There are currently 60 million Latinos living in the United States. They are the nation’s largest “minority” group, and in 2018 accounted for 52 percent of the country’s population growth. In a very real sense Latinos in America are also under attack. The August 2019 El Paso massacre was a brutal expression of the xenophobia stoked by President Trump, and of the policies of his administration, not altogether unforeseeable when Latino immigrants are referred to as “invaders” and “rapists” and subject—adults and young children alike—to detention in cages.
How to counter the false political narratives that stigmatize and dehumanize Latinos? Examining their contributions to American society––particularly over the past half century––would make for a good start. A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, professor of history and director of the Latinx Studies Program at Penn State, has done that, writing a tour-de-force historical account of the important role of Latinos in urban revitalization. Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City details the interrelated factors that led to decades of urban decay and then to the period of recovery that has followed.
Blending historical, sociological, and legal analysis, Sandoval-Strausz structures his book in three parts that unfold chronologically. “There Goes the Neighborhood” details the forces that led to urban decay in the 1950s. “Here Comes the Neighborhood” tracks the new waves of Mexican and Caribbean migration that first repopulated and then restabilized urban districts from 1965 to the mid-1980s. “The Seeds of the Future City” shows how immigrants from all over Latin America both expanded existing U.S. barrios and established new ones, thus helping to alleviate national economic and housing crises. His conclusion brings readers to the present, providing much-needed insight into how Latino immigrants are now helping sustain economically distressed rural areas through a mix of labor, purchasing power, and tenancies.
Sandoval-Strausz knows both the usefulness and the limitations of relying on statistics to illustrate how Latinos have reshaped urban neighborhoods throughout America. So he also draws on dozens of interviews, conducted over twenty years, with the very migrants who helped resurrect two such neighborhoods: the Little Village community area in Chicago and the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. These oral histories help humanize “the people who so dramatically transformed their neighborhoods and their lives,” which in turn breathes life into what might otherwise have been a dry demographic study. Barrio America in fact reads like a well-researched novel, of interest to the scholar and accessible to the general reader, both of whom will want to keep turning the pages to see how the story ends.
Sandoval-Strausz’s first chapters provide a solid historical account of the emergence of urban centers in the early 1920s and their demise following mass white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s. He begins by surveying the development of both Little Village (originally called South Lawndale) and Oak Cliff. European immigrants living in these two neighborhoods originally depended on industrial and military manufacturing jobs. But after the Second World War, these jobs evaporated, weakening the urban white working class. Only economically privileged whites managed to flee the city for the suburbs; working-class whites were left behind to eke out a living in their once-bustling communities.
But soon their prevailing concern became the influx of black residents. These new arrivals were not welcome. Sandoval-Strausz describes the redlining and arbitrary loan practices that made it difficult for African Americans to purchase homes, and recounts how real-estate agents refused to show homes in white neighborhoods to black families. In Oak Cliff, white residents protested the construction of a housing development intended for black residents and terrorized black women by throwing fireworks at them. As these frictions mounted, white flight accelerated.