Author Jody Agius Vallejo explores the different trajectories of middle class Mexican Americans in California. (Photo: Getty Images )

Author argues there are many paths to the Latino middle class

There has long been two perceived pathways to explain the trajectory of Mexican American families, argues sociologist and professor Jody Agius Vallejo.  “The conventional idea is that immigrants either follow the straight line assimiliation pathway, where they become ‘white,’ or they achieve downward mobility, and remain poor,” says Vallejo.

But in her book “From Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class,” Vallejo shows this “either/or” way of looking at Latinos misses the nuance and different attachments to culture and family within the Mexican American middle class.  Moreover, argues Vallejo, these outdated perceptions that only English-speaking “assimilated” Latinos are middle or upper class and everyone else is either poor or “unassimilated” are harmful and unproductive as millions of Latinos are coming of age and forging careers and pathways to the middle class.

“There has to be a changing narrative of what it means to be Latino in this society,” says Vallejo.  “If the larger idea is that Mexican-Americans are poor and uneducated, this affects the opportunities available and provided to you,” she explains.

Vallejo logged in almost one thousand hours of research as she interviewed middle-class Mexicans primarily in Orange County, California.  She attended meetings and was eventually asked to be part of the Association of Latinas in Business (ALB), which works as a network for professional Latinas in the area.

Vallejo found fascinating differences within middle-class Mexican Americans. For example, those who were raised poor or low-income were more apt to feel a real responsibility to provide ongoing economic support to immediate and extended families, even if this can be a real sacrifice.  These middle-class professionals say they feel their families sacrificed a lot to help them get where they got, and they feel it is their responsibility to give back.  Yet as poor Latinos reach the middle class,  they are often questioned on whether they have ‘dropped’ their culture and background by other family members, and they themselves do not always feel as assimilated to non-Hispanic whites.  Yet non-Latino white colleagues do not understand their strong obligations to their families, especially financially.

This is in contrast to the professionals raised by middle-class Latino parents, who did not grow up thinking it was their responsibility to help extended family members since their parents were in a position to provide what they needed.   The Latinos raised by middle-class parents also illustrate the very real structural advantages of growing up middle class – better and safer schools, a familiarity with navigating different cultures and being in non-Latino circles, and more knowledge of the college and jobs process, for example.

Yet Vallejo interviewed many middle class Mexican Americans raised in more prosperous households who say their non-Latino work colleagues assume they grew up poor if they are heard speaking Spanish or if they say they are Mexican-American. Vallejo herself, manning a booth for the association of Latinas in Business (ALB) during a networking event, had a plastic surgeon tell her he did not think Latina businesswomen were the “caliber” of clientele he was looking for, assuming Latina could not mean professional or wealthy.

Regardless of outside stereotypes, a very important component of Vallejo’s research is to point to what life experiences among poor Mexican-Americans helped steer them into the middle class.  Here, Vallejo identifies several key things.  Many successful Latinos from poor backgrounds had been “tracked” into gifted and talented programs at a very early age, and they tell Vallejo this exposed them to a motivated group of students and set them on an academic path full of AP classes and college prep programs they otherwise would not have had.

Other Latinos from humble backgrounds say having a mentor – in one woman’s case it was the employer of her mother, who was a housekeeper – can make all the difference.  Helping a Latino teen navigate the complicated world of college admissions and summer jobs – a world the teen’s parents do not know – opens an academic or career door that leads to a prosperous middle class life, according to Latinos she interviewed.  “We can’t change all the schools,” says Vallejo, “but we can increase mentors for Latino students and fund organizations which are creating academic and professional networks for Hispanics,” she says.

Another key finding in Vallejo’s research is the link between a parent’s legal status and a child’s opportunities.  Vallejo found many successful middle-class Latinos had parents who had benefited from a period in the 1960s and 1970s which expanded legalization for undocumented immigrants with children born in the U.S.  Once these parents were legalized, Vallejo explains, they got better jobs or started businesses, moved into better neighborhoods, and were able to provide their children with expanded opportunities, which helped usher many of them into the middle class.

“Families who obtained legal status were much more economically stable, and the earlier the parents had legal status, the better off the children were,”  Vallejo finds. In fact, she says, this is a powerful economic argument for legalizing undocumented immigrants.  Legalization, argues Vallejo, raises wages, consumption levels, encourages home purchases, and more importantly, “mushrooms” to the next generation.

Vallejo’s book concludes with 3 recommendations.  One is to dispel the myth that Mexican Americans are “unassimilable and likely to remain poor for generations.” The other is to target efforts to raise low-income Latinos’ wages and skills, as well as offer micro-loans during medical or financial emergencies, so low-income families “do not drain the resources of their more affluent kin” and allow more middle class Latinos to accumulate assets and wealth. Being able is a crucial buffer during financial crises, and in the recent recession Latinos lost 66 percent of their household wealth.

The most critical recommendation, says Vallejo, is to implement a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. “Parental legal status expedites both intragenerational and intergenerational mobility,” concludes Vallejo in her book, as she documents how legalization provides enormous advantages to the children of immigrants – and pays off as these children do better.

As young Latinos increasingly enter the nation’s workforce, Vallejo argues this benefits everyone.

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