethnic relations involves considering Mexican Americans' self-concepts and the factors and processes influencing their racial/ethnic identities. Chapter 4, "'This Is Who I Am,'" introduces the reader to how respondents are negotiating racial/ethnic identities in the context of structural constraints and narrow and exclusionary constructions of Mexicanness and Americanness. Despite top-down, static, and inaccurate racial/ethnic categorizations, Mexican Americans are challenging stereotypes and naming themselves, and some are claiming an oppositional Chicana/o identity. What begins to become apparent in this chapter are the connections between identity and race/ethnic relations and the factors and processes influencing Mexican American-Mexican immigrant relations, in particular the role of schools.

Chapter 5, "'Between a Rock and a Hard Place, with No Easy Answers,'" starts to explicitly consider Mexican Americans' perceptions of immigrants. Throughout the analysis, I emphasize the institutional factors and ideological processes fostering the conflictual attitudes and interactions articulated by some. This chapter includes a discussion of how the dominant emphasis on assimilation and the structure of schools and school policies may shape intra-ethnic relations.

Moving along the conflict-solidarity continuum, Chapter 6, "'We Can't Forget Our Roots,'" examines the processes that may account for Mexican Americans' expressions of solidarity with immigrants in spite of the hierarchical and exclusionary factors described in Chapter 5. Centered in this chapter are the ways that some respondents are building community in their everyday lives by creating inclusive spaces, challenging anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiment, and maintaining or reclaiming the Spanish language.

Chapter 7, "Constructing Puentes," focuses on the dynamics occurring in the neighborhood schools and how in some situations, school district policies have resulted in political activism. In the case profiled in this chapter, community residents protested attempts by the local school board to establish an English-only policy. While this chapter demonstrates how the intersection of shared cultural factors and similar structural factors and ideological processes resulted in a sense of solidarity among a group of working-class individuals of Mexican descent, it also illustrates the significance of gender differences by analyzing the diverse organizing philosophies and strategies of the two parent groups that emerged, one organized primarily by men and the other by women. By exploring how gender is related to intra-ethnic mobilization, this chapter sheds light on the ways that men and women are building community.

In the final chapter I discuss the practical and policy implications of this study, paying particular attention to issues of language and schooling as they are connected to power and control. Based on the research findings, I argue for bilingual education, for creating inclusive public spaces, for institutions that reflect the interests of the communities that they service, and for a critical and engaged education that is grounded in the histories, lives, and experiences of groups of color, the working class, and women. As communities become increasingly multiracial/ethnic, so must the policies and practices of institutions. Community leaders must enact a model of "power sharing" (Shor 1996, 200). This would involve bringing together residents as partners as opposed to audience members or consumers in school activities and policies. To the extent that La Puente and other communities move in this direction, the potential exists for engaged and politicized residents that may be in positions to foster alliances not only within the Mexican-origin community but cross-racially/ethnically and across classes.



“What makes this book remarkable is the quality of the in-depth, ethnographic data the author acquires and uses to provide revealing insights into how both Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants experience the often rough road to mutual understanding and respect. This is a must read for anyone interested in Latinos, immigration, culture and social change, and the future of Califormia and the nation.”
The Americas

“...a masterful study that offers significant implications for the lives of Latinos all over the country.”
American Journal of Sociology

“This book offers a provocative analysis of how ethnic identity is constructed and explores the significance Mexican ancestry plays in the lives of Mexican Americans. . . . It is an authoritative text.”
Martha Menchaca, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin


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