Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City
Demography is a kind of portentous storytelling. As a social-science genre, it puts on the airs of the soothsayer and speaks archly of destinies and grand transformations. The result can be a sort of magical realism with human populations as characters. For instance, let's look at these tales: By 2025, Latinos will supply two-thirds of U.S. population growth. Eighteen of the 25 most populous U.S. counties will have larger Latino than African-American populations by 2003. In six of the 10 largest U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Phoenix, and San Antonio) Latinos now outnumber African-Americans. U.S. Latinos now make up the fifth-largest "nation" in Latin America. Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in Baltimore.
Duly impressed? Are you left with the warm fuzzies for Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Sammy Sosa, salsa, and chimichangas, or perhaps with darker images of an emergent Brown Peril corroding God, country, English grammar, and traditional urban coalition politics? That depends on your story-reading habits and genre expectations. In Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, Mike Davis offers his own magical spin on the story of the Latino diaspora. Davis, a former long-haul truck driver and author of the critically acclaimed City of Quartz and Prisoners of the American Dream, is only partially successful in transcending the implied portentousness of demography.
The book is a good primer on the nature and scope of U.S. Latinization. Davis, in straightforward prose, catalogs the ways this population trend is different from other American immigrant experiences and how it potentially alters our very conception of what it means to be American. While Latinos are multinational, multiracial border crossers, to be Latino is to already be American. Davis wants us to see this demography as the much-ballyhooed globalization coming home to roost in the American republic. We live in the Americas, he argues--plural.
While Latino immigrants come to the States from many directions, Davis points to the arbitrary line dividing Mexico and the United States as the border that separates America from its demographic destiny. At the front line of change, Americans struggle with the future by policing this border world with what Davis calls "blatant instances of racial profiling as federal policy." But after they get past the borders, Latinos create "transnational suburbs" and often revitalize America's declining urban cores. Not just isolated barrios anymore, vibrant Latino communities from Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia to suburban Chicago and Denver, and even across the upper Midwest, are, in Davis' words, "spicing the city" and "tropicalizing cold urban space." These communities animate both culture and the economy by doing the work native gringos don't want to do--not, as the author points out, by "stealing" American jobs and industry. Against great odds and often overt hostility, Latino communities continue to grow. Politicians begin to bone up on their Español and cautiously court a new constituency. Others fearfully demand deportations and "English only" shopping and schooling, and pass referenda such as California's Propositions 187 (which sought to end medical assistance and public education for illegal immigrants and their children, but was overturned in court) and 227 (outlawing bilingual education).
Whither the Latinos' political sympathies? This is the question haunting Davis' story and all those trading in the magical realism of this demographic change. Davis touts organized labor as the best hope for Latinos seeking entry into the American melting pot. This is where he trails off in a kind of wistfulness; his powers of description fail him. Perhaps a Latino labor coalition will emerge to give voice to this diffuse demographic. Perhaps an African-American/Latino coalition will emerge to broker politics in American big cities, as Davis wishes. As George W. Bush and Al Gore stumble through their Spanish sentence construction trying to out-Hispanic each other, it remains to be seen where this magical reinvention of the United States will go. But Davis' book is a good place to start hearing these stories about the pan-American 21st century.