Vallejo, Jody Agius. Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Barack Obama’s 2012 electoral victory highlighted many things about the American electorate, perhaps most notably the growing power of Mexican-American voters. The influence of these voters might someday send shockwaves through the American political system and, some might say, has the potential to turn some deeply red states blue (or, at least, a shade of blue). Sadly, scholars have devoted precious little time to studying this increasingly important demographic. In her insightful new book, Barrios to Burbs, sociologist Jody Aquis Vallejo argues that even “the majority of research on the Mexican-American population in the United States unintentionally contributes to the idea that Mexican Americans [are a mostly impoverished and marginalized people] by focusing on poor and unauthorized workers…who remain in disadvantaged or working-class ethnic communities” (2). Her book seeks, in part, to offer a corrective to a heavily unbalanced scholarly literature.
But such a description only scratches the surface of the book’s importance. Vallejo’s main goal is to complicate the scholarly literature on how Mexican Americans assimilate into the American middle class. The author not only effectively demonstrates that there are multiple pathways for Mexican Americans to achieve social and economic advancement, but Vallejo also shows that being a minority is not always a liability in terms of class mobility in the modern United States. The idea of straight-line assimilation into the white middle class, then, is outmoded and a thing of the past. Despite the fact that many of Vallejo’s subjects have undoubtedly at some point fallen victim to ethnocentrism, her model for complicating how Mexican Americans assimilate reaffirms that the United States is, in fact, a melting pot, and that ethnic minorities need not necessarily sacrifice a non-white identity in order to become a middle-class American.
Vallejo’s argument is three-fold: first, there are multiple pathways for Mexican Americans to becoming middle class; second, assimilation does not always entail “becoming” white; and third, being a minority is not necessarily a liability in terms of achieving mobility. Her argument complicates standard assimilation theory by showing that it is neither linear nor does it necessarily entail “becoming white.” What perhaps complicates this argument further is that the class mobility pathways of Mexican Americans “are embedded in the sociohistorical context of Mexican migration,” which is in large part the product of white Americans’ colonization of places like Los Angeles in the nineteenth century and the subsequent thirst for cheap Mexican labor that developed throughout the U.S. Southwest (42). Thus, Vallejo provides evidence for multiple pathways to mobility and class equality that are born out of a disparate and racialized marginalization of ethnic Mexicans across a vast region.
But the book is edifying for still other reasons. One important tool in explaining the divergent experiences of Mexican Americans is not only class background but also, more generally, previous life experience. Of course, Mexican Americans who come from a middle-class background tend to exhibit cultural traits more common to the white middle class than they do similarities to lower-class Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. Still, even the poor can benefit from certain advantages. Educational tracking for gifted students and access to mentors who are interested in encouraging disadvantaged students who exhibit special promise can explain how some people of impoverished backgrounds attain social mobility while others (sometimes even members of their own immediate families) do not. Furthermore, Vallejo astutely uncovers an unexamined measure of incorporation into the white middle class – the tendencies of middle class Mexican Americans to retain ties to other coethnics and “give back” financial support to their families. Such obligations are less common among those who grew up outside of largely ethnic Mexican communities; those who grew up middle class are less likely to support other family members financially, which, for Vallejo, is “a sign that some middle-class Mexican Americans are approximating behaviors associated with middle-class whites” (102).
Nevertheless, “the nuances of ethnic identity,” Vallejo writes, “emerge when we compare middle-class Mexican Americans from different class backgrounds and generations” (139). Although important, class background does not by itself predetermine one’s ethnic self-identification upon achieving middle-class status. For example, some middle-class Mexican Americans whom Vallejo studied celebrated their ethnic heritages, while others became angry when, for example, white colleagues treated them like they were “the Mexican” in certain workplace or social settings, even when the person in question spoke no Spanish and otherwise self-identified as an American. Some later-generation middle class Mexican Americans do not necessarily deny their Mexican ancestry, but still, these people are more likely to self identify as closer to “white” than are more recent immigrants. Still, many socially mobile Mexican Americans are civically engaged and give back to their communities and poorer coethnics, largely in the realm of helping to promote social and economic mobility even after otherwise having abandoned their communities of origin, themselves. In short, the middle class Mexican American population in the United States is quite diverse, and does not necessarily follow simple straight-line assimilation models into joining the American middle class.
I enjoyed reading Barrios to Burbs. As an outsider to the field of sociology, I found it clear, well organized, and free of the jargon that so often turns historians away from reading social science. Barrios to Burbs complicates our understanding of how the fastest-growing minority group assimilates into the modern American middle class; there is no uniformity to the process, and certain variables will affect the kinds of assimilatory experiences that different people have. The socioeconomic diversity among Mexican Americans in the modern United States is presented with sensitive precision in this book.
Vallejo’s book also begs the question of why historians are not making similar inquiries into the history of the Mexican-American middle class. Are we historians, as the author suggests, contributing to the marginalization of Mexican Americans by overwhelmingly focusing on impoverished and oppressed Mexican Americans throughout the modern history of the United States? Perhaps Vallejo’s critique is too harsh. But, her book does seem to indicate that scholars know very little about the history of middle class Mexican Americans. In fact, the only historical monograph of note on the subject—Richard Garcia’s Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class, which Vallejo cites in her bibliography—is now over twenty years old, and is itself limited both geographically and temporally (Garcia focuses on San Antonio during the Great Depression). With the clearly growing influence of the Mexican-American middle class in modern America, historians are in an enviable position to provide fresh insights into the histories of Mexican Americans that focus on subjects other than poverty, social or political marginalization. To that end, Barrios to Burbs is a clarion call to Mexican-American historiography.