Future Latino Urbanism – 25 Years Ago

Twenty-five years ago, an activist and scholar named Mike Davis wrote Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City. It is a short book, packed with numbers, statistics and trends. Davis, who would pen many books and articles from a working class perspective throughout a lengthy career, makes a compelling case that American cities were and would be reshaped by a rapidly growing Latino population. Reading the book today confirms Davis’s skill at identifying trends, especially demographic changes. The book highlights many significant changes in American cities and underscores just how difficult it is to forecast the future.

Magical Urbanism features short, memorable chapters, each emphasizing a limited number of observations. “Spicing the City” stresses the growing numbers and percentages of Latinos in key US cities. Davis is clear, too, about why he is writing: to explore “some of the consequences of putting Latinos where they clearly belong: in the center of debate about the future of the American city.” Latino representation in politics and culture in 2000 was growing but far from strong. We are in a noticeably different situation today.

“Buscando America” sketches history and “La Frontera’s Siamese Twins” contrasts Mexican and American cities. In “The Latino Metropolis” the focus is a high-level look at Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, while “Tropicalizing Cold Urban Space” provides a few on the ground examples of Latino’s impact on cities. “The Third Border” goes deeper in the broader Los Angeles metropolitan area. “Fabricating the ‘Brown Peril'” reminds us of the murder of Steve Woods and the conviction of two Latinos through dubious evidence. Many years later, in our time, the convictions of the two were overturned. Davis’s outrage and calls for justice were prescient.

The chapter “Transnational Suburbs” sketches out the economic forces that lure Mexicans into the United States and southern California in particular. “Falling Down” takes a different look at immigrant labor, examining construction in New York City and factories in southern California. The emphasis is on the unfairness and injustices many Latinos face. In “The Puerto Rican Tragedy,” Davis sketches the challenges faced by the Puerto Rican diaspora, all consequences of American colonial policies and practices. “Education Ground Zero” stresses the educational inequities Latinos experience, and in “Disabling Spanish” the racism of anti-Spanish laws and policies is underscored. The last two chapters look at the struggles Latinos face in securing political influence.

Much has changed since Magical Urbanism was written. However, much has remained the same, even after twenty-five years. While Latinos have made significant gains economically, politically and culturally, massive inequities stubbornly persist. These are not new problems, either. Davis noted almost all of them. Housing, economics, political power and education are ongoing concerns. The data and numbers may have changed, but not the underlying issues. Magical Urbanism, while dated, is still an important voice and a powerful reminder of changes to happen and work to be done.

David Potash

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