Remaking Citizenship: Latina Immigrants and New American Politics

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Standing at the intersection of immigration and welfare reform, immigrant Latin American women are the target of special scrutiny in the United States, both by the state and the media. They are often presented as scheming, transnational "welfare queens" or as long-suffering, silent victims of globalization and machismo. Remaking Citizenship argues for a reformulation of American definitions of citizenship and politics, one inspired by women who are usually perceived to be excluded from both.

Weaving the life stories of Mexican and Central American women with history and analysis of the anti-immigrant upsurge in 1990s California, this compelling book examines the impact of national immigration and welfare reform legislation on individual women's lives and their engagement in grassroots political organizing. Through their stories of personal and political transformation, these women offer a new vision of politics rooted in concerns as disparate as domestic violence, childrearing, women's self-esteem, and immigrant and workers' rights.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Coll's] nuanced approach to citizenship is one of the book's strengths. The varied and complex practices of citizenship Coll discusses expand normative ideas about citizenship as a formal status. . . A final strength of the book is the richness of the ethnographic data and the author's reflective voice. This makes it an important read for students and scholars of citizenship studies, Latina/o and Chicana/o studies."—Paloma Villegas, Camino Real

"The great significance of Remaking Citizenship consists in its careful analysis of these migrant women at the intersection of two major areas of public concern in need of reform: immigration and welfare . . . The timeliness of Coll's book lies not only in its attention to gendered aspects of Mexican immigration to the United States; through her focus on migrant mothers and children, she also makes an important contribution to debates about the privatization of the public sphere by showcasing new forms of citizenship that are not limited to national belonging."—Marion Rohrleitner, American Quarterly

"Coll's ethnographic study illuminates the myriad ways that immigrant women are enacting new forms of citizenship in their own image and on their own terms . . . The strength of Remaking Citizenship is that Coll does not succumb to a linear narrative of women's self-empowerment, but remains attentive to the gaps and contradictions in Latina citizenship discourses."—Alejandra Marchevsky, Contemporary Sociology

"Coll's work is a valuable anthropological contribution to the notion of 'cultural citizenship' . . . Remaking Citizenship is a significant addition to citizenship studies that demonstrates the importance of studying the collective response to the changing legal environment of the state's surveillance of immigrants."—Bryan S. Turner, Journal of Classical Sociology

"[Coll] has presented the struggles and strategies of Latina immigrants in changing their hostile social and political environment in a personal and compelling academic way made possible only through ethnographic work . . . Through adding the perspectives of marginalized individuals, Coll extends our understanding of the different ways citizenship is experienced and signified."—Ben Herzog, American Journal of Sociology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804758222
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 3/3/2010
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 233
  • Sales rank: 1,217,575
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathleen Coll is a Lecturer in Feminist Studies and Anthropology at Stanford University.

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Read an Excerpt

Remaking Citizenship

Latina Immigrants and New American Politics
By Kathleen M. Coll

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5822-2

Chapter One

Conviviendo con Mujeres Unidas y Activas

Passing the Time with MUA

THE WEATHER WAS UNUSUALLY WARM and sunny on May 1, 2006, as tens of thousands of white-shirted demonstrators filled the streets of San Francisco's financial district. The synchronized marching of the uniformed honor guard of the Longshoremen's Union elicited cheers. I recalled stories my father told me about how militant longshoremen led the last general strike in San Francisco in 1934. Labor activists and anarchists, among others, keep up the International Workers' Day tradition each May 1 in San Francisco. The marchers wear their union locals' T-shirts or jackets or carry red-and-black banners declaring "Value Labor, Not Capital!"

A celebration of organized labor's contributions to a proudly union city, the 2006 May Day had been recast as "the Great American Boycott." It was distinguished from other years' commemorations not only by its size, but also as one of many local manifestations of a national immigrant work stoppage and consumer boycott. Some Latino demonstrators who had never participated in a U.S. May Day greeted white radicals with smiles and thanks for joining in "their" march. Red, white, and blue signs proclaimed "AMERICA, we are your people!" Immigrant women pushed babies in strollers alongside older children boycotting school for the day and behind banners demanding equal labor protections for domestic workers. Men had draped Mexican as well as American flags around their heads, and the Nicaraguan consular officers hung their flag out the consulate's high-rise window. Signs ranged from the pragmatic "Stop HR 4437" to the pointed "You like our food, why don't you want our people?" The militancy of the marching male and female longshoremen was matched by the lighthearted spirit of protesters who squatted down and jumped up in concert to make long waves up and down Market Street from City Hall and the Civic Center to the Ferry Building at the Port of San Francisco.

The first national walkout of this scale for immigrant rights reclaimed the international celebration of organized labor for a new American workforce. If the contemporary global order denies the dignity of labor and seeks to define us by what we consume, these demonstrators embodied the message that not all workers are men, not all consumers are adults, and not all voters are white and native-born. In the words of one banner, "Today we march, tomorrow we vote." The marchers' actions echoed the tradition of each new generation of U.S. immigrants learning to wield influence in electoral politics. However, they also demanded recognition of their difference along with inclusion. By claiming equal rights and democratic protections for all, even for those excised from the body politic by law or by custom, they challenged fundamental assumptions of membership and belonging in this country.

Experiences such as these lead me to a very different conclusion from those who see Americans as increasingly "bowling alone" instead of building civic institutions (Putnam, 2000). Such formulations tend to erase the contributions, indeed the personhood, of the people who may be the most active in building community and social life in many parts of the United States. This book introduces one such group of new citizens-the members of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA)-and the processes through which they came to feel a sense of belonging and entitlement to rights and protections in the United States.

The Myth of the Sleeping Giant

Media coverage of the events of May 1, 2006, focused on the phenomenon of a sudden and spontaneous mobilization of millions of immigrants around the country. Pundits pointed to the power of Spanish-language radio to move people to march, invoking the image or specter, depending on your point of view, of the awakening "sleeping giant" of Latino political participation. However, this book argues that at least for one group of immigrants participating in the May 1 marches, and likely for many others as well, participation was neither spontaneous nor exceptional, nor could it be explained as a "post-9/11" phenomenon.

Activism by noncitizens is one piece of evidence that dejure legal citizenship and voting should not define the scope of de facto political contributions in a liberal democratic society. Understanding contemporary immigrant claims for citizenship, belonging, and entitlement requires an appreciation of the particular forms of grassroots immigrant organizing that have taken place over many years in different parts of the country, and that shape the contours of current events. Latino/a immigrant rights activism today has social and institutional roots in the community-based legalization and refugee-services organizing of the 1980s (Coutin, 2000), as well as in efforts by organized labor to reach out to the new immigrant workforce in the 1990s. Claims based on human rights and workers' rights draw on language from civil rights and women's rights organizing and social movements in the United States as well as in Latin America (Coll, 2004, 2005; Dagnino, 2003). Understanding how this group of women came to identify with and participate in these kinds of efforts highlights the complex processes underlying the dynamic notion of citizenship they laid claim to.

Public acts in the political realm, such as the naturalization ceremony described in the Introduction and the May Day demonstration, have long been understood to be constitutive of citizenship (Young, 1990). However, the women I interviewed focused their stories of politics on profoundly personal and intimate experiences that disrupted the dichotomy between the political/public and the personal/private that is central to cultural logics of racial, class, and gender exclusivity in American citizenship. Iris Marion Young traces the heritage, assumptions, and tensions within American notions of politics and civic life to Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke, showing how these tensions are foundational to what otherwise seems like internal contradictions between universal ideals of democracy and discriminatory citizenship laws. She points out that the very notion of a natural dichotomy between the public and private social realms was part and parcel of the suppression of difference within the citizenry and the relegation of emotion, intimate relations, the body, and other forms of identity to the private world apart from the public world of citizenship. Such cultural beliefs about the public and private mean that, even when previously excluded groups are formally admitted to the citizenry, they continue to be "measured according to norms derived from and defined by privileged groups" (Young, 1989, 255).

Collective efforts to bridge the divide between public and private in citizenship ideals and practices challenge the marginalization of certain citizen-subjects along lines of difference such as race, religion, sexuality, and language. Despite the ideological and practical forces aligned against them, the women I spoke with reported that attending protests against public service cutbacks, speaking out at school board meetings, and participating in door-to-door immigrant voter registration campaigns were powerful and transformative personal experiences. Reason and emotion, the intimate and the public, and private and political issues and identities were interwoven in these stories. The women "felt" the changes in themselves and how they "thought" about their rights and social position in the United States as a result of both public participation and the more private processes of peer support and changes in family relationships they were undergoing at the same time.

Claiming Rights

The public claims for rights and recognition of the women I knew in the crowd in San Francisco on May 1, 2006, had roots in struggles in the more intimate domains of the self and family and the intersections between these realms and public institutions such as law and policy. Behind these women's participation, as well as behind the absence of others on that day, were histories informed by experiences of politics and citizenship in their home countries, dynamics within their families of origin and their current house holds, and subordination as working-class, non-English-speaking Latin American immigrants in the United States. Each woman's story was unique and shaped the distinct ways she came to claim a place and rights in the United States. Through sharing time together and dialogue about their commonalities across diverse experiences, including analyzing some of the historic and institutional reasons for their shared experiences, women came to articulate shared critiques and views on immigration, and also alternative politics of gender, race, education, health care, and labor.

This book tells a particular story about how a group of immigrant women experienced their political capacity, or lack thereof, in different areas of life. Their view of citizenship changed depending not only on institutional rules and boundaries, but also on the members of the body politic and how they understand their rights, entitlements, and social roles. State policies and traditions may enable or repress certain citizenship identities, but the dissent, struggle, and creativity of women like these have their impact on citizenship as well.

Citizenship processes became visible in these women's actions, but also in the way they told their own stories and the particular language of citizenship that they developed in conversation with one another. What I refer to as their citizenship discourses, or vernaculars of citizenship, reveal the way that intimate, personal, and domestic conflicts and concerns inform the public political actions and identities that we more often associate with citizenship. Key concepts that the women used when talking about coming to see themselves as members of U.S. society, whether legal citizens or not, reflected the multi-layered, multileveled nature of their citizenship identities (Yuval-Davis and Werbner, 1999). These narratives highlighted the ways in which citizenship concerns and claims were constituted at the points of intersection, tension, and conflict within or between the domains of the family and the state. Although later chapters focus on the processes that the women called gaining autoestima (self-esteem) and aprendiendo a hablar (learning to speak), this chapter focuses on some strategies they employed collectively to empower themselves through buena informacion (good information). Just as their stories challenge us to rethink what we mean by citizenship, we also need to pay careful attention to the more complex and multidirectional dynamics underlying a seemingly straightforward project of getting informed about services, rights, and other shared interests.

Ethnography, Citizenship, and Motherhood

Studying citizenship ethnographically required bracketing my own cultural "common sense" that citizenship was fundamentally a state-defined legal status, or that it was an issue only when people used the term explicitly. To understand the meaning of citizenship as a cultural, social, political, and historical process, we need to look not only at state power and institutions, but also at other aspects of political economy and history, including individual and collective processes of political participation and transformation in daily life. Liberal multiculturalist visions of democratic political life tend to focus on how excluded groups come to join the body politic over time and, as Bloemraad (2006) points out, on internal characteristics of immigrants rather than on receiving societies and institutions. This is too partial and unilinear a story (Kymlicka, 2001). In contrast, critics of "governmentality" also may overstate the effectiveness of state efforts to monopolize citizenship and shape political subjectivity (Ong, 1996). Citizenship is both a mode of exclusion and a site of struggle for equality (Holder, 2008). This central tension produces new dynamics and new identities that may be as contradictory as they are productive of new political identities.

I began this research project as a witness and collaborator in conversation with subjects who were themselves social analysts (R. Rosaldo, 1989). While their goals and interests were more immediate and concrete, it was through close attention to Mujeres Unidas y Activas members' stories and beliefs about their position and rights in this society that I came to see that the realm of citizenship included such issues as domestic violence, childrearing, welfare, public health care, and immigration. The state holds and deploys tremendous power that shapes not only institutions and practices, but also our senses of ourselves, who we are, and where we fit into society (Ong, 1995, 1996). Yet we do not always see or conduct ourselves as the predictable subjects of governance desired by the state and described in some social theory (J. Clarke, 2005; Li, 2005, 2007).

Careful attention to MUA's approach to organizational and individual development helped me appreciate what was specific and innovative about this particular group, and also what such community-based participation had to teach about political identity and social practices more broadly. The thirty women interviewed for this book were, among their other personal characteristics, immigrants from Mexico and Central America, non-English-speaking, low-income, and of diverse immigration statuses. Many were also single mothers who had received or were receiving some form of public assistance to support their children. I saw several I knew from 1990s MUA activities again among the marchers on May 1, 2006, ten years later. Others have since moved out of San Francisco in search of more affordable housing, or now have steadier work and so cannot attend regular meetings. While such women often participate in marches or special events with MUA, the organization they helped build has continued to grow with new generations of more active members. "They have us on remote control now," one full-time working mother told me with a laugh when we discussed our new phases of life and relationship to the organization as we waited for our children at their first communion class in 2005. She was pleased that newcomers and other "veteran" activists continued to expand the work, and also that they kept her up to date on events and called on her for public actions.

When Mujeres Unidas y Activas was founded in 1990 with two leaders, a dozen members, and no office, it operated under the auspices of a regional immigrant rights coalition that also raised and administered the small amount of private funding the organization received. By the time I began fieldwork in the summer of 1996, the group claimed over two hundred members and an active core of fifty women, including four full-time paid staff members. Although still operating with the fiscal sponsorship of the larger coalition, Mujeres Unidas y Activas had its own office space in a building with other nonprofit organizations in the Mission District of San Francisco. Most of the funding came from private foundations, but a significant portion of the bud get also originated in public funds channeled through nonprofits to offer support, referral, and education services, often in lieu of public services that had been eliminated by previous bud get cuts. During the 1990s, California was struggling to come to terms with having become, in less than three de cades, home to one-third of the nation's immigrants and 40 percent of its undocumented population (McCarthy and Vernez, 1997; Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1999).


Excerpted from Remaking Citizenship by Kathleen M. Coll Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Conviviendo con Mujeres Unidas y Activas: Passing the Time with MUA 23

2 Law, Politics, and the American Dream 51

3 Learning the Ropes: Stories of Motherhood and Citizenship 73

4 Autoestima y la Doble Misión del Grupo: Self-Esteem and the Dual Mission of the Group 100

5 Desahogandose y Aprendiendo a Hablar: Speaking Up and Speaking Out 116

6 Convivencia, Necesidades y Problemas: Vernaculars of Belonging and Coalition 133

7 Remaking Citizenship: Immigrants, Personhood, and Human Rights 154

Appendix 185

Notes 193

References 209

Index 225

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