A Giant Still Sleeping

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City by Mike Davis
    Verso, 202 pp, £10.00, November 2001, ISBN 1 85984 328 X

Mike Davis has gone from meat-cutting and truck-driving to a migrant professorship, from the hands-on New Left to the New Left Review, from California to Edinburgh, Belfast and back. He is one of the last relics of madder, more eclectic days. The poet and environmentalist Lewis MacAdams claims that ‘in a Greek restaurant one night I saw him talk his way through an entire dinner, from the spanakopita to the baklava, without taking a bite.’ That struck a chord with me because some way into the first two parts of his projected Los Angeles trilogy – City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998) – I found myself praying I would never sit face to face with Mike Davis in a pub. He writes as if he had rivers of knowledge gushing out of his head under their own momentum. One just knows he’d be a hopeless conversationalist. Magical Urbanism may seem pedestrian by comparison with the books on Southern California, whose success led to reprisals by the powerful sectors in LA he had upset by his exposures. According to Ben Ehrenreich, he was ‘driven from the city by a campaign of Red-baiting disguised as fact-checking’. His portrayal of a region wrecked by systematic racism, profiteering and environmental irrationality, now controlled by an urban planning of surveillance and segregation, was furiously denied, its author discredited on every front, from his political record to his journalistic accuracy and marital recidivism (six counts).

According to the Census 2000 figures, heightened emigration and comparative fertility have caused the Latino population in the US to increase by almost 60 per cent over the last decade, to reach 35.3 million, or 12.5 per cent of the total. Sooner than expected, Latinos have overtaken African Americans (12.3 per cent) as the largest minority, and have done so by a greater margin if we include the fluctuating mass of illegals, estimated at over six million, half of whom are Mexican. Latinos will account for two-thirds of population growth between 2025 and 2050. They’re taking over – if only numerically – and it’s time America woke up to it; but apart from localised bouts of white nativist hysteria, such as that which gave rise to California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, the Latino presence remains strangely invisible.

This invisibility takes many forms, but underlying all of them is the fact that the United States has maintained a state of denial by suppressing or caricaturing the Hispanic element in its own history. It took a revolt by Chicano and Puerto Rican students in the 1960s for a minimal acknowledgment of their backgrounds to appear in school and university curricula. Davis reports that ‘only one out of every fifty characters on primetime US television is a Latino.’ Liberal Hollywood can be equally blinkered: not a single Mexican face shows up in Bulworth, Warren Beatty’s fantasy about LA’s disenfranchised underworld. The residential map has become so segregated that few whites are aware of the bustling re-creation of Mexican life in areas like San Francisco’s Mission District. To go unseen is intrinsic to the service economy to which the great majority of Latinos belong.

At the Southern border, invisibility – the need to hide, not to be there, not to be caught – becomes second nature. In July last year, Enrique Aguilar, a middle-aged Mexican, disguised himself as a bus seat in order to get across: in photographs he is sprouting from the vinyl like a mutant, half immigrant, half unoccupied seat. Some of Davis’s more vivid chapters are concerned with the border and its militarisation under Clinton. But he goes beyond the familiar tales of crossing ordeals and hi-tech manhunts, making it plain that the state also has something to hide: ‘the Border Patrol maintains a dramatic show of force to reassure voters that the threat of alien invasion (a phantom largely created by border militarisation itself) is being contained.’ The paradox of US-Mexico integration, as Peter Andreas has identified, is that ‘a barricaded border and a borderless economy are being constructed simultaneously.’ And he is eloquent on the ways that undocumented status is used to keep wages low and employees docile. The 1986 Immigration Reform Act legalised 2.5 million immigrants and criminalised many more, so creating indentured servitude in the most unregulated recesses of the urban economy, and withdrawing basic human rights from a huge underclass of economic refugees forced to behave as though they do not exist.

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