Making Los Angeles Home: The Integration of Mexican Immigrants in the United States

Making Los Angeles Home: The Integration of Mexican Immigrants in the United States


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284869
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Rafael Alarcón has a PhD in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley and is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Luis Escala has a PhD in sociology from UCLA and is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Olga Odgers has a PhD in sociology from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales-Paris and is a professor and researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Dick Cluster is a writer and translator in Oakland, California, and the former Associate Director of the Honors Program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.


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Making Los Angeles Home

The Integration of Mexican Immigrants in the United States

By Rafael Alarcón, Luis Escala, Olga Odgers, Dick Cluster


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96052-7


Theoretical Perspectives on Immigrant Integration

The process through which immigrants are integrated into their destination societies falls within a larger discussion of the problem of social integration, surely one of the key elements in sociological thought since the early twentieth century. From the Durkheimian concern with the construction of the lien social to contemporary debates about threats posed by immigrants to the identities of their receiving or host societies, modern sociological outlooks might be classified according to their treatment of the processes of social integration and differentiation. Today, however, this discussion has taken on particular virulence and unexpected dimensions.

This debate has heated up because of the inevitable ties linking political philosophy, economics, and political science. That is, alongside the analysis of social integration or differentiation, any "integration project" implies a normative social vision. How much room should be afforded — or denied — to difference? What is the minimum degree of homogeneity required to guarantee social cohesion? What legitimate strategies guarantee the integration of new members into contemporary societies?

Thus, to take one example, some fundamental disagreements about the legal status of immigrant workers do not necessarily arise from different assessments of the extent or limits of these workers' integration, but rather stem from prevailing contradictions among the social ideals being pursued.

In order to contribute to this debate, we find it necessary, following Wieviorka, to distinguish among three levels of analysis that, although closely linked, belong to different realms of reflection. The first (a socio-anthropological perspective) is the analysis of concrete processes of social differentiation and integration in the context of specific historic realities. The second (political philosophy) involves the construction of models or ideals of integration, which can in turn point toward a third level (public policy), which is the creation of particular political projects.

Analysis of the specific processes that produce social differentiation constitutes a fundamental input to thinking about the societal ideal being pursued — what importance should be accorded to difference and what to the principle of equity — which in turn constitutes the point of departure for crafting strategies or public policies to promote integration. These three levels of thought, although tightly intertwined, follow three different logics that must be characterized as such.

Examining processes of social integration implies discussing the relationship between the individual and society, and more specifically the relationship between social integration and the principle of individuation. The society-individual relationship is key to analysis of the incorporation of immigrants into receiving societies because it highlights the bidirectional nature of this process: the migrant simultaneously "incorporates him- or herself into" the receiving society and "is incorporated by" it. Thus, consideration of this dialectic relationship can accord a central place to social subjects as actors in the processes of integration, without underestimating the force — sometimes a crushing one — that the society exercises over the individual who is seeking integration. Or, to use the formulation of Pastor and Ortiz, integration of immigrants may be defined as "improved economic mobility for, enhanced civic participation by, and receiving society openness to immigrants." Therefore it is fundamental to analyze both the immigrants' own capacity for action and the concrete actions of the society that receives them. We consider it of primary importance to employ this understanding of a two-way street — integration by the society and integration into the society — in any analysis of this process.

Equally, in examining varying analytical perspectives on integration, it is necessary to differentiate what importance each one accords to social change, distinguishing those perspectives that see society as a corps social from those that are focused on processes of integration. To what degree is the receiving society already a given, and to what degree is it under construction? What is the relative importance of immigration in the process of social change?

Following this general outline, with the goal of clarifying the theoretical framework that orients the present study, we shall first briefly review some of the major theoretical propositions that have guided thinking and debate about immigrant integration into host societies in recent decades. To make this discussion clearer, we divide these propositions into "classic theories" and "new perspectives." After this survey we will present the theoretical perspectives for analyzing economic, social, cultural, and political integration of immigrants that we have adopted in this book. Finally, in the last section of this chapter, we will describe our specific strategy for analyzing the integration processes of Mexican immigrants in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.


Over the past four or five decades, a vast literature has emerged on the subject of the status and spaces accorded or denied to immigrants in so-called host societies. Although this output has included a wide range of theoretical and normative approaches, these can be classified into two broad categories: those that take social integration as the objective to be achieved, and those that, on the contrary, emphasize the pursuit of models for the management of difference, which is seen as a central component of society. The first category is commonly labeled assimilationism, while the second is associated with the multiculturalist perspective.

Historically speaking, early theoretical approaches to the analysis of immigrant incorporation in receiving societies were strongly influenced by the functionalist viewpoint, which ties integration to social cohesion. Still, even at this early stage, the Durkheimian perspective of incorporation "by" the society (or the construction of social cohesion) was being replaced by the perspective of incorporation "into" the society.

These perspectives have at least two important implications. One is that the linking of integration and social cohesion assumes that assimilation is a positive phenomenon. Since social cohesion is seen as an indispensable requisite for maintaining society, integration acquires a normative character. Or, expressing this assumption in its negative form, the absence of the incorporation of immigrants constitutes a threat to social cohesion. Second, when attention is centered on integration "into" the society, it is assumed it is the migrants who will have to adapt themselves to the social context into which they hope to incorporate. This does not necessarily mean that societies must guarantee social cohesion by changing in order to make room for the immigrants. The responsibility for integration thus falls primarily on the immigrants themselves.

The theoretical approaches of this "classic" period were strongly influenced by the United States historical context because of, among other things, the important production of literature on that particular subject from the turn of the twentieth century on. In this US context, the reigning vision was the assimilationist one, well represented by the "melting pot" metaphor according to which immigrants gradually give up their cultural specificity so as to fully incorporate themselves into the host society. The fundamental thrust of assimilationism — the idea of the progressive fading away of immigrants' cultural boundaries — has at least three variants. The first, classical assimilationism, holds that the dissolution of cultural differences constitutes an irreversible and inevitable process. This classic model of integration dates to the Chicago School of the 1920s, with figures such as Robert Park, for whom that process is equated with migrants' assimilation. Though Park himself did recognize the difficulties faced in that process, he also stressed its positive aspects, which for him included immigrants' breaking with tradition and the subsequent expansion of secular individualism among their population. Park and Burgess posited the existence of a "cycle of race relations" in which a period of competition and conflict would be followed by a process of adaptation that would end with the eventual assimilation of the immigrants through participation in common experiences and shared traditions.

Building on this base, Milton Gordon put forward a more refined version that established different stages of the process and introduced the possibility that some groups would achieve greater assimilation than others, although he did not explain these differences. Gordon distinguished seven dimensions or general forms of assimilation: acculturation, structural assimilation, marital assimilation, identification, and attitude-receptional, behavior-receptional, and civic assimilation. For Gordon, each of these dimensions would take place gradually, but inevitably and irreversibly.

Classical assimilationist theory has since been revised and reformulated in many directions. One variant is the "new assimilation theory," which takes a critical stance toward the original outlook, reconsidering whether a "cycle of race relations" continues without pause and questioning whether this cycle can be completed within an immigrant's life span.

For these theorists, assimilation is a long-term process that can be observed only over several generations. For example, Alba and Nee, in what they themselves call "new assimilation theory," devote greater attention not only to the migration experience but also to the dominant population's openness to change and acceptance of the immigrant groups. This approach recognizes the growing heterogeneity of US society — the authors discuss assimilation not into Anglo-American culture as such but rather into mainstream culture — which makes it practically impossible to speak of any uniform process of assimilation of immigrants into this destination society. Still, this variant emphasizes the degree of transformation that takes place at the intergenerational level.

But probably the revision of the assimilationist approach that has had the greatest impact, which we will call the third main variant after the classical and new approaches, is known as the segmented assimilation approach. It holds that "the new second generation — the children of contemporary immigrants — becomes incorporated into the system of stratification in the host society."

In the work of Zhou and Portes, this approach stresses the importance of structural barriers that direct immigrants and their descendants toward distinct routes of assimilation within their destination societies; in the case of the United States, intergenerational assimilation leads to the children of migrants into different segments of US society. This perspective outlines three possible paths of assimilation: "One of them replicates the time-honored portrayal of growing acculturation and parallel integration into the white middle-class; a second leads straight in the opposite direction to permanent poverty and assimilation into the underclass; still a third associates rapid economic advancement with deliberate preservation of the immigrant community's values and tight solidarity."

Consequently, studies adopting the segmented assimilation perspective revolve around identifying the contextual, structural, and cultural factors that explain the unequal results in migrant assimilation. Among these factors, those seen as major determinants of the degree of assimilation are greater or lesser human capital, degree of cohesion in ethnic community and family structure, and the destination society's degree of disposition toward incorporation.

Alongside this approach, other analysts have adopted the perspective of racial and ethnic disadvantage. This approach conceives of the various migrant groups as minorities (the central referent being the black population in the United States) who confront persistent exploitation and discrimination by the dominant white population. This constitutes an obstacle to their economic and social mobility that blocks their possibilities of assimilation into the destination society. Thus, as Portes and Rumbaut demonstrate, migrants' racial and ethnic identities have a decisive influence not only on their occupational mobility and social acceptance but also on the aspirations and academic performance of their sons and daughters.

This revision of the assimilationist idea has at least two important effects. First, there is no direct relationship between assimilation and social mobility: the children of immigrants who live in poverty conditions do not owe their situation to a lack of assimilation, but to full assimilation into an inferior segment of the society. Put another way, social mobility is not an indicator of assimilation, just as poverty is not necessarily explained by a lack of assimilation. Second, the segmented assimilation perspective shows the need to distinguish different dimensions within the process of assimilation: cultural assimilation may be accompanied by social or economic exclusion, while the reinforcement of ethnic boundaries — that is, limited cultural assimilation — can be accompanied by rapid economic improvement. Thus, in the specific analyses of the process of immigrant incorporation into host societies, it is fundamental to dissociate cultural integration (expressed both in the internalization of norms and values and in the construction of life projects) from economic and social integration reflected in the usual indicators of social, educational, occupational, and other forms of mobility. The tension between successful cultural integration and poor socioeconomic integration can explain some of the most visible problems faced by the children of immigrants.

By positing the existence of important social differentiation that is reproduced — but not created — by the migrants, this third variant of the assimilationist approach (segmented assimilation) brings us closer to the second large group of theoretical perspectives that we mentioned at the outset of this chapter: the multiculturalist perspective on integration.

In spite of important differences among the various theoretical approaches we include in this second grouping, their common identifying characteristic is their recognition of cultural difference as a constitutive element in every society, from which it follows that the goal of the host societies is not the gradual dissolution of ethnic boundaries, but rather the management of difference. And difference, of course, precedes the arrival of each new immigrant group. The true challenge is thus not making cultural difference disappear, but on the contrary, to paraphrase Alain Touraine, answering the question, "How can we live together?" while respecting the principle of equity and valuing cultural difference.

Historically, this theoretical perspective grew out of the demands of the mid-twentieth-century US civil rights movement. Denunciation of the discrimination suffered by ethnic and racial minorities allowed for the emergence of a new discourse that sought not only suppression of social inequality but also recognition of cultural diversity. These demands were put forth within the African American as well as the Chicano and Native American movements.

Unlike earlier social movements, these movements linked to specific ethnic groups challenged the discrimination to which they had been subjected and demanded both equal opportunity and respect for cultural specificity. That is, they demanded integration based on recognition of difference. In terms of both analysis and political philosophy, this represents a major shift, one that upholds the necessity of simultaneously guaranteeing the rights to difference and to equity.


Excerpted from Making Los Angeles Home by Rafael Alarcón, Luis Escala, Olga Odgers, Dick Cluster. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction 1

Part 1 Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Aspects of Mexican Immigrant Integration in Metropolitan Los Angeles

1 Theoretical Perspectives on Immigrant Integration 11

2 Mexican Immigration and the Development of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area 34

3 Statistical Analysis of Mexican Immigrants' Integration in the Metropolitan Los Angeles Area 58

Part 2 Dimensions of Integration Among Immigrants from Zacatecas, Oaxaca, and Veracruz

4 Economic Integration: Mobility, Labor Niches, and Low-End Jobs 83

5 Social Integration: Building a Family, a Community, and a Life 108

6 Cultural Integration: Redefining Identities in a Diverse Metropolis 132

7 Political Integration: From Life in the Margins to the Pursuit of Recognition 163

Part 3 Government Intervention and the Immigrant Population

8 Public Policies and Mexican Immigrant Integration in the City and County of Los Angeles 185

Conclusion 207

Notes 221

Bibliography 235

Index 255

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