How Latin lessons revitalised American cities

Magical Urbanism: Latinos reinvent the US city by Mike Davis (Verso, £12)
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The Independent Culture

As followers of the US presidential election well know, Latinos are the new soccer Moms. According to Mike Davis: "Latinos are expected to displace Blacks as the largest minority before the end of the year 2000 - far ahead of earlier predictions." Gore and Bush (or at least their minders)have seen the future, and it requires a Spanish phrase book.

As followers of the US presidential election well know, Latinos are the new soccer Moms. According to Mike Davis: "Latinos are expected to displace Blacks as the largest minority before the end of the year 2000 - far ahead of earlier predictions." Gore and Bush (or at least their minders)have seen the future, and it requires a Spanish phrase book.

Latino culture in the US is overwhelmingly urban, most obviously in Los Angeles, Miami and New York (each in a key electoral state), but also in less likely cities such as Boston, which has a couple of Latino-majority suburbs. In fact, of the 10 largest US cities, six have larger Latino than African-American populations. This demographic shift, Davis suggests, forces us to rethink the shape and meaning of the American metropolis.

In the past two decades, the influx of Latino immigrants - from Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and elsewhere - has been the saviour of many urban centres. As non-Hispanic whites barricade themselves in suburbs and African-Americans also migrate out, Latinos continue to arrive and revitalise worn-out, burnt-out cities.

Davis argues that to be Latino in the US is "to participate in a unique process of cultural syncretism that may become a transformative template for the whole society". As Latino cultures intermarry, the cosmopolitan result is a "rich, constantly evolving sabor tropical in food, music, fashion and language".

This Latinisation necessitates new ways of conceptualising the city. In Los Angeles, Davis sees a "vast city-within-a-city" emerging. Virtually all the traditional blue-collar neighbourhoods are occupied by Latinos, with an Anglo-majority "gilded periphery". Asian immigrants who settle in central LA often learn Spanish rather than English as their second language.

The emergence of transnational communities challenges our ways of understanding the 21st-century city. "Economic and cultural umbilical cords" now connect hundreds of Latin American and Caribbean localities with urban neighbourhoods in the US, resulting from the dollars sent back by migrant workers. New technologies make it possible to be in virtual contact with the "old country", sustaining cultural links. And cheaper airfares make moving between countries simpler.

So conventional notions of divided "diaspora" identities will have to be rethought. As Davis reports, the Dominican Republic recently elected a migrant as president. Leonel Fernandez Reyna grew up in New York, holds a green card and plans to return to Manhattan after his term. Mexican politicians are debating whether to allow immigrants in the US to vote in Mexican elections.

This newly Latinised US contains considerable tensions. Thus the glorious sorbet palette of Mexican and Caribbean house-paint "is perceived as sheer visual terrorism by non-Hispanic homeowners" who fear decreases in property values. Davis suggests that it is time Americans "tropicalise" the national vision of "the city on the hill".

More worrying is the open bigotry that emerged in the 1990s, particularly in California. There the battles over Proposition 187 - which allows for the expulsion of undocumented immigrant children from schools and the denial of prenatal health care to undocumented pregnant women - can be seen as part of the backlash. In 1998, the state's Proposition 227 - ensuring an English-only policy in schools - led to the dismantling of bilingual programmes and the criminalisation of Spanish-speaking teachers.

In Magical Urbanism, Davis is not the urban prophet he was in his last, harrowing book, Ecology of Fear. Rather, he is in diagnostic mode, telling us home truths about shifting demographics, pointing to choices that have to be made. A polemical long essay, pithily synthesising recent studies, Magical Urbanism succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to do. It explores "the consequences of putting Latinos where they clearly belong: in the centre of debate about the future of the American city".

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