Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and

Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and "Illegality" in Mexican Chicago

by Nicholas De Genova

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Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and "Illegality" in Mexican Chicago by Nicholas De Genova

While Chicago has the second-largest Mexican population among U.S. cities, relatively little ethnographic attention has focused on its Mexican community. This much-needed ethnography of Mexicans living and working in Chicago examines processes of racialization, labor subordination, and class formation; the politics of nativism; and the structures of citizenship and immigration law. Nicholas De Genova develops a theory of “Mexican Chicago” as a transnational social and geographic space that joins Chicago to innumerable communities throughout Mexico. “Mexican Chicago” is a powerful analytical tool, a challenge to the way that social scientists have thought about immigration and pluralism in the United States, and the basis for a wide-ranging critique of U.S. notions of race, national identity, and citizenship.

De Genova worked for two and a half years as a teacher of English in ten industrial workplaces (primarily metal-fabricating factories) throughout Chicago and its suburbs. In Working the Boundaries he draws on fieldwork conducted in these factories, in community centers, and in the homes and neighborhoods of Mexican migrants. He describes how the meaning of “Mexican” is refigured and racialized in relation to a U.S. social order dominated by a black-white binary. Delving into immigration law, he contends that immigration policies have worked over time to produce Mexicans as the U.S. nation-state’s iconic “illegal aliens.” He explains how the constant threat of deportation is used to keep Mexican workers in line. Working the Boundaries is a major contribution to theories of race and transnationalism and a scathing indictment of U.S. labor and citizenship policies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822387091
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/27/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 741 KB

About the Author

Nicholas De Genova is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Latino Studies Program at Columbia University. He is a coauthor of Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3626-6

Chapter One


Representation becomes significant, not just as an academic or theoretical quandary but as a political choice. -Edward Said, "Representing the Colonized: Anthropology's Interlocutors"

"¿Por las buenas o las malas?" So responded Celso in a manner that was light-hearted but not without a certain measure of suspicion, upon learning from Emiliano that I was interested in learning and eventually writing a book about the experiences and problems of Mexican migrants in the United States. My friend Emiliano, whom I had known during several years of political collaboration, first introduced me in the spring of 1992 to a group of men who had migrated from his rural hometown in the Mexican state of Morelos-the supporters and members of a soccer team, whose weekend matches I too would later attend fairly regularly. "¿Por las buenas o las malas?" Demanding in a jocular tone, "[Are you going to do it] with the carrot or the stick?"-literally, "by good means or bad?"-Celso immediately expressed his reservations that I might intend to force it out of them, as in an interrogation. With this concise andpoignant question, he ironically registered his sense that the very act of trying to make people or their lived experiences into an "object of study" was something invasive, and even potentially coercive. Questions concerning the politics of representation have been a persistent preoccupation, literally from the outset of the research that was the basis for this book. As evidenced by Celso's skepticism, moreover, that quandary was never merely mine alone. Beginning with the very first preliminary research notes that I ever scribbled, and throughout the history of my ethnographic endeavors, there was ample and recurrent evidence of the salience of questions about who I was and what exactly was my purpose, followed by diverse expressions of a skeptical spirit and an engaged critical sensibility that frankly challenged my intention to write about the social situation of Mexican migrants.

On the same occasion, another team member, José Luís, asked if what I had in mind would resemble the Hollywood film The Border, whose protagonist is a white Border Patrol agent. By citing this rather high-profile, mass-mediated depiction of Mexican "illegal aliens" and the purported crisis they represent for U.S. border policing, José Luís was clearly suggesting that there were already abundant representations of "Mexicans" in the United States, indeed, images that contributed to the racialized stigma of their "illegality" and foreignness (Chávez 2001; Johnson 1997). The extent of his skepticism about my ethnographic interest to represent the experiences of Mexican migrants, however, was truly revealed only once I myself began to denounce the film for its transparent racism. Perhaps somewhat encouraged by my reply, José Luís then went on to ask me to explain why the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)-la Migra-was known to have sometimes strip-searched undocumented migrant workers when they were apprehended during factory raids, emphasizing that they obviously could not have been concealing narcotics if they were arrested on the job. José Luís's expectation, reasonably and rightly enough, was that I was a U.S. citizen, an "American," and ought to have an answer for such gratuitously degrading and dehumanizing practices on the part of what we both knew was certainly not his government. From the very inception of my attempt to conduct ethnographic research, then, it was abundantly manifest that my "anthropological" aspirations were inextricable from the politics of my social location-as a U.S. citizen, as someone racialized as white, as an intellectual educated in elite schools, with the luxury of having the pretension to write books, and thus, regardless of my working-class family background or my radical politics, as an objectively privileged and effectively middle-class person. Who was I, after all, to want to write about the experiences of Mexican migrants in the United States, and more important still, how would I do so?

A critique of the discipline of anthropology and dominant forms of anthropological representation, furthermore, was articulated forcefully and explicitly when I first met Efraín, a man in his late forties who had migrated to Chicago from Honduras in the late 1960s. We met in a nightclub in May of 1994 in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, where I was living. I was there with my friend Anselmo, a migrant who was twenty-three and had been in the United States for only three years. When Anselmo introduced me to Efraín, he included the fateful mention that I was affiliated with the University of Chicago. "The University of Chicago?!?" Efraín immediately exclaimed, "In Latin America, we know all about the fucking University of Chicago!" The mere mention of the notorious place inspired him to launch into an impassioned denunciation of "los Chicago boys," the University of Chicago economists who had engineered the austerity programs that intensified the misery of the Chilean working class under Pinochet's dictatorship. Efraín concluded as he had begun, rearming, "We already know all about the University of Chicago." Anselmo was probably a bit embarrassed at having unsuspectingly subjected me to all this unforeseen adversity and tried to defend me, now by insisting that I was an anthropologist-not like those Chicago economists at all! Efraín continued unabated, "You know, anthropology has really fucked us over! I went today to that fucking Field Museum [of Natural History] to see the exhibition 'Visiones del Pueblo'-it was an infamy! What a horror! People are stupid, and the museum increases people's stupidity-that's its function." Clearly, for Efraín, the global inequalities of power and wealth created and perpetuated by U.S. imperialism undergirded and unified the diverse capacities of a broad continuum of U.S.-based academics in a range of distinct intellectual disciplines to nevertheless participate in the domination of the peoples of Latin America. Some devised neoliberal economic policies for Latin American dictatorships; others, such as anthropologists, authoritatively represented indigenous Latin American "cultures" in museums and textbooks that located their presumably discrete cultural visions within Eurocentric social evolutionary schemes of "natural history." Indeed, the very notion that the history of pre-Columbian civilizations (or contemporary Latin American "cultures") belonged in a natural history museum that houses dinosaurs signaled a whole legacy of colonial anthropology that evaluated and cataloged the "traditions" of "primitive peoples," depicting them as living analogies to Stone Age cavemen, trapped somewhere in humanity's ascent from apes, apparently incapable of progressing to the self-styled "modernity" of "Western civilization." Thus, some U.S. academics worked on the economics of "underdevelopment" in the so-called Third World, and others rationalized such "backwardness" in relation to "cultural" difference.

I was laughing along with Efraín's robust disdain for such imperial and racist arrogance and agreeing with his passionate denunciations while Anselmo persisted on my behalf. In his own fashion, arming with Edward Said that representation is finally not merely an intellectual problem but also a political choice, Anselmo declared in my defense, "But Nicolás is a communist!" Once some semblance of my political credibility had been established after further discussion, Efraín nevertheless warned me ominously, "Just be careful that you don't let the University of Chicago seduce you!"

Even when people became fairly confident that my politics were sure to be critical of the racial oppression and exploitation that Mexicans confront in the United States, there often remained a healthy skepticism about my purported plan to write a book. In a small taquería in the predominantly Mexican/migrant working-class suburb of Cicero, where I regularly ate lunch and passed the time between teaching assignments at a nearby factory, I would often have long conversations with the owner and the other workers. The owner Arnulfo, himself formerly a factory worker, rented the store and worked full-time behind the counter, cooking and operating the cash register. In his late thirties, Arnulfo had migrated from a small agrarian town in Zacatecas eleven years earlier, and he dreamed of returning to Mexico to open a restaurant there. Discussing my stated intention to write a book, Arnulfo objected, "But the government knows about all this, they understand very well-and they're not going to want you to tell people about all of this; they might not let you say these things, because I know that what you'll say will be critical of what the government does!" Implicitly, Arnulfo challenged me not to subscribe to such a naive faith in the duplicitous liberal promises of U.S. democracy. Even if I presumed to write a book that might tell the truth, Arnulfo reasoned, why should I imagine that I could get away with it?

It was not as if the Mexican/migrant communities of Chicago had not already been subjected to the various investigative techniques of academic researchers from local universities. In February of 1995, I was planning to interview my friend María, a single mother in her late twenties who had grown up in both Mexico and California as a result of her family shuttling back and forth every year or two, and who then had migrated from Mexico to Chicago about seven years before I met her. María told me that she was already having regular interview visits with another friend, a Mexican/migrant herself, who was a college student collecting data on welfare programs for some anthropologist or sociologist who had employed her as a research assistant. María laughed at the almost perverse absurdity of how, for the purposes of the "social scientific" documentation of her poverty and "welfare dependency," she was expected to report all of the various ways that, as a "Latina single mother collecting public assistance," she received goods or services free of charge through "informal networks." Later that year, María poignantly criticized my own "anthropology": "I'm slowly facing the reality that you're not Mexican and that you're only living in Pilsen to do your research." She emphasized the word research with a tone of disdain and estrangement. When I asked her what she meant, she explained, "Well, I think to myself -that's such a white thing to do-come here from outside to do research for some university; then you're just gonna leave to go live in Hyde Park to be close to that Chicago University." María confronted me bluntly with the complex web of racialized class inequalities that not only made it possible for me to be conducting research in Mexican/migrant communities like her own but also would implicate my subsequent life choices in a career trajectory that seemed inseparable from white middle-class communities and elite universities. She also forcefully asserted that university studies of racially oppressed communities were inevitably linked to white power.

My friend Jaime communicated similar concerns when he imparted to me a rather memorable warning. Jaime had grown up in Chicago since the age of five in a Costa Rican family comprised of a widowed mother with ten children, in predominantly Puerto Rican communities on the city's North Side; as Jaime liked to put it, "We weren't working class, we were welfare class." Jaime had gone to college and was working for a Pilsen-based, Latino-identified social service agency. In 1997, when we crossed paths after having not seen each other for several months, I mentioned that I was no longer working as an ESL teacher because I was now being supported by a doctoral dissertation-writing fellowship to work on my thesis full-time. With a mischievous grin and a sparkle in his eye, Jaime cautioned, "You better be careful-next thing you know, they might want you to set up a Department of Cucaracha Studies." Reminiscent of Efraín's stringent warning about the seductions of the university, Jaime reminded me that the enticements of money and prestige associated with an academic career could subtly distort and subvert the aims of my research, implying that I had to be vigilant against the ethical and political dangers that would accompany my professional advancement. Furthermore, he made it plain that I was responsible, ethically and politically, to the Mexican migrants and the broader Latino community with whom I had been working. One of the central burdens of that relationship concerned, precisely, the politics of representation-the ease with which Mexican or Latino studies might be disfigured by elite educational institutions into the kind of scholarship that objectifies people and represents them as something akin to so many miserable and filthy cockroaches, lined up for "scientific" scrutiny.

As my friends persistently and provocatively reminded me, I had a responsibility not to transpose my research into the kind of dehumanizing study by which a white social scientist, bolstered by the power and privilege of credentials and funding from elite universities, presumes to make authoritative pronouncements about "the Mexicans" and some ossified thing called "their culture" (see Fanon 1956, 29-44). With all of these cautionary dialogues as a guide, I have sought to produce this book and its ethnographic representations of Mexican/migrant perspectives and experiences, not so as to presume to demonstrate "this is what they're like," or "this is their culture," but rather in a manner that serves the ends of a critique of global capitalism and the U.S. nation-state, its nationalism, its racial order, and its imperial projects, which, taken together, are the defining and also enabling horizon of the research that informs this work. My purpose in this study has been precisely not to "study Mexican immigrants," whose "culture" could be objectified and rendered intelligible to the dominant institutions of the U.S. nation-state. Rather, my aim here is to interrogate the U.S. nation-state and its nationalism from the critical standpoint of Mexican migration-as a particular racialized, transnational, working-class social formation-as I have come to understand its vital movement, in dialogue with some of the people whose everyday struggles have produced and sustained that dynamic.


If the role of anthropology for colonialism was relatively unimportant, the reverse proposition does not hold.... It is not merely that anthropological fieldwork was facilitated by European colonial power ... it is that the fact of European power, as discourse and practice, was always part of the reality anthropologists sought to understand, and of the way they sought to understand it. -Talal Asad, "From the History of Colonial Anthropology to the Anthropology of Western Hegemony"

There is, of course, a myth of fieldwork ... but as a means for producing knowledge from an intense intersubjective engagement, the practice of ethnography retains a certain exemplary status. -James Clifford, "On Ethnographic Authority"

The by now massed discourses, codes, and practical traditions of anthropology, with its authorities, disciplinary rigors, genealogical maps, systems of patronage and accreditation have been accumulated into various modes of being anthropological.... And if we suspect that as in all scholarly disciplines, the customary way of doing things both narcotizes and insulates the guild member, we are saying something true about all forms of disciplinary worldliness. Anthropology is not an exception. -Edward Said, "Representing the Colonized: Anthropology's Interlocutors"


Excerpted from WORKING THE BOUNDARIES by NICHOLAS DE GENOVA Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xv

Introduction: Working the Boundaries 1

I. Politics of Knowledge/Politics of Practice

1. Decolonizing Ethnography 13

2. The “Native’s Point of View”: Immigration and the Immigrant as Objects of U. S. Nationalism 56

3. Locating a Mexican Chicago in the Space of the U. S. Nation-State 95

II. Everyday Life: The Location of Politics

4. The Politics of Production 147

5. Reracialization: Between “Americans” and Blacks 167

III. Historicity: The Politics of Location

6. The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant “Illegality” 213

Conclusion 251

Notes 255

Bibliography 281

Index 311

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