Friday, July 12, 2013

Michael Innis-Jiménez's "Steel Barrio"

Michael Innis-Jiménez is an assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. He has also served as a scholar for The Latino New South Project, a public history project sponsored by a three museum consortium consisting of the Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte, NC), The Atlanta History Museum, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Steel Barrio: The Great Mexican Migration to South Chicago, 1915-1940, and reported the following:
My goal for Steel Barrio is to discuss how and why Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans created community, and how their fortunes were linked to the environment they helped build. Page 99 falls in the middle of Part II of the book titled “Community.” The book as a whole focuses on the early years of the Mexican community in the neighborhood of South Chicago.

Page 99 touches on a key point as relevant today as it was during the Great Depression: learning English without losing Mexican culture. In a 1926 editorial in a Chicago Spanish-language newspaper urged the learning of English “to better themselves as laborers, skilled workers, or students.”
In going beyond the argument that learning English would benefit members of the community and their families, the author drew on individual patriotism and the sojourner attitude within the community to advocate the learning of English in order to take new skills and knowledge back to Mexico. By linking his pro-English comments to Mexican patriotism and the importance of the eventual return of Chicago-area Mexican immigrants to Mexico, the editorial’s author promoted the learning of English as pro-Mexico and beneficial to Mexican culture both in Chicago and in Mexico. Beyond that, the learning of English and the vocational and intellectual skills workers could acquire after learning English would benefit Mexico on the immigrant’s return.
I also touch on the fact that promoters of learning English had different goals, but were for the most part well intentioned assimilationists. The expectations within the community did not always jive with external expectations. South Chicago Mexicans realized that learning English was not “the golden key” to the American dream. Many Mexicans who learned English did not get ahead.
Although there were various—and at times competing—reasons for assimilation, many Mexicans agreed that learning English would improve their social contacts and economic conditions. Paul S. Taylor argued that “a lack of knowledge of English was a material loss recognized and experienced by many, which handicapped them securing employment and promotion.” At the same time, Mexicanos realized that learning English was not a golden key to success or acceptance. One of Taylor’s informants argued that being able to speak English was no guarantee of avoiding discrimination. He complained that “There are many Mexicans who speak English, but even they do not get ahead.” According to this community member, many Mexicans did choose to learn English and pursue assimilation as a way to improve their ability to succeed economically. If they did not so choose, they risked being coerced into Americanization by external assimilationist pressures that included further economic and social exclusion at the workplace and in the local non-Mexican community. Community members’ ability to negotiate the use of Spanish or English within and outside of the community remained a critical component in the creation of a supportive environment.
At the bottom of page 99, I begin to discuss the gendered nature of access to English classes. Husbands did not want their wives to learn English because they feared that English-speaking wives would become independent and too “American.” My discussion of the paternalistic gender norms continues for the next couple of pages.

The book is about much more than learning English, but common threads that run throughout the book still show up on page 99. Immigrants negotiated between becoming “American” without losing “too much” Mexican culture, even as they knew that darker-skinned Mexicans would never be accepted as full-fledged Americans. The idea of eventually returning home to Mexico did not deter the desire to learn skills and do what it took to succeed and contribute to their community in Chicago.
Learn more about the book and author at Michael Innis-Jiménez's website and the Steel Barrio Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue