Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City 
by Mike Davis.
Verso, 202 pp., £10, November 2001, 9781859843284
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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.

Plain racism is another reason to keep one’s head down. Although Latinos are assisted in the quest for invisibility by varying degrees of mestizaje (hence their official distinction from ‘non-Hispanic whites’), they are regularly lumped together ethnically. Checkpoints sixty miles north of Tijuana are ‘blatant instances of racial profiling as Federal policy. Even the Chicano assistant district attorney . . . will tense a little and experience anew an ancient humiliation as he inches his shiny Lexus’ past the patrols. Davis gives a fiery account of a 1993 court case in Orange County that did much to feed the mood of Proposition 187 (which would expel the children of illegal immigrants from schools and deny prenatal care to their mothers: cheap workers yes, proliferating families no). A paint roller, wildly lobbed by one of the frightened young Mexicans being borne down on by a car full of hostile white schoolmates, pierced a decent American boy’s brain. In an outrageous trial, conducted to the sound of the tom-toms of the State Governor’s ‘They Keep Coming’ campaign, six minors were jointly convicted of second-degree murder. Two years later, a vigilante called William Masters II shot a pair of unarmed graffiti painters, one of whom died. ‘Outraged Latino community leaders demanded Masters’s indictment for manslaughter,’ Davis reports, but the District Attorney let him go and arrested the other graffiti painter for ‘vandalism’ instead. ‘As Masters snarled after his release, “Where are you going to find 12 citizens to convict me?”’

Despite its title, then, this is not a happy book. Even when Davis tries to play up the spice and salsa, the facts drag him back down. In a chapter called ‘Tropicalising Cold Urban Space’, he pits ‘Latino carnivality’ against Anglo anality at every level, including home decor. ‘The glorious sorbet palette of Mexican and Caribbean house paint . . . is perceived as sheer visual terrorism by non-Hispanic homeowners who believe that their equity directly depends upon a neighbourhood colour order of subdued pastels and white picket fences.’ Left to itself, Davis argues, the Latino presence would revitalise the vacated inner cities they have flocked to. Endangered public space would be reclaimed by convivial plazas, playgrounds and parks. But such spontaneous, unsubsidised attempts to regenerate the environment fall foul of planning regulations, which often forbid the building of extensions to house relatives or renters – even though Southern California is the most residentially overcrowded place in the nation. Worse,

Latino ‘micro-entrepreneurship’ is applauded in theory but everywhere persecuted in practice. If the primordial zoning division between home and work is annoying for cybercommuters and self-employed professionals, it is truly punitive for Latino households whose incomes are supplemented by home-based car repair, food catering or bridal sewing. Many cities and suburbs have restricted or even outlawed the weekend garage sales and informal street-curb ‘swap meets’ that are such important institutions in barrio economies . . . Staggering law enforcement resources have been wasted in New York and Los Angeles in cruel harassment of the vendors who refresh streetcorners (often to the delight of gringo commuters) with their sale of paletas, champurrado and tamales. From Portland to Long Island, police are also often called to deal with the ‘problem’ of esquineros clamouring for work in front of hardware or paint stores.

These cultural collisions pale beside Latinos’ inbuilt disadvantages in a labour market whose habit it is to sacrifice unskilled or sweated labour first. In ‘The Puerto Rican Tragedy’ Davis takes a rare excursion away from his home turf to analyse the sinking fortunes of an ethnic group that is supposed to be fully American. While the island itself has never recovered from the 1973 crisis that destroyed its oil-based industries, its refugees on the mainland have been getting steadily poorer since 1960. The general loss of manufacturing jobs in the wake of industrial restructuring, the betrayal by labour unions, the 1990-93 recession, and successive Federal and city governments’ disinvestment in education and welfare safety nets, have been catastrophic for Puerto Ricans, but also for Dominicans and Mexicans in New York and elsewhere. Nationwide, the failures of public education are particularly ominous for all but Miami Cubans (the consistent exception). ‘In California, even third-generation Chicanos (most of whom don’t speak Spanish) have a high-school attrition rate nearly three times higher than that of their Anglo peers, while Puerto Rican kids in New York have only marginally lowered a catastrophic dropout rate that peaked at 62 per cent in the mid-1980s.’ The majority of Latino students now attend poorly funded, badly staffed minority schools, and violent teen gangs are the beneficiaries. Ideologically-driven retreats from affirmative action and bilingual education complete the picture.

It’s a relief, then, to find a chapter in which Davis’s eye for spatial oddities identifies something that’s exciting and mostly positive. Many villages in Mexico (and, increasingly, Central America) have the gutted atmosphere of places where only old people, women and children are to be seen. One imagines the able-bodied males scattered far and wide, each contributing a fistful to the annual $10 billion in remittances that keep rural economies south of the border going. In reality, such villages are likely to have developed a kind of ‘strategic mitosis, dividing themselves into two parts to sustain a single heredity’. Whole buildings, shanties or streets may be occupied by one bunch of neighbours from a tiny village thousands of miles away, and the best-organised negotiate with bureaucracies and employers en bloc. Telecommunications and cheap airfares have enabled such collectivities to create stable, often rotating settlements in the US, without sacrificing their origins: they can go back for the saint’s feast, and participate in village councils via speakerphone every week, so that compared to earlier diasporas from Europe, this emigration fortifies rather than severs cultural roots. As a model of practical globalisation, the Mexican state of Zacatecas has become ‘binationalised’, with two extra seats in Parliament for its US residents. (Now that dual nationality is allowed, President Fox has proposed a similar move for the Mexican Congress, which would enfranchise ten million people.)

The effects of such transnationalism are often ambiguous. It can lead to the reproduction of authoritarian, patriarchal structures in the land of self-reliance, to parochial competition with other Latino groups or even the next-door village, to the repatriation of US street wars back home, to impossible demands being made on the women left behind – while the double lives adopted by the emigrants can lead to a schizoid social status. ‘A Los Angeles Times correspondent who visited the Mexican village of San Miguel el Alto’ – seasonally transplanted into the regiment of brown labour that services Palm Springs – ‘was flabbergasted to find waiters and busboys living in mansions, and being addressed as “don” by their neighbours.’ Such places have become ‘the de facto “transnational suburbs” of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami’. Conversely, New Orleans is now the second city of Honduras.

The historical, cultural, racial and economic partitions between the many groups labelled as ‘Latino’ may be the reason the ‘sleeping giant’ has scarcely stirred as a political entity. There is no Latino equivalent of the NAACP, and little overriding ethnic consciousness even among the working class, despite the wishful speculations of progressive intellectuals like Davis about the creation of a militant Pan-Americanism, on the model of the Caribbean diaspora in London. Latinos abroad are scarcely more homogeneous than they were back home, in their ‘Countries of Contrast’. In the US, any similarity between a destitute Salvadoran illegal, a prosperous Chicano doctor and Jennifer Lopez exists primarily in the eyes of opportunistic marketing strategies that have made ‘Latin’ rhythms and food hip in white markets. From the new dulce con leche candies to the Buena Vista Social Club, the consumer image flogs the Old Europe aspects of the Latino heritage: anti-modernity with a kitsch, baroque appeal.

Even this is progress, however, set beside the image of the moustachioed bandido, which morphs smoothly into that of the moustachioed drug lord. The association of Mexico with violence takes an even more pernicious form in the minds of repressed intellectuals, who celebrate the everyday mayhem in a poor country with a deplorable judicial system as evidence of some more honest, vital relationship with death dating back to the Aztecs. When ¡Muerte!, a recent Californian paperback, admiringly reprints the obscene tabloid photographs of decapitated or rotting corpses that plaster Mexican news-stands, it effectively depoliticises what is a social and institutional crisis.

Davis’s first book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), ended its survey of dead projects in the history of the Left with an act of faith: ‘My thesis is that, if there is to be any popular Left in the 1990s, it will develop in the first instance through the mobilisation of the radical political propensities in the Black – and perhaps Hispanic – working classes.’ Note the order. At a time when the old Civil Rights coalitions between the two groups were being temporarily revived under Jesse Jackson, it would not be easy, Davis predicted, for a ‘poor citizen working class’ (this includes Blacks and Latinos) and an ‘undocumented immigrant working class’ to find common ground for political action. His fear was justified: Black South-Central LA, plus many Chicanos and naturalised immigrants, supported Proposition 187.

Jump seven years to the fiasco of the Los Angeles mayoral election in June 2001. The first Hispanic ever to stand for the post, Antonio Villaraigosa, had endorsements from the state Democrats, labour heavyweights, church and women’s groups, and a couple of billionaires. He was, even so, defeated by the ad hominem attacks of the Republican James K. Hahn, who has ended up with a cockeyed constituency of Black and Republican support. The self-defeating Black vote is commonly explained by Afro-American reverence for Hahn’s father, the late County Supervisor – but that would be even odder. Rather, it expressed a mistrust of the newcomers – whose numbers have rocketed to 11 million in California as against 2.3 million Blacks – and wreaked a dismal revenge for the earlier Republican-Latino coalitions designed to exclude Blacks in New York, Chicago and LA itself.

Davis appears to have given up on Afro-Americans as a political force, as though they had missed their moment, unable to break through institutional and social barriers. They feature as sectarian political elites or lurk at the bottom of his tables, like the one that shows ‘The Digital Divide’: in the Bay Area, 14 per cent of the cyber-capital workforce is Latino, 8 per cent Black. The figures give more prominence to Asians, who form up to 28 per cent of the workforce in Silicon Valley. They, too, are multiplying fast, and are commendably dynamic: swelling the ranks of illegals at one extreme, and at the other making large investments south of the border and in Los Angeles County. Davis grants that some degree of ‘ethnic succession’ has already happened. If Central Avenue, ‘the old main street of Black Los Angeles, is now 75 per cent Latino,’ it’s because working Blacks have moved into city and civil service occupations, leaving the low-tech manufacturing, construction and tourist or leisure jobs, and the accompanying residential districts, to Latinos. The striking janitors in Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses are thus more racially mixed than in reality, where, paradoxically, since the two groups are no longer in competition in the job or housing markets, they have fewer opportunities to make common cause. This is not good news for an increasingly disaffected Black population. Some unions are approaching employers in Latino-dominated sectors to hire Black workers again. One leader told the LA Weekly: ‘It’s not right to support the rights of immigrant workers and not support people who’ve paid their dues, and I don’t mean union dues.’

If Hispanics exerted their voting power to the full, they could call the shots in the key Electoral College states of California, Texas, Florida and New York, and increasingly swing the results in Illinois. They did give Arizona to Clinton in 1996, only to return it to the Republicans in 2000. Most of it is ancestral territory, after all; the South-West was Mexico until 1848, and as they say in Laredo, where life is still lived in Spanish, ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.’ But though successive anti-immigration or ‘English Only’ campaigns have boosted voter registration rates, Latinos still make up only 7 per cent of the electorate, and when polling day comes around the turnout is low, especially among older Chicanos. Bush Jr obtained 30 per cent of the Hispanic vote, and if more than half of eligible Latinos had bothered with the LA mayoral election, Villaraigosa would probably have won.

Davis attributes some of the giant’s sleepiness to the irrelevance of electoral politics once the democratic ideal has been compromised by money and the media. There are precious few returns on the inner-city vote these days: ‘Latinos and Asians have the bad luck to be repopulating American big cities during an epoch of maximum fiscal disengagement by senior levels of government . . . Suburb-dominated state legislatures, meanwhile, have stubbornly refused to make up the shortfall.’ The present Congress does contain a record number of Latinos – 21 Representatives, 18 of them Democrats – and the first (Cuban-American) immigrant Secretary. Yet Bush’s domestic agenda, with its trillions in tax rebates, augurs further cuts in social programmes and any government initiatives that might benefit the millions of maids, janitors, builders and pickers who have contributed so much to America’s wealth.

In massively Hispanic California, on the other hand, a ‘labour-Latino’ alliance has evolved in the last few years to produce what can be termed a healthy civic Left. Davis’s last chapter, ‘Uprising of the Million’, may read like a somewhat forced outburst of optimism, celebrating the modest labour victories of the 1990s in order to cheer us up, but developments since then have proved him, once again, to be prophetic. Justice for Janitors, the Otani Hotel campaign, the drywalleros and tortilleros strikes, the Palm Canyon resort rumpus: all these were powered by immigrant, often female Latino staff who, fed up at the low pay, racial harassment and insecure conditions from which they suffered, joined unions at the risk of being fired or having the Immigration Service called in. The strikes provided a focus for liberationist clergy, immigrants’ rights groups and community organisations plotting the tactical repertoire of ‘guerrilla theatre and film, public art, a pro-labour masked avenger, trade union fotonovelas in Spanish, corporate exposés, and disruption of stockholders’ meetings’ with a brio not seen since the days of César Chávez and the Farm Workers’ struggle, of which the chief of the formerly white-dominated, conservative LA County Federation of Labor, Miguel Contreras, is a veteran. Most important, the backing obtained from local unions has browbeaten national organisations into following suit. This represents an about-turn in American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations policy, which has for the last twenty years supported the Immigration Reform Act and its most damaging provision: employer sanctions for hiring illegals. Mindful of the overall drop in private-sector unionisation – down to 9 per cent in 2000 – and therefore grateful for the new members from the despised immigrant wing now joining up en masse, it has remembered a truth recently voiced by the president of the hotelworkers’ union: ‘We are a labour movement of immigrants, and we always have been.’

In February last year, AFL-CIO’s executive council called for a blanket amnesty for the undocumented. Mass hearings were held around the country to expose violations of immigrant workers’ rights. The union also opposed the expansion of unprotected contract labour or ‘guest workers’, which is being lobbied for by hi-tech industries and agribusiness, and enjoys support from the rancher-businessman Presidents of Mexico and the US. This summer, the idea of some sort of trade-off between an amnesty and guest-worker deals became a live issue, thanks to the Census 2000 figures, the pressure of the labour-Latino coalition, and the new buddy Government in Mexico.

Taking Nafta at its word, President Fox has advocated a more permeable border for people as well as merchandise, but has offset this with the Puebla-Panama Plan, intended to open up the South of Mexico and Central America to US corporations, and by the same token to reduce emigration at source. Bush, for his part, knows he needs 40 per cent of the Latino vote to win in 2004, as more and more members of the population become eligible. As a concession, a vague amnesty plan – initially for Mexicans only and linked to a guest-worker programme – was mooted last summer. Unions and Democrats quickly objected to the idea of contract labour with no right to organise or to remain in the country, and pointed out that an amnesty, if it were granted to the 11 million illegals of every nationality already on the spot, should meet employers’ needs. The proposal also antagonised many Republicans, who applaud the contract provisions, but shrink from an amnesty even when it’s renamed an ‘earned adjustment’: rewarding illegality simply to create more Democratic voters.

The long-term dispute over the rights of non-Mexican immigrants, including Central Americans and anyone else, from Albanians to Zambians, provides another test for the civic movement whose rebirth in Latino workplaces Davis has recorded. It will have to deliver the goods far beyond the ethnic and national allegiances which Bush is seeking to exploit electorally. For ‘Latinos’ to replace Black Americans as the frontline interlocutor may seem a momentous change, but it won’t make much difference. A new constellation of lesser minorities is ready to fill the gap at the bottom, and so the divisive dance goes on. If people of Latin American origin – already the product of much racial mixing – are to become visible on their own terms in the US, perhaps they should disappear as a monolithic concept.

Since 11 September, any debate about amnesty or labour conditions has been frozen indefinitely. Xenophobia has soared. Porous frontiers are to be tightened, though there’s no evidence of the southern route having been used by terrorists posing as campesinos. Davis claims that since the War on Drugs shifted to the Mexican border, where a chilling array of detection and identification devices have been tried out with Pentagon and CIA support, the distinctions ‘between policing and low-intensity warfare have become so blurred that border-dwellers speak routinely of the “war against drugs and immigrants”’. Now, a War against Terror provides new justification for the constitutional and human rights violations that he and many others have documented, and it’s to be feared that the assembly plants and slums will come further under the control of the undeclared martial law in which both countries’ police and armed forces have collaborated.

One more thing. We’ll never know the exact number of dead from the World Trade Center, because so many of the cleaners, waiters and delivery people were in the country illegally. It seems that of those who survived, most kept quiet about it, so as not to publicise their existence.

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Vol. 24 No. 10 · 23 May 2002

Lorna Scott Fox’s review of Mike Davis’s Magical Urbanism (LRB, 4 April) errs in saying that the Los Angeles mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa was defeated in 2001 by the ‘Republican’ James Hahn. Hahn was also a Democrat: Los Angeles mayoral elections (like all local elections in California) are non-partisan. Further, my LA Weekly colleague Ben Ehrenreich is entitled to his quoted opinion that Mike Davis, a regular contributor to the Weekly, was ‘driven from the city by a campaign of Red-baiting disguised as fact-checking’. But, leaving aside the fact that Davis admitted to such gaffes as mistaking a novel for a work of history, what might really have sent him packing was his winning a six-figure MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant, along with a prestigious teaching fellowship at a suburban New York University. This kind of ‘Red-baiting’ might have chased me out of LA, too.

Marc Haefele
Los Angeles

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