USC sociologist’s new book looks at mobility of Mexican-Americans
A timely new book by USC sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo challenges the widespread assumption that Mexican-Americans in the United States are persistently poor and uneducated, and do not achieve social and economic mobility.
Rather, in Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class (Stanford University Press, 2012), Vallejo examines how Mexican-Americans from a range of class backgrounds are remaking the middle class — and she looks at the challenges facing high-achieving Mexican-Americans as they retain ties to poorer family members or assimilate into white America.
“Minorities, especially the growing population of Mexican-Americans, are poised to fill the white collar positions vacated by baby boomers, making it critical to take a closer look at the mobility paths and challenges faced by those who succeed,” said Vallejo, assistant professor of sociology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
While only 7.9 percent of first-generation Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles are employed in white collar jobs, the number rises dramatically to 27 percent of second-generation and 31.2 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans, Vallejo found.
Similarly, while the average household income of first-generation Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles is below the national average, third-generation Mexican-American households earn $75,820 on average, well above the national median.
The stereotypes cut both ways, Vallejo noted. While some politicians maintain that Mexican immigrants and their children perpetually drain America’s resources, economic success can also mean strained community ties for Mexican-Americans: “The idea is that if you’re not poor or didn’t grow up poor, then you must not really be Mexican,” Vallejo said.
“Yet there’s also this pervasive idea that Mexican immigrants and their children will never assimilate,” she added.
Vallejo traced the different social and economic trajectories of Mexican-Americans who have achieved the markers of middle-class life, including white collar professions, high levels of education and homeownership. She used a combination of demographic data, in-depth interviews with Mexican-Americans and field research in the middle-class Mexican-American community.
Vallejo interviewed one middle-class Mexican-American, at his sprawling ranch home, who recalled weekly visits as a child to the same street on which he now lives. He was accompanying his mother, who cleaned houses.
Another interviewee recalled encountering visible surprise to her perfect, unaccented English — and the assumption that she must speak Spanish and “eat salsa.”
More than half of the undocumented migrants to the United States are from Mexico, and in Barrios to Burbs, Vallejo highlights some of the key factors that have helped some 1.5- and second-generation Mexican immigrants achieve economic mobility into the middle class, including access to higher education, parental legal status, entrepreneurship and Latino professional organizations.
But Vallejo also makes a crucial delineation between Mexican-Americans who grew up poor and those who grew up privileged, revealing important nuances in this fast-growing demographic group.
For example, while Mexican-Americans are often described as more devoted to family than other ethnic groups, Vallejo found that financial support of poorer relatives is not a universal Mexican-American cultural response, but one largely determined by class background and shaped by the immigrant struggle.
Some Mexican-Americans are the children of poor, low-wage immigrants and are the first in their families to enter the middle class. Middle-class pioneers face specific challenges, including social isolation in white collar workplaces and strong ties to relatives, especially parents, who require high levels of financial and social support, according to Barrios to Burbs.
Other middle-class Mexican-Americans were raised in middle-class households and neighborhoods. These Mexican-Americans are viewed by others — and may themselves feel — much closer to the whites who make up the majority of America’s middle class. In these Mexican-American households, financial support is much more likely to mirror middle-class white families, with money going in one direction from parents to children.
Indeed, Vallejo found that some later-generation middle-class Mexican-Americans have assimilated so thoroughly that they must consciously choose to become “more Mexican” in order to identify with their ethnic backgrounds and to avoid the marker of being “whitewashed” or “coconuts.”
However, the vast majority of people interviewed by Vallejo identified as Mexican-American, cutting across those who grew up poor and those who did not, across generations, gender and skin tone. And despite achieving economic and educational success, nearly everyone Vallejo interviewed for her book recalled an occasion where they had been subjected to an ethnic or immigrant stereotype.
“This book demonstrates that there are many pathways into the middle class and that individuals can adopt a minority identity yet incorporate into the middle class,” Vallejo wrote.
Ultimately, Vallejo demonstrated that the Mexican-American population in the United States is far from monolithic.
“Contrary to pervasive stereotypes, a Mexican-American middle-class is thriving in Southern California,” Vallejo said. “Their growing presence in the middle and upper classes provides role models and institutional support for other immigrants, demonstrating to a socioeconomically marginalized group that it is possible to achieve.”
To view a “60-Second Seminar” with Jody Agius Vallejo, visit dornsife.usc.edu/videos/featured/474/60-second-seminars-jody-agius-vallejo/