Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Immigrant workers

The other Latin America

Mike Davis
Mike Davis

The face of US cities is changing, says Mike Davis in his new book reviewed by Chris Bambery, and it will be immigrants who will be at the centre of resistance

The first time I set foot in the United States I found myself in Washington Heights, New York City, on the evening of Puerto Rico day. Cars were driving round with Puerto Rican flags, their drivers honking their horns, crowds were barbecuing in the park overlooking the Hudson River and there was music everywhere. Until then I had never realised how Spanish speaking New York was.

That was a decade and a half ago. Subsequent visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco made me aware of the richness of Latino immigration into the US--not just from Mexico and Puerto Rico but from countries like El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Los Angeles is not just Mexico's second city, it contains as many El Salvadoreans as San Salvador or more. New York has as many Puerto Ricans as San Juan and as many Dominicans as Santo Domingo.

Magical Urbanism, a new book by the left wing writer Mike Davis, examines the burgeoning Latino world of the United States. If your knowledge is confined to viewing West Side Story or to Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, then this book will come as a revelation. Did you know that Nashville, home of country music, now has three Spanish language music stations? In Miami and Los Angeles you can see signs in shopfronts saying 'Se habla ingles'. Latinos are heavily concentrated in the great cities of the US. The book traces the explosion of a Latino culture and the repopulation and revitalisation of inner city areas by Spanish speakers. Yet a recent study found that only one out of 50 characters on prime time television is Latino.

Globalisation has created in the US a Pan-American, Spanish speaking working class. Latinos living in the US already make up the fifth largest 'nation' in Latin America, and in 50 years time the US Latino population will be greater than that of Colombia and Argentina, only being outstripped by Brazil and Mexico. Today Latinos are the single largest ethnic-racial group in Los Angeles (where they outnumber blacks and Anglo-Americans), in New York (where they surpassed the black population four years ago) and six of the US's ten biggest cities.

Las Vegas 30 years ago had scarcely any Latino population. The casino industry relied on a segregated black population to supply its maids and janitors. Today Las Vegas is home to 200,000 Latinos who now outnumber blacks both in the workforce and in the general population. One swap meet (the equivalent here would be a car boot sale) in North Las Vegas draws 20,000 Latinos each weekend.

This road sign on the US-Mexican border 'welcomes' the new immigrants

In inner city areas what Mike Davis calls 'transnational suburbs' have grown up. Randall's, a prestigious Houston grocery chain, has recruited over 1,000 workers from villages in the Totonicapan highlands of Guatemala. The result is a thriving Mayan village in the suburbs of Houston. Back in Totonicapan this link has been incorporated into local religious ritual with the migration north prayed for as if for bountiful harvests, good weather and saints. Each summer the immigrants return to take part in a fiesta which ends in a soccer match between the locals and those living in Houston.

In this case big business is manipulating immigration for its own ends. The Mayans are evangelical Christians and the company praises their workplace discipline. But in 1994 in Southern California 4,000 dry wall builders, drywalleros, used the same close links based on their village of origin in Mexico to win a union contract in the face of the bosses, the police and the courts. It was the first successful union drive in the construction industry headed up by the rank and file since the 1930s.

This hothouse growth in the size of the US's Latino community has taken place against an unpromising background. President Clinton has rushed to appease the right wing of his own Democratic Party by tightening controls along the Mexican border. Right wingers have pushed through anti-immigrant measures like Proposition 187 in California and have attacked education in the Spanish language. New York's Puerto Rican community has been thrust down into ever deeper poverty as the industries that once employed its members closed.

Yet poverty to the south still sends people northwards. La Frontera, the US-Mexico border zone, stretches for 2,000 miles, and 8 million people live and work on both sides of this border.

As part of his supposed war against drugs, Clinton has effectively militarised the border. US marines give backup to the Drugs Enforcement Agency and the Border Patrol. The real target of this operation is to tighten immigration controls. Meanwhile, on the southern side, the Mexican army has been used to break trade unions. Right wing freelance vigilantes have taken to patrolling the border looking for 'illegal immigrants' and a young Mexican was recently shot by them.

Yet the ever tighter border controls--the Pentagon has helped supply seismic monitors which can pick up the footsteps of a would be immigrant--exist alongside what is in effect a borderless economy. US and Asian multinationals have built plants on the Mexican side whose products are distributed from the other side of the border. One million workers, 60 percent of them women, work in the electronics industry alone. San Diego in California together with Tijuana, and El Paso in Texas together with Ciudad Juarez, form two great urban centres astride the border. The former has a population of 4.3 million and contains 719 plants (Tijuana is a centre for assembling televisions, often for Japanese and Korean multinationals who distribute them from across the border) and the latter 1.5 million residents and 372 plants (Ciudad Juarez is a centre for textiles and electronics). Managers commute from San Diego across the border each day passing Mexican workers crossing the other way to work in the city's service sector.

Mike Davis argues persuasively that the purpose of the border controls is not to prevent immigration, upon which much of the economies of California, the south west and Texas depends, but 'functions like a dam, creating a reservoir of labour power on the Mexican side that can be tapped on demand...for the farms of south Texas, the hotels of Las Vegas and the sweatshops of Los Angeles'. This book ends on a message of hope and class struggle. For, as Davis says, 'rank and file controlled trade unionism remains the best hope for empowering urban Latino communities. Equally, if there is a renaissance of American labour close at hand, it will be a story in which Latinos, along with blacks and other new immigrants, play a central role.'

This is no dream. Davis charts a list of strikes in Los Angeles where, as he says, 'over the last decade, Latino rank and file workers have made the...area the major R&D [research and development] centre for 21st century trade unionism'. Hotel workers, janitors in plush apartment blocks, catering and cleaning workers at the University of Southern California, drystone wall builders and hospital workers have organised. This has involved exciting and innovative tactics including 'guerrilla theatre and film, public art, a pro-labour masked and caped avenger (Mopman), trade union foto-novellas in Spanish, corporate exposés, disruption of stockholders' meetings, mass civil disobedience (from sit-ins of offices to blockage of freeways), pickets in front of bosses' homes or corporate headquarters (even in Japan), community delegations, work to rule, union fiestas and marches, and the encirclement of city hall by hundreds of huge trucks, as well as traditional picket lines and boycotts'.

This explosion of struggle has been accompanied by the 1992 uprising following the Los Angeles police's beating of Rodney King (a majority of those arrested had Latin surnames), the powerful movement in 1994 against the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 when 75,000 Latino school students came out on strike, and protests against racism on public transport.

This book would head up my list of recommended summer reading. Drawing on the traditions of the great rank and file led union upsurge of the 1930s, which helped forge black and white unity in the great northern cities, Davis concludes, 'Class organisation in the workplace 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.'
Magical Urbanism
Mike Davis, Verso £12.00

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