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a version of this article was published in the Journal of Romance Studies 3.1 (Spring 2003): 105-112.

‘Globalization from Below: The Latino/Chicano Experience’


Davis, Mike (2001) Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City (London: Verso) xviii + 202 pp. ISBN 1-85984-328-x (pb). Laó-Montes, Augustín and Arlene Dávila, ed. (2001) Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York (New York: Columbia University Press) xiv + 493 pp. ISBN 0-231-11275-0 (pb).

In the popular consciousness, and perhaps especially in its most liberal or progressive versions, ‘ethnicity’ is too often perceived as a localized bulwark against globalizing forces. Take, for instance, Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero. Here, a plucky band of Scottish villagers eventually upset the plans of a US-based oil company by uniting around the local hermit’s refusal to sell his land for the construction of a refinery that would ruin their hitherto untouched natural and social environments. To the Celtic fringe is ascribed an aura of mystery, eccentricity, and something much like magic (the plot features characters with webbed feet and ends with a semi-mystical experience of the Northern Lights) that constitutes on the one hand the residue of what modernity has left behind, and on the other a seductive resistance against multinational capital’s attempts to subsume even the world’s remotest locations to the profit motive.

A US equivalent to Local Hero might be Robert Redford’s 1988 The Milagro Beanfield War. Here, of course, the ethnicity in question is latinidad, but otherwise the structural dynamic is much the same. A development company, in league with state politicians and police, plans to construct a golf club and resort near the small town of Milagro, New Mexico, and the only obstacle is the one farmer who has yet to sell them his small plot, a beanfield to which he illegally diverts precious water from a company-controlled stream. Again, the local community, after initial debate and division concerning the wealth and jobs that development might bring, unites around the farmer’s obstinate and apparently foolhardy resistance to block the conversion of their environment into (here) leisure space for white, middle class incomers. While the Anglo population is depicted either as having slavishly prostituted themselves to capital (in the case of the political elite and the developer’s young, blonde, and ditzy wife, Flossie Devine, played by Melanie Griffith) or as having given up on any prospect of political struggle (in the case of the local newspaper editor and former radical lawyer Charlie Bloom, played by John Heard), the Latinos are represented as drawing on the resources provided both by earthy rootedness to the land and by the spiritual (indeed, magical) advice and intervention of their forefathers’ ghosts. Once more, then, latinidad is seen in terms of an exotic combination of magic and realism, now framed politically as constituting the local heroism that alone can block corporate capital and its attempt to further colonize the global lifeworld.

This basic structure of an ethnic, resistant local facing a corporate, modernizing global is, then, an old one; indeed, it is a product of modernity itself in so far as the local/global, particular/universal dichotomy is constitutive of what it means to be modern. It is just that for modernity, the local was burdened with the dead weight of tradition, while for anti-globalization liberalism the local is seen as an oasis of life surrounded by the dead hand of homogenizing development. Where once the capitalist deterritorialization that clears away former property demarcations was thought to inject new vitality and hope by sweeping away jaded archaism, now a territorialized ethnicity is framed not merely as nostalgically picturesque, but also as the cutting edge of political mobilization. Where the established left (and the legacy of sixties radicalism) fails, ethnic identity is taken to provide the kernel for a new coalition of progressive forces.

To some extent, the fallout from September 11th and the attacks on Washington and the World Trade Centre have changed this picture. Nobody on the liberal left–and least of all Hollywood Democrats such as Redford–is too keen to champion fundamentalist Islam as a new source of ethnic resistance, however unpalatable they find what is (at this writing) the still impending war on Iraq. Moreover, part of the perceived problem with a group such as al-Qaeda is that it too is manifestly global, in that its effects may be felt anywhere, at any time. Perhaps more fundamentally, then, a wide range of theorists (from Stuart Hall or Roland Robertson to Arjun Appadurai or Slavoj Zizek have challenged the notion that there is a basic opposition between global and local. Zizek, for instance, persuasively showed that in the NATO campaign against Serbia, itself notionally conducted in defence of ethnic Albanian particularism, the West’s universalizing coalition-building was simply the other face of Serbian president Milosevic’s nationalist irredentism. Meanwhile, others have analysed the ways in which globalization itself produces local differences, and have coined the term ‘glocalization’ to describe the ways in which even multinational capital can produce and enhance local distinctiveness and a sense of ethnic rootedness: McDonalds, for instance, appeals not only to local palates and customs but also to a regionally-identified sense of self by selling Kiwiburgers to New Zealanders or Maharaja Macs in India. Globalization, in short, produces what Richard Wilk terms ‘structures of common difference’ that allow for and indeed demand local variation.

Mike Davis comments, therefore, that the ‘communal survival strategies’ of diasporic Latinos in the US, far from being inimical to global forces, ‘have been powerfully assisted by the very technologies that are commonly associated with globalism and delocalization’ (Davis 2001: 98). Communications and transport technology allow for at least one spatially dislocated community now split between Puebla and New York to arrange ‘weekly conference calls between elders in Brooklyn and Mexico’ while ‘family vacations and frequent participation in village festivals’ together help construct ‘manifold real-time links to Mexico’ and the perpetuation and accentuation of US-based latinidad (99). Reciprocally, remittances sent back to Mexico by territorially-identified migrants ‘has financed an extensive modernization of the pueblo, building two new schools and renovating the church and municipal buildings’ (99). Where once, as with the great nineteenth-century migrations to the US powered by one-way steamship tickets, sheer physical distance may have encouraged a seemingly inevitable assimilation to a dominant, homogenizing culture, here difference is maintained and reinforced by the very same deterritorializing forces that Local Hero or The Milagro Beanfield War envisage as so threatening.

Yet the problem with a concept such as glocalization is that it too quickly identifies globalization’s deterritorializing aspects with its apparently inverse, reterritorializing, effects. Any sense of contradiction or struggle is too easily lost in this recategorization of globalism and localism within one, once again unifying, process. Wilk’s notion of ‘structures of common difference,’ while certainly useful to describe some features of contemporary difference-in-sameness, also simply poses the question of homogenization again at another level of analysis. One might still want to distinguish common differences from uncommon differences–functional structures of differentiation from other modes of differentiation that may destabilize those structures. Or is all difference, all local and ethnic specificity, merely assimilated (albeit by being also produced and preserved) into one over-arching phenomenon?

In ‘Mambo montage,’ the article that opens his and Arlene Dávila’s collection of the same title, Augustín Laó-Montes usefully differentiates between various forms and modes of what he terms ‘Latinization,’ the production and performance of latinidad on both the global and the local stage. Latinization, he states, is ‘the production of latinidad by both the dominant powers and the subordinate social sectors’ (Laó-Montes and Dávila 2001: 17). On the one hand, then, we have ‘a practice of cultural consumption of a commodified form of ethnicity’ and hence ‘commercial ethnoscapes of latinization [...] dispersed through scattered restaurants, nightclubs, performance spaces, dance and language classes, art galleries, and stores selling ethnic crafts and clothing’ in, here, New York, but also evidently Los Angeles, San Franscisco, Paris, London, Manchester, and other global cities (30). On the other hand, and in contrast to this ‘latinization from above,’ there is a ‘latinization from below’ that ‘refers to the processes of Latino self-fashioning that arise from resistances against marginality and discrimination and as expressions of a desire for a definition of self and an affirmative search for collective memory and community’ (17-18). Both forms of latinization are simultaneously global and local; yet they serve different purposes and construct different differences. This is not necessarily to say that they are always fully distinct–far from it–or that differentiating between the production of common and of uncommon differences is a straightforward matter.

Indeed, although at times Laó-Montes (along with many of the other contributors to Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York) would like to suggest that the form of latinization that he obviously valorizes is accomplished by the ‘social movements and community institutions’ that he claims are ‘the main agencies of latinization from below’ (18), whereas latinization from above operates through consumption, it is soon clear that any rigid distinction between the two according to institutional or market locus is untenable. Thus the Latino neighbourhoods characterized and identified by their ‘restaurants and nightclubs,’ their ‘Argentinean bakeries and Dominican beauty parlors,’ or their ‘bodegas [selling] Mexican chiles and tortillas’ and similar sites of consumption are also described as ‘the main grounding for the practice of latinization from below’ (27). At the same time, latinization from above may be institutionalized in, for example, the bilingual education programmes and the ‘bilingual political brochures’ that, in ‘Deceptive solidity,’ her contribution to this same volume, Vilma Santiago-Irizarry argues are more ‘ordering devices for the instrumental organization of everyday life’ than they are ‘expressions of inclusion’ (480). The two modes of latinization are then certainly, in Laó-Montes’s words, ‘entangled domains’ that add up to a ‘contested domain’ in which differing visions, interpretations, and performances of globalism and localism alike both clash and feed off each other.

Both Davis’s Magical Urbanism and Laó-Montes and Dávila’s Mambo Montage are engaged in the attempt to outline and differentiate what we could call a ‘globalization from below,’ to understand it on its own terms however much it may be (perhaps inexorably) bound up with the globalization from above that is generally the focus of so much contemporary discussion. Latinos and Chicanos are, for all these authors, the agents of what could potentially be a democratizing, liberating globalism whose first port of call and primary battleground (they suggest) is found in the major cities of the USA. Davis’s book puts the accent more firmly on subaltern agency than does Laó-Montes and Dávila’s–his subtitle is ‘Latinos Reinvent the US City’ while theirs is what we have already seen to be the more equivocal ‘The Latinization of New York’–but both completely reframe the current, rather nonsensical, debate over globalization. For whereas elsewhere we are constantly told that globalizing forces are faceless, impersonal, and inescapably coming our way, and that our only choices are to stand and fight (heroically or otherwise) or to accede (conditionally or unconditionally) to their inevitability, the notion of a globalization from below conjures up the possibility of a globalism that we might actively desire, that we might fight for rather than against. Hence rather than the somewhat strange situation whereby protesters from numerous nations and world regions, who congregate in global cities such as Seattle, Genoa, and Porto Alegre, are described as constituting an ‘anti-globalization’ movement, we might consider them to be struggling for globalization, indeed for a globalization that is more thorough-going and radical than that envisaged by world leaders huddling behind barbed wire and police barricades to discuss tightened immigration regimes or to dispute import/export quotas.

The pursuit of a globalization from below on the part of US Latinos and Chicanos is a struggle that can draw upon two long-standing political and intellectual traditions: socialist internationalism and the pan-Latin vision of a Patria Grande. Both are invoked in the epigraph that Davis takes from Diego Rivera: ‘When you say "America" you refer to the territory stretching between the icecaps of the two poles. So to hell with your barriers and frontier guards!’ Davis further quotes Silvio Torres-Saillant to the effect that ‘Simón Bolívar’s desideratum of a unified Latin American nation and the ideal upheld by Eugenio María de Hostos of an Antillean federation find in us a strange kind of fulfilment’ (22) and, after examination of the dramatic and accelerating re-Latinization of the US Southwest, declares that the transnational Mexican homeland of ‘Aztlan is no longer nationalist myth but historical fact’ (19). Meanwhile, he ends his final chapter, which is on the ‘uprising of the million’ with the claim that what he describes as a semi-permanent ‘Latino labor uprising in Los Angeles’ and its achievement of a ‘living wage’ ordinance ‘injects what Marx called "an alternative political economy of the working class" into the debate about the future of Los Angeles and its emergent Latino majority’ (174). ‘Class organization in the workplace,’ Davis suggests in the book’s concluding sentences, ‘is the most powerful strategy for ensuring the representation of immigrants’ socio-economic as well as cultural and linguistic rights in the new century ahead. The emerging Latino metropolis will then wear a proud union label’ (175). Socialism and ethnic pan-nationalism find their point of encounter and culmination in new forms of unionization.

Laó-Montes and Dávila and their contributors are far less optimistic. No doubt one reason is that they focus not only on New York but also particularly on New York’s Puerto Rican population–of their book’s eighteen chapters only four are centrally concerned with other Latino ethnicities, and this despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are no longer a majority in the city’s Latino community. There are good reasons why a Puerto Rican focus should imply a more tempered account of latinization. Davis (whose remit stretches across the US but whose focus is undoubtedly Los Angeleno and Mexican or Chicano) bluntly refers to the ‘Puerto Rican tragedy’ as a salutary warning against (perhaps his own) exuberant optimism, arguing that the seemingly intractable problem of ‘Puerto Rican poverty [...] is the spectre that ineluctibly haunts all debates about the future of the Latino metropolis’ (123). Davis’s ultimate predictions of a trades unionism that will unite class and ethnic struggles is certainly less convincing for a population suffering massive unemployment on their island of origin and (by his own account) sold out by their union leaders on the mainland. Though Mambo Montage offers a more nuanced perspective on the Puerto Rican experience than does Davis’s short chapter on the topic, its contributors consistently resist what they see as a homogenizing pan-Latin ideology and seldom tackle the question of class directly. Indeed, the one essay whose title appears to suggest a class analysis is in fact about dance classes (Karen Backstein, ‘Taking "class" into account’) while the only contribution to deal at length with unionism, Mary García Castro’s ‘Engendering and coloring labor unions,’ argues that, by contrast with their Brazilian counterparts, for Puerto Rican women workers ‘the issues dear to [their] hearts [...] were their community, the colonial status of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rican identity in the United States’ (399). García Castro concludes, in contradiction to what her article’s title might suggest, that what such workers ‘envisage [is] the engendering and coloring not of labor unions but of Latino resistance, which is thought of as lying elsewhere’ (402). Where pan-Latinism is problematic, socialism unmentioned, and unionization seen as ineffective, it is no wonder that Puerto Ricans should more easily consider themselves victims rather than agents of globalization.

Mambo Montage is therefore in some ways more interesting than Magical Urbanism–though it is also unsurprisingly more uneven, and few if any of its contributors write with Davis’s verve and style. For the Puerto Rican case raises the problem of a globalization from below in particularly acute form. Puerto Ricans would, after all, seem to have had a number of distinct advantages over other Latino (and non-Latino) groups, not least the fact that, as US citizens, they have had unimpeded access to and from the mainland, and have always had the right to work as well as (once on the mainland) to vote and so to exercise direct political influence. Moreover, the bulk of Puerto Rican immigration coincided with the era of expansion of mass passenger transport by air, giving rise to the so-called guagua aérea, or ‘flying bus,’ that shuttled thousands to and fro between the metropolis and an island that, as Ramón Grosfoguel and Chloé Georas observe in ‘Latino Caribbean diasporas in New York,’ was to be ‘a symbolic showcase of the U.S. capitalist model of development for the Third World’ (107). Given what would otherwise seem an almost seamless geographical and labour fluidity so enviable that other ethnic groups such as Dominicans would try ‘to avoid la migra by assuming a Puerto Rican identity’ (109), what went wrong?

Mambo Montage addresses the problematic of the Puerto Rican case in a number of ways. In the first place, many contributors emphasize what went ‘right,’ rescuing the political, cultural, and social contribution of Puerto Ricans to the making of contemporary New York from what they regard as an undeserved obscurity. Thus, for instance, in ‘Ambiguous identities!’ Elsa Cardalda Sánchez and Amilcar Tirado Avilés report from a project to document and analyse the tradition of muralism in ‘El Barrio’ of East Harlem. Murals are paradigmatically local (because non-transportable), often anonymous, and more or less temporary cultural productions that are also frequently confused or associated with vandalism and so criminalized. Cardalda Sánchez and Tirado Avilés show how, here, they both demarcate local territory and construct imaginative and visual links that negate geographical distance by presenting a narrative of Puerto Rican history to a Manhattan community. Moreover, murals can be over-written by graffiti and so become a collective and interactive production, ‘a forum for the discussion or dialogue on topics of particular interest for the community’ (271). In similar vein, Raquel Rivera’s ‘Hip-Hop, Puerto Ricans, and ethnoracial identities in New York’ uncovers the Puerto Rican contribution to hip-hop culture and music, showing how, for Caribbean Latinos, ‘their participation in hip-hop is grounded in and celebrated as part of an Afro-diasporic cultural realm’ (254). Puerto Ricans, Rivera argues, were ‘welcome and active’ players in the hip-hop scene from its foundation in the early 1970s in the South Bronx where they ‘made up the majority of the population’ (237), and were particularly identified with the graffiti and breaking that constituted the broader (and, again, less transportable, more local) culture of hip-hop. When in the late 1970s and early 1980s hip-hop became commercialized and so travelled more widely as, above all, rap music, ‘its ethnoracial scope shrunk’ as it came to be seen as the exclusive possession of (non-Latino) African Americans (240).

In recovering and claiming this hidden history of puertorriqueñidad, then, Rivera also points to one specificity of the Puerto Rican community that marks them out from (some) other immigrant groups, namely the perceived problem of their ambiguous or shifting racial classification in that they may for instance be both Latino and Black, and forced to negotiate between racial categories that the US cultural imagination sees as contradictory. Rivera argues therefore that on the one hand the ‘perils of panethnic abstraction’ mean that ‘the historical and present connections between Afro-diasporic Latinos and African Americans in New York are, at times, muted or even drowned out by the naturalizing call of panlatinidad’ (250) while, on the other hand, when an ‘authentic’ African American experience is valorized, then Puerto Ricans are considered ‘not exactly black’ (241) or ‘virtual Blacks’ for whom ‘their ethnicity worked against them’ (242). In short, the racial fluidity and instability or variability of the Puerto Rican immigrants has been constituted as a problem within what Grosfoguel and Georas term the US ‘labyrinth of racial otherness’ within which they were therefore regarded as a special case, ‘a new racialized subject’ or a ‘new race’ (108). Too deterritorialized for their own good, Puerto Ricans had to be re-represented as a new type altogether. ‘The film West Side Story,’ Grosfoguel and Georas go on to suggest, ‘probably marked a turning point where Puerto Ricans truly became a distinct racialized minority, no longer to be confused with blacks or Chicanos in the Euroamerican social imaginary’ (108). And yet, in West Side Story, for the most part Puerto Ricans are not to be trusted to play themselves, their parts played for instance by actors whose parents were Russian (Natalie Wood as María) or Greek (George Chakiris as Bernardo).

Meanwhile, Grosfoguel and Georas also argue that Cuban-Americans (another community with substantial Afro-diasporic elements) did not suffer the same fate as Puerto Ricans because US state intervention and federal assistance meant that ‘every local government perceived Cuban settlement as a financial gain for a city rather than a burden, whitening the perception of their difference in the imaginary of white America [...]. They became whitened in the Euroamerican imaginary’ (111). The state, then, though it has not presented a barrier to Puerto Rican transnationalism, has in its differential treatment of Puerto Ricans and Cubans regulated the effects of these two globalizing flows, producing therefore different degrees of racial (in)stability. We should also note that, far from ethnicity serving as a nation-centred buffer or obstacle to globalization, here ethnic difference is itself constructed and then consolidated in the overlap of state policy and diasporic flow. In this context, the pan-national celebration of a global latinidad that is the legacy of so much Latin American thinking about race, ethnicity, and politics is indeed a universalizing abstraction that ignores the way in which specific national institutions construct ethnicity locally, strategically, and contextually. At this political level–and locally, at least–Laó-Montes believes that Latinos (although perhaps not the now decreasingly significant Puerto Rican population) are finally gaining control of the mechanisms of representation, arguing in ‘Niuyol’ that ‘There is now a milieu of elected and appointed officers [...] who configure a New York Latino class. Likewise, there is an infrastructure of social service and educational institutions explicitly organized to address the needs of Latino communities’ (140-141). As this political reterritorialization sets in, perhaps some new accommodation may arise between a Puerto Rican fluidity that seems to operate below the level of representation, and a system of categorization from above increasingly in the hands of representatives from the Latino community.

Such institutionalization and recognition of diasporic identity and agency may be one of the points at which a globalization from below becomes transformed into a reinvigorated management of global difference from above. It is at the interface, in the brokering and negotiation performed by activists and intellectuals, that the difference between a difference constituted by relatively un-manageable fluidity and a difference formed in the ordered domain of representation is worked out. With ‘Making Loisaida,’ Liz Sevcenko traces this process in the way in which ambitious cultural promoters–artists, musicians, poets, activists–constructed first the mythic identity and later the formal reality of a neighbourhood they named ‘Loisaida’ in Manhattan’s rundown Lower East Side. This involved the rapid construction of both a language and an invented tradition which then had to be sold not only to the city government (which in the end has the final responsibility for authorizing the names why which the city’s segments are known) but also to the residents, Latino and non-Latino alike, of the neighbourhood itself. Sevcenko demonstrates that what resulted was in some ways a Pyrrhic victory: though initially the Loisaida gained a sense of its own difference as subaltern and resistant, in the end what the neighbourhood had achieved was also a rebranding or repackaging that could ‘contribute to its own demise’ (313) as its new, ethnic identity proved attractive to middle-class gentrifiers who were, she quotes a newspaper reporting, ‘delighted by the flavor of the Hispanic neighborhood [...] and were paying astronomical prices for the privilege of living there’ (313).

Moreover, Mambo Montage itself, many of whose contributors declare that they too have been activists and so protagonists in the history they are now (re)writing, is an instance of the regularization of difference. The book makes difference respectable in so far as it provides the basis for the field of knowledge and enquiry that is ‘Latino Studies,’ to which both Mambo Montage and Magical Urbanism contribute. Davis’s greater fluency and cohesion shows the extent to which he is dealing with an area (‘Chicano Studies’) that already more or less established as a field of respectable difference, though his emphasis upon class difference serves also as an attempt to forestall Chicano culture from being too quickly assimilated as simply one amongst an unproblematic range of cultural variations within some US cultural mosaic. Within Mambo Montage, the most forceful–and also the most accomplished–essay is Juan Flores’s ‘Life off the hyphen,’ which is not only an analysis of the difference of the Puerto Rican experience from, in this case, the Cuban-American one, but also itself an attempt to ‘refuse the hyphenation of [...] identity,’ a hyphen (found in Cuban-American, Irish-American, and so on) that Flores argues is a ‘marker of collusion or compatibility’ (196). In arguing for the need to retain at least the traces of Puerto Rican incompatibility (the other side of the ‘Puerto Rican tragedy’), Flores is also trying to maintain a sense of global resistance, the resistance of a deterritorializing globalization from below, in the face of the local accommodations effected in New York and elsewhere.




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last updated October 22, 2004