Magical Urbanism

Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, By Mike Davis Verso Press, June 2000 129 pp.


Globalization is the overarching theme of our times. This inter-penetration of culture, economics and communication is moving so fast that understanding it in its totality seems impossible. Mike Davis’s new book, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, describes one part of the process in the United States – the phenomenon of “Latinization.”

First, the numbers. Latinos now outnumber African Americans in six of the 10 largest metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York City, Houston, San Diego, Phoenix and San Antonio. They soon will be a plurality in at least four more. Even where their numbers are still small, their rate of increase is faster than other groups. The only similar historical precedents were the ascendancy of the Irish in the mid-1800s and the post-World War II migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West.

Becoming “Latino”
Similar to their predecessors, Latinos arrive with specific and complex identities, but soon become merged into one distinct “ethnicity” that is seen as “other” than the majority culture, and interacts with it through both opposition and assimilation. Whatever the cultural, national or ethnic differences within the Latino population, once they come to the U.S. they become a single subgroup that lives with informal but nonetheless very real restrictions on its members: what kinds of jobs are available, where they can live, how they are educated, what they can win (or lose) politically.

The funnel through which Latinization occurs is, of course, the “border.” Examining the relationship between two well-known border towns, Tijuana and San Diego, Davis finds the border between them to be the organizational center of both. It functions, he argues, as a “dam, creating a reservoir of labor-power on the Mexican side that can be tapped on demand….” Of course the role the border plays in the U.S. polity and economy is somewhat more complicated. After all, the labor power Davis speaks of is not actually tapped on demand; it flows continuously across the border, and is a major underpinning of California’s (and hence the regional and national) economy. Politically, however, we maintain a militarized border, stopping, arresting and deporting migrants as they cross this physical barrier. This two-layered reality – economically open borders with politically shut ones – is one of the major contradictions of globalization. Our economy requires open borders and free flow of labor, our polity requires national sovereignty.

Given that economic needs so often prevail over political needs (in reality if not in rhetoric), migration from Latin America will continue, changing our culture and workforce. The “Latinization” of our cities adds color and design to our neighborhoods, new flavors to our cuisine and new rhythms to our music, while at the same time reconfiguring the low-wage sector of our economy. New food, slang and music enter the mainstream of our city lives while the very people that bring them are mired in a seemingly permanent underclass.

Moving to Empowerment
Becoming an underclass may be requisite to entering America as a minority, but, as happened with other groups, Latinos have been actively pursing political engagement. On top of the already difficult task of challenging a dominant culture and politics, however, is the calculus of racial demographics. Although Latinos and African Americans – as well as other racial and ethnic minorities – have much in common when it comes to civil rights, relationships between them are not always easy, especially at the local level. “As the fiscal noose has tightened around city budgets…” writes Davis, “[minority] communities hungry for more control…have found themselves locked in zero-sum conflicts…” where one group’s win is another’s loss.

For Davis, the most hopeful trend that can buck these effects of globalization and build the economic and political clout of all disenfranchised populations is the inspired organizing of a revitalized labor movement. Since the ideological underpinning of all workplace organizing is redistribution of wealth (and power) from haves to have-nots, Davis believes that this effort holds the best possibility of overcoming ethnic division.

One could add to his list other campaigns that have the same redistributive effects – housing trust funds, rent control, welfare rights and living wage campaigns. These campaigns provide opportunities (and challenges) to transcend ethnic goals in favor of economic ones. It is up to us who do the organizing to make them into all they can be.

Magical Urbanism’s primary failings include over generalizing when describing Latino communities, reducing a varied cultural terrain to a few neighborhoods in Southern California; over-enthusiastic descriptions that border on the euphoric; and the overuse of adjectives. But these failings do not take away from the incredible amount of information and thought provided in this slim volume.

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