Amada Armenta (2022) Stagnant dreamers: How the inner city shapes the integration of second-generation Latinos, by María G. Rendón, Journal of Urban Affairs, 44:1, 108-110, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2021.1937006
Children of immigrants comprise a significant proportion of young adults in the United States. For decades, academics and policymakers have worried about how the second-generation (and particularly, the children of low-skilled Latino immigrants) would integrate into the U.S. socio-racial hierarchy. Would they be upwardly mobile, like the children of White European immigrants who arrived during the first wave of mass migration? Or, would they experience downward assimilation and racial exclusion, remaining trapped alongside an impoverished native-born minority (Black) “underclass”? In Stagnant Dreamers, Maria Rendón skillfully argues that neither of these predictions captures the experiences of second-generation Latino young men who come of age in some of Los Angeles’s poorest neighborhoods. Instead, the book tells a story of social reproduction. Most young men join the ranks of the working class. These young men are committed to work and believe in the American dream, but most work in jobs that are only slightly better than those of their parents, and few are on a path to upward mobility.
The assertion that immigrant groups integrate into different “segments” of American society is known as “segmented assimilation theory” (Portes & Zhou, 1993). The theory has generated lively debate and Rendón designed her study to “test” one of its more controversial assertions—that exposure to chronic poverty in impoverished minority neighborhoods would lead the second generation to “negatively acculturate” and integrate into an urban underclass. Thus, half of the study respondents hail from “Pueblo Viejo,” a poor neighborhood composed mostly of Latinos, and the other half grew up in “Central City,” a predominantly minority neighborhood with large numbers of Black and Latino residents. Not surprisingly, Rendón finds that it is not the demographic composition of these neighborhoods that matter, but exposure to particular conditions in both neighborhoods that affect young men’s trajectories. I say this is not surprising because research has already debunked alarmist narratives about the supposed “oppositional culture” or “culture of poverty” in poor Black neighborhoods (Small & Newman, 2001). As has been argued elsewhere (see Waldinger & Feliciano, 2004), the book shows that concerns about the second generation’s “negative acculturation” are without merit.
Stagnant Dreamers examines how growing up in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods shapes the lives of the children of low-skilled Latino immigrants. The book follows 42 young men, from either Central City or Pueblo Viejo, who are on different educational trajectories: high school completers, high school non-completers, and college-goers. Rendón interviewed these young men (who were between the ages of 17 and 23 during the first interview in 2007) and many of their parents. Five years later (2012–2013), she followed up with half of the respondents when they were in their mid- to late 20s. Drawing from this wealth of data, the book offers a detailed account of how urban neighborhoods, and the conditions that young men experience in these neighborhoods, shape their transition to adulthood. Ultimately, the differences between Central City and Pueblo Viejo recede into the background. Instead, urban violence and social isolation figure prominently in young men’s accounts of both neighborhoods.
Part I (chapters 2–3) examines the first-generation, tying immigrants’ experiences to those of their second-generation children. For example, Chapter 2 explains how Latino immigrants have come to live in inner-city Los Angeles. Chapter 3 shows that immigrant parents have different levels of social capital on which to draw, even when they live in the same neighborhood and work in similar jobs. Some parents are socially isolated and remain so throughout their residence in Los Angeles, whereas others build community support and come to see their new neighborhoods as home. Some arrive with large friend and family networks that offer emotional and economic support, and others arrive with fragile kinship networks that rupture. Rendón returns to the themes of social isolation and social networks throughout the second part of the book, as they are consequential in young men’s educational and mobility trajectories.
Part II (chapters 4–7) makes important contributions to theories of immigrant incorporation by examining the effects of urban conditions on second-generation young men. Usually, one’s “context of reception” is described in terms of immigration law and policy; Stagnant Dreamers is the first study to examine one’s context of reception at the neighborhood level. Rendón skillfully weaves findings from urban studies, criminology, and public health to argue that exposure to urban violence powerfully affects young men’s well-being and mobility. Chapter 4 (a real standout) sheds light on the role of urban violence in high school non-completion. It shows that young men whose parents are socially isolated are the most exposed to urban violence. Though in the minority, these young men are the most likely to get “caught up” in neighborhood peer group dynamics and drop out of school. In contrast, high school graduates had social capital (institutional ties and supportive kin networks) that buffered them from neighborhood violence.
The next chapters capture the years after high school. Some young men enter the labor force, others work as they attend community college, and a few attend 4-year universities. From these seemingly different trajectories, most young men converge into working-class jobs facilitated by their immigrant social networks (Chapter 5). In fact, the few respondents who did achieve upward mobility needed more than education—they needed social leverage ties, known in the book as palancas (Chapter 6). The term palancas (which literally means “levers” in Spanish) comes from Osvaldo, an interview respondent, who lamented that his social connections (palancas) could not connect him to good jobs. Indeed, young men who advanced in their careers had support from individuals outside their kinship networks who encouraged them, mentored them, and connected them to opportunities. Ultimately, even young men experiencing stagnation in the labor market expressed optimism that they could achieve upward mobility through hard work and perseverance (Chapter 7).
Stagnant Dreamers is beautifully written. It will be of interest to social scientists who study migration, transitions to adulthood, urban violence, and neighborhood effects. At 250 pages, the book is probably too long for most undergraduate classes, but selected chapters would be suitable for course adoption. For example, students enrolled in a qualitative methods course would benefit from reading its thoughtful appendix, which addresses study design, positionality, and ethical dilemmas in the field. At the graduate level, this book would be appropriate for courses on immigration, poverty and inequality, urban and community sociology, and education.
The book’s policy recommendations will be familiar to scholars of urban and community development, as they include alleviating poverty, improving the social conditions of urban neighborhoods, and supporting robust community infrastructure. The book serves as a vivid reminder that community organizations have the power to strengthen social capital, reduce social isolation, and offer young people skills, personal development, and opportunity.