Latinos and the Urban Landscape

Revolutionary Worker #1048, March 26, 2000

The total number of Latino people in the United States today--including undocumented immigrants--is larger than the population of any country in Latin America except Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

In California and Texas, "Jose" is now the most popular name for newborn boys.

Close to 20 percent of construction workers in the Los Angeles area are immigrants from Mexico.

Musician Carlos Santana says, half jokingly, "The day that we stop cleaning all the hotels in California, Texas and Arizona, the economy will fall."

One in five people living in New York City speaks Spanish at home.

Major national magazines such as People, Newsweek, Vogue and Teen have started Spanish language editions in recent years.

These snapshots give a sense of the growing size of the Latino population in the United States--and the effects of this on the economy, language and other aspects of society. Some people talk about the "Latinization" of the U.S. urban scene.

People of Latin American descent (including from Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries) have long been a significant part of life in this country. New York is sometimes called the second capital of Puerto Rico because so many Puerto Ricans have lived in the city's barrios for many decades. The U.S. seized large parts of the west and southwest from Mexico through wars and unequal treaties. As a popular saying among Chicano people goes, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us."

But the 1980s and '90s have seen far-reaching transformations in the urban landscape of the U.S. Author Mike Davis points out: "In six of the ten biggest cities --New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Phoenix, and San Antonio, in that order--Latinos now outnumber Blacks; and in Los Angeles, Houston and San Antonio, non-Hispanic whites as well. Within five years, both Dallas and Forth Worth will have Spanish-surname pluralities..."

Last October, the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA issued a call to the people to take part in the forging of a new Programme--a battle plan for overthrowing the old society and creating a new, liberated one. The call said that as part of creating a new Programme, "We need to better understand the many changes that have taken place in this country in the past two decades--and how these changes are affecting the conditions, the mood, and the struggles of different sections of the people."

The surging Latin population is one of the important changes in the U.S. in recent decades. And this development has significant implications for analyzing the current situation and understanding the possibilities for revolution in the belly of the beast. The following is a look at some aspects of this crucial phenomenon.

The Shifting Demographics of Cities

The term Latino is a broad category that includes people who come from many different countries and are in various social strata. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America live in the shadows, ever watchful of the pinche Migra--while wealthy Cubans are part of the power structure in Miami. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans form the two largest groups of Latinos in New York--but the city's Latino mix includes rising numbers of immigrants from Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries.

According to official figures, there are about 32 million Latinos in the U.S. today. Two-thirds are of Mexican origin--and half of them were born in this country. The total Latino population could be as high as 40 million if undocumented immigrants are included.

One of the key features of Latino people in the U.S. is their overwhelmingly urban character--only Asian Americans are more urbanized. Mike Davis points out, "With the partial exception of Mexicans, who also invigorate small town life from California--which had 72 Latino-majority cities in 1990--to Iowa, all major Latino groups are heavily concentrated in the twenty largest cities, with Los Angeles and New York alone accounting for almost one third of the national Spanish-surname population."

According to some studies, more than one million "domestic migrants" moved out from the urban cores of Los Angeles and New York City from 1990-95. Other cities around the country have experienced similar exodus to the suburbs. Without the inflow of new Latino (and Asian) residents, many large cities in the U.S. would be significantly smaller today.

Los Angeles is now 45 percent Latino. L.A. and many other cities in the southwest --as well as some northern tier cities like New York and Chicago--have a relatively long history of significant Latino presence. But the rise in Latino population is also taking place in metropolitan areas which historically have little Mexican or Puerto Rican connection--such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. And many medium-sized cities throughout the country also have rising Latino populations. The growth of low-wage, non-union manufacturing jobs in the South has led to an influx of Latino proletarians into that region. From 1990 to 1998, the Latino population increased by 110 percent in North Carolina, 102 percent in Georgia, 90 percent in Tennessee and 73 percent in Alabama.

All along the 2,000-mile Mexico-U.S. border--from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific--there are a dozen or so "twin cities" that stride the line that runs between the most powerful imperialist country and an oppressed Third World country. The dramatic growth of the maquiladora economy on the Mexican side of the border has spurred population growth and other major changes in the whole border region--known as La Frontera. The maquiladoras--foreign-owned factories producing for export--now employ a million workers, about 60 percent women. The two largest of the twin cities are El Paso/Ciudad Juarez (1.5 million residents) and San Diego/ Tijuana (3.07 million residents).

The Changing Latino Mix in New York

In the case of New York, as the Latino population has increased overall, there have been significant shifts among different groups of Latinos. Forty years ago, Puerto Ricans made up 80 percent of Latinos in the city. But over the last decade, the number of Puerto Ricans in New York City decreased by almost 100,000--or 11 percent--and the trend is continuing. Almost 40 percent of those leaving the city are going back to Puerto Rico.

Today, Puerto Ricans account for some 37 percent of New York City Latinos. Dominicans make up about one quarter--and are expected to become the city's largest Latino group over the next 10 years.

A decade ago, there were hardly any Mexican immigrants in the city. Today, Mexicans make up about 5 percent of Latinos in New York, and they are a growing presence. A large number of Mexican immigrants in New York come from a single state--Puebla.

Many Puerto Ricans who arrived in New York City in large numbers following World War 2 had been driven off the land by capitalist industrialization. They wound up concentrated in low-wage manufacturing jobs--just as such jobs in New York City began to decline starting in the 1950s. During the "boom" decade of the 1990s, poverty among Puerto Rican families in New York increased. According to the New York Times, "About 40 percent of New York's Puerto Ricans qualified as poor, a figure considerably higher than that of African-Americans and worse than the average rate for all Hispanics."

New York Latinos are diverse, with the presence of black Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans, and there is a lot of mixing between people of different places of origin. In Los Angeles, only 14 percent of married people of Mexican origin are married to someone from a different ethnic group. In New York City, however, half of the marriages involving people of Spanish surnames are between people of different national origins.

Immigrant Workers
and the Economic Boom

In contrast to New York's Latin "melting pot," Los Angeles is dominated by people of Mexican origin who make up 80 percent of all the Latinos in the city. Salvadorans number 6 percent, and Guatemalans account for 3 percent.

Residential patterns provide another contrast. In New York, all neighborhoods with a Latino majority have significant percentages of people who are not Latino. In Los Angeles, there are many barrios and small, incorporated cities where people with Spanish surnames make up over 90 percent of the total.

Latino workers predominate L.A.'s low-tech manufacturing, home construction and tourist service industries. Latinos are the mainstay of L.A.'s garment sweatshops--in a region where the garment industry accounts for 10 percent of the entire economy.

Mike Davis notes that the large presence of Latino proletarians in these type of jobs is reflected in where they live: "Latinos occupy almost all of Los Angeles and Orange County's traditional blue-collar housing tracts and suburbs adjacent to the three great corridors of industrially-zoned land along Interstate 5, Route 60 (Pomona Freeway), and the Los Angeles River. Latinos have replaced working-class the quadrant of industrial suburbs south-east of Downtown, as well as in the north-east San Fernando Valley, the western San Gabriel Valley and northern Orange County...Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants, in the same way, have replaced working-class African-Americans in the eastern half of South-Central Los Angeles."

According to some estimates, about half of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are in California. An estimated 10 percent of the L.A. region's overall labor force is made up of undocumented Mexicans. The Financial Times notes that these undocumented workers "perform the most menial tasks, often for less than the minimum wage," and calls them "unheralded heroes of U.S. growth."

Latino workers are indispensable for agribusiness in California and other parts of the country. In the state of Washington, up to 70 percent of pickers employed by fruit growers at peak harvest times are immigrants.

The high-tech economy of today has not moved away from reliance on immigrant workers. In fact, one study found the opposite: the demand for Mexican labor has become "structurally embedded" in the U.S. economy. The researchers reported on their findings about the firms they studied in the San Diego area: "While many of these firms use highly advanced technologies, they nevertheless require substantial numbers of low-skilled workers. On average, our San Diego employers classified 83 percent of their production workforce as unskilled or low skilled. This is a key finding, in view of the conventional wisdom that the new information-based technologies require numerous highly skilled, college-trained workers but very few of the less skilled. The reality is exemplified by one of our sample firms that grows gourmet-quality mushrooms, using the latest hydroponic techniques developed in Japan. The company nevertheless relies on Mexican immigrants as production workers, to harvest and package the product."

Cross-Border Connections

Mexican and Central American immigrants in the U.S. send billions of dollars back to their home communities each year. These "migradollars" are the main source of income for many rural villages in Mexico and Central America.

Many of those communities in effect have a dual existence on the two sides of the border--since large numbers of people from particular villages work and live in the same localities in the U.S. For example, the rural community of Aguililla in the Mexican state of Michoacan has "cloned" itself in Redwood City in California's Silicon Valley. In 1982, a fire destroyed a dilapidated tenement building near downtown Los Angeles, killing 24 women and children; the several hundred residents of the apartment were all from the village of El Salitre in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

Mike Davis writes: "Economic and cultural umbilical cords now permanently connect hundreds of Latin American and Caribbean localities with counterpart urban neighborhoods in the United States. To the extent that the sending communities have become as fully integrated into the economy of the immigrant metropolis as their own nation-state--a process that some researchers call Nortenizacion--they are the de facto `transnational suburbs' of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. Indeed, they transform our understanding of the contemporary big city."

The ravages of capitalist globalization have driven many more to seek a means of livelihood in el norte in the past decade--even as the U.S. government has made the trip increasingly dangerous through its militarization of the border. At the same time, some of the features associated with globalization--such as relatively cheap and easy long distance telephone calls--have helped the rural communities keep a dual existence.

One study looked at how the people of Ticuani--now equally split between their village in Puebla, Mexico and Brooklyn, New York--maintain their community identity: "Instantaneous communications and rapid travel makes it possible for today's immigrants and their second-generation children simultaneously to maintain significant lives or at least to have significant lived experience in their communities of origin and destination. This in turn enables some social forms `imported' from the old country to persist and be adapted to the new one, and for Ticuanenses in New York to influence life there." Elders in Brooklyn and Puebla discuss community affairs in weekly conference calls. Ties with the village in Puebla are also kept up by trips back home and the sending of "migradollars." Volleyball rivalries with other immigrant associations in Brooklyn help fortify community identity in the diaspora.

One result of the dual life of such communities is the intensification of women's oppression. Mike Davis points out, "With so much of the male workforce in California, for example, women who remain behind in Aguililla, Napizaro or San Miguel must shoulder even larger and more impossible burdens of child care, domestic toil and wage labor. Likewise, north of the border, female immigrants tend to be shunted into sweatshop apparel or servile house-cleaning jobs that offer the least opportunity for vertical or even horizontal mobility. Although immigration to big U.S. cities may also offer unexpected freedoms to young women, immigrant social networks are committed to the enforcement of traditional gender roles." Many women--like the garment worker portrayed in the film La Ciudad--must leave their children in their home villages in order to come work in the U.S. Women immigrant workers face a triple oppression--as proletarians, as women, and as members of an oppressed nationality.

The Poverty Trap

There are various classes within the U.S. Latino population and differences in economic status between newer immigrants and people who have been in this country for a longer time or were born here. However, a large section--including many U.S.-born Latinos--are trapped in poverty.

Under the 1986 immigration "reform" law (IRCA), over two million previously undocumented immigrants received legal rights to work. But millions of others have been driven deeper into the shadows. One researcher said that among the immigrants he studied, "IRCA resulted in indentured servitude to their employers and a terror of discovery."

Mexican immigrants are forced into a narrow range of jobs. Mike Davis writes, "These ethnic niches--including gardening, food preparation, house cleaning, and garment manufacture--are cul-de-sacs with little scope for promotion or skill acquisition. Although U.S.-born Latino citizens, like Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, have greater lateral mobility within blue-collar and clerical occupations, they too are excluded from the cutting-edge sectors. Latinos, as a whole, have benefited far less from the transition to service-based urban economies than have whites."

The median household income for Latinos in the U.S. fell by almost $3,000 between 1989 and 1996--the largest drop suffered by any nationality group since the Depression. The high poverty level among new immigrants has a lot to do with this statistic. But U.S.-born Latinos are also losing economic ground. According to a recent study of the L.A. area, Chicano males saw their incomes fall from 81 percent of white males in 1959 to 61 percent in 1990.

In the richest country in the world, 37 percent of Latino and Black children live under official poverty levels. One in three Latinos don't have any health insurance. A March 1998 survey by Physicians for Human Rights among Latino and Asian immigrants in California, Texas, and Illinois found that more than one in three immigrant households suffered from "moderate or severe hunger."

The dropout rate among Latino high school students nationwide is 30 percent. A study of the causes of dropouts among Latino students in San Antonio blamed "lack of bilingual and English as a Second Language programs, the concentration of Hispanics in high-poverty schools, lack of teacher preparation and low expectations for Hispanic students among teachers, administrators and society as a whole."

A Favorable Factor for Revolution

The surge of Latino population in the U.S. is a complex phenomenon. But overall, this development is strategically favorable for proletarian revolution in this country.

As RCP Chairman Bob Avakian has pointed out: "The U.S. imperialists like to pride themselves on how they have used and absorbed millions and millions of immigrants--we have all been told about the `great melting pot.' But in the U.S. today there are millions of immigrants whom the imperialist rulers regard as troublesome and dangerous. These are immigrants from the Third World, particularly those from nations oppressed by U.S. imperialism. They have a lifetime of experience with the raw, brutal reality of Yankee rule, among them is a deep hatred for it and no small amount of experience in fighting against it. Further, there are many things in common between these immigrants and the Black, Mexican-American, Native American, and other oppressed peoples within the borders of what is now the USA. The imperialists see in such immigrants a source of instability and upheaval, a force weakening the internal cohesion of the home base and potentially undermining the power of the U.S. as an international overlord...

"For the revolutionary proletariat it is just the opposite...We recognize in such immigrants a source of great strength--a vitally important force for the revolutionary struggle to overthrow U.S. imperialism and to create over its grave a powerful, living expression of proletarian internationalism and a powerful base area for world proletarian revolution."


Mike Davis, "Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City," in New Left Review

Wayne A. Cornelius, "The Structural Embeddedness of Demand for Mexican Immigrant Labor," in Crossings: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco.

"Puerto Rican Presence Wanes in New York," New York Times, February 28, 2000.

"Illicit Angels of America's Economic Miracle," Financial Times, February 23, 2000.

Raymond Lotta, "The Down Side of the Boom," Revolutionary Worker, March 21, 1999.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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