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'If they live in this area, they will go to college': Tales from the Mexican American middle class

Photo by moooster/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Latino. Middle class. The two terms don’t frequently come up side by side, at least not in many of the more popular depictions and perceptions of Latinos in the United States.

But it’s the large Latino middle class – in particular, Southern California’s Mexican American middle class – on which University of Southern California sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo has focused much of her work in recent years.

In her recently published book “Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class” from Stanford University Press, Vallejo provides insight on a group of Americans who on one hand are as mainstream and middle class as anyone else, but many of whom took a very different path there than did their non-Latino white peers.

How did these children of immigrants get where they are, and are there differences between them? How much did their parents’ immigration status help or hurt? And what pressures do they have now, as new relatives who have arrived more recently struggle to gain an economic foothold here? I’ll be featuring a Q&A with Vallejo that will answer these questions in the next week. In the meantime, here are a few excerpts from a chapter in which she contrasts two successful Mexican American women, both born to poor parents, but whose childhood economic situations were quite different, largely made so by immigration status.

Brenda Guerrero gently placed her oversize vanilla latte on the wooden table, leaned toward me, and lowered her voice so that the patrons of the coffee shop would not be able to discern her words. “When I was growing up…we were really poor. We lived in a garage,” she whispered.

…Brenda’s parents migrated to the United States to “provide a better life, better opportunities” for their children. Brenda was raised in a “bad” neighborhood of Santa Ana that was ruled by gangs, something she feels she could have easily fallen into if not for her identification as “gifted” in second grade. In fourth grade Brenda was tracked into GATE, the California Department of Education’s Gifted and Talented program, which places elementary school and junior high school children in “differentiated” classes with accelerated learning, challenging and advanced coursework, access to the best teachers, individualized attention, and extensive opportunities to participate in extracurricular academic activities, such as academic decathlon and educational field trips.

…Brenda was awarded a scholarship at a women’s liberal arts college in Southern California, where she excelled, but where she also felt out of place due to her poor background and ethnicity. While Brenda's classmates were traipsing off to ski glamorous Vail and Whistler over the winter holiday, she returned home to Santa Ana to work full-time to pay the balance on her tuition bill that was not covered by the generous scholarship she received. Her feelings of inferiority were exacerbated when she realized that although she had successfully completed college preparatory coursework in high school, her education and level of preparation were no match for those of her mostly white peers, many of whom attended private high schools or schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. As Brenda recalled,

The level of preparedness…I remember sitting in freshman writing and the words these women would use, I would write them down, look them up later. They were so above and beyond what high school had provided me with, you know. I knew the level of education that I had received wasn’t great, I mean it wasn’t bad but I didn’t realize how deficient it was until then."

Despite feeling out of place, Brenda worked diligently in college to prove her academic chops and eventually graduated from a top-ranked California law school. Looking back, Brenda feels that being gifted and tracked into GATE was the crucial mechanism that shaped her education and occupational ascent. She contrasted that experience to her younger brother, Ben, who was labeled as a “troublemaker” and who was encouraged to enroll in trade school rather than college.

Like Brenda, Karina Martinez’s parents also have very low levels of education. Both her mother and father only completed the third grade in Mexico. However, while Brenda’s family lived in a garage in a low-income community, Karina’s family lived in a white middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Karina’s parents migrated to the United States separately in the early 1970s to work in the fields of Central California. Karina’s father migrated with a tourist visa that he overstayed. When he was caught working without the proper documentation, he was promptly deported to Tijuana. However, Mr. Martinez immediately returned to the United States on another tourist visa, upon which he met Karina’s mother, who had crossed the U.S. border with the help of a coyote, a hired guide who helps smuggle unauthorized migrants cross the border by evading the Border Patrol (Cornelius 2001). Karina’s father overstayed his tourist visa again, and both parents were unauthorized for several years and worked in low-wage jobs.

When Karina’s older sister was born on U.S. soil, her parents applied for and were given a visa and “a place in line” to apply for legal residency (which they eventually obtained) under the baby clause…Now armed with a Social Security card, Karina’s father moved out of low-wage agricultural work and obtained a job at a manufacturing plant that paid a living wage and also gave employees profit-sharing opportunities…Her father’s salary, large yearly bonuses, overtime pay, and wages from her mother’s thriving home-based Tupperware and Avon businesses provided the family with the financial means to purchase several rental properties, adding even more income to the family treasury. Their financial stability also allowed the Martinez family to settle in a largely white middle-class neighborhood by the time their eldest daughter entered elementary school and to afford private tuition at elementary and junior high schools. As Karina explained,

For my parents, education was very important. They just thought that we would get a better education at a private school. Their philisophy was to move to nice areas; we lived in nice areas where a lot of Americanos, the white kids, lived, because they are all going to go to college and go to school. So fortunately they were able to afford to live in nice areas. But that was their thinking. We will pay to live in these areas and there will be no other Latinos and we will be the little minority and that was our story throughout private school and high school. If they live in this area, they will go to college and have good friends, friends who have professional parents and all that. 

…Karina always knew that she was going to college, not only because it was expected of her but because it was what all of her middle-class white friends were doing. And unlike those who were raised in poor households, Karina easily transformed her college aspirations into a reality, as she always knew that her parents could afford to pay her college tuition.

 Karina holds a bachelor’s degree from a competitive California state university and a master’s degree from Stanford University and now works in human resources. Unline Brenda, who felt alienated from her white middle-class counterparts in college, Karina never felt out of place.

Like those above, several of the stories in the book ring uncomfortably familiar - it's a good read.

Vallejo spoke of what she learned while researching the book in a Multi-American Q&A last year, which can be viewed here. And listen to a recent interview with Vallejo on KPCC.