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Quand les exclus font de la politique. Le Barrio mexicain de San Diego, Californie.
Emmanuelle Le Texier

Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2006.
199 p., €20, ISBN 978-2-7246-0988-2,

Reviewed by Susan Trouvé Finding



Tourists visiting San Diego will be familiar with Balboa Park, the museum and zoo complex, and with the southern waterfront area housing the Marina and where Coronado Bridge connects with the select Coronado peninsula. The district directly below the bridge’s northern access, Barrio Logan, is the area chosen by the author, Emmanuelle Le Texier, to analyse how, in the American context, a marginalised community has developed political strategies which give the lie to analyses describing political apathy among such populations. The discussion ranges over issues of citizenship and participation, urban development and inner exile, immigration and naturalization processes in this study of the Californian Chicano community on San Diego’s dockside Council District 8. The book opens with a pilgrimage to Chicano Park, at the foot of the bridge, housing an example of urban art celebrating the Chicano mobilisation in the civil rights movement.

Physically cut off from the Logan Heights residential district by the construction of the freeway which now acts an administrative boundary, bounded to the west and east by docks and the Naval Station, by Downtown San Diego to the north, it is the political space arising from the spatial divisions and urban displacement that is examined in this study of the Barrio Logan as an example of social segregation and exclusion. Anchored in the theory and historiography of urban sociology, social movements and the sociology of immigration, the author examines the range of concepts that are then checked against the evidence provided by the case in hand resulting from lengthy fieldwork. The author examines the literature around the nature and formation of ghettos, ethnic enclaves and barrios, and the link between the sociological phenomenon of ghettoization and its presumed corollary, political apathy. 
The size and geographical concentration of the Chicano community in San Diego makes its situation unique, as does the political history of the city, dominated by a WASP political class which has resisted change. In the face of a political system that fails to give a substantial minority a voice, the author argues that far from remaining politically inactive, the Chicanos have created alternative forms of political action.

The book’s first chapters review the theoretical background to such a study and examine the definitions of marginalised districts (ghetto and barrio), the link between exclusion and political action or its absence, and the political exclusion of marginal populations (poor and/or ethnic communities).
The concepts thus discussed range from social dislocation and exclusion, through residual and cultural segregation, to social capital, gendered political participation and ethnic representation. Reviewing the literature, Le Texier challenges various models of socio-political behaviour, noting that most analyses concentrate on the difficulty marginalised populations experience in adopting political action and the supposedly crucial role of outside help.1 She also examines the model according to which social and political action becomes inevitable only in the case of highly polarised situations combined with a high degree of internal cohesion within the group.2 The connected notions of “underclass” and the “culture of poverty,”3 are convincingly situated within the historical and political context in which they were developed. The author questions research that previously described Latinos as purely passive, submissively experiencing economic and social attacks without protest or, at best, whose activism was merely reactive, emerging solely when economic trends (de-industrialisation) and policies such as the withdrawal of state intervention in the 1980s directly affected local communities. She equally revises more recent interpretations that emphasize freely-chosen segregation, voluntary residential concentration as a form of functional communitarianism reinforcing mutual aid, thus rendering traditional political action less imperative.4 The author similarly discusses “empowerment,” a notion developed in the sixties, encompassing participation in local communities through associations, designed to give a greater sense of civic activity to those who remained alienated from traditional political rights despite their formal accession to citizenship and the vote.5 In the 1970s, the fight by the Chicanos against encroaching commercial and military use of the area led to improved development plans and representation of the local population. Community empowerment is celebrated by Barrio Station,6 a centre set up in the 1970s, but the historic models of action are outside the purview of this sociological study of the contemporary socio-political set-up.

In the second half of the monograph, the fieldwork gives rise to more specific considerations concerning ethnic politics, gendered political mobilisation, the process of bringing politics to the district, and the link between identity and political practice. The final chapter examines the idea of a separate political space as materialised by public spaces devoted to the expression of Latino political action.

The chapter concerning the traditional or classical political sphere provides an object lesson in the workings of the American political system. The notions of “majority minority,” gerrymandering, the principle of rotation of office, the recent history of San Diego city hall elections, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the redrawing of political boundaries (known as reapportionment and redistricting) in California in 1991, Proposition 187 (proposing to withdraw welfare rights from illegal immigrants) are all explored in connection with ethnic representation. Also raised is the trend by which despite greater voter registration and a larger electoral body, participation levels among the Latinos have dropped. However, no hypothesis is adduced to begin to explain this paradox. Non-participation is not merely the result of obstacles [66]. In view of the composition of the traditional WASP and conservative San Diego political elite, and the failure of the few Latino representatives who were elected to represent their Latino constituents, the latter may simply have voted with their feet. Abstention is not just a passive submission to exclusion, it is also a political act. The combined effects culminate in the law of inverse returns: “the harder you try, the less you succeed.” Attempts to legislate away the democratic deficit ethnic communities suffer from, or affirmative action, have merely resulted in, at best, continuing, and at worst, reinforced alienation from the political system, in turn resulting in a continuing and hardening sense of political incompetence and inefficiency. If “practice makes perfect,” then not participating breeds ineptitude.
Remarking on the particular commitment of women in residents’ committees, the author seeks to understand the reasons underlying Latino women’s mobilisation. The phenomenon common to many societies by which women are relegated to employment in the 3Cs (cleaning, catering and caring) is multiplied by their second identity as Latinos, a categorization which also relegates men to lower-status jobs. However the interviews conducted confirm a major gender differentiation among barrio residents. Belief in the “American Dream” remains strong for the women for whom the educational opportunities available to their children enable them to transcend their situation. The men, on the other hand, subject to greater status loss north of the border, due to lower incomes and lower status jobs, appear to have lost faith in the idea of an open society, of upward mobility. However, this conclusion is not explicitly linked to the greater political activity on the part of the women. It does go some way to giving an explanation, above and beyond questions of gender, identity and structural malfunctioning.

Women’s participation in local groups is described as “visibility in the shade” [123]. Paradoxically the emphasis placed on anonymous individuals, on the local, unsung militant, means that those who have risen above that anonymity, who have become visible, are ignored. This can be excused. The role and career of human rights activist Rachel Ortiz, a disciple of César Chávez, would justify a specific study in itself.7 The role of women emerging as agents of social capital, becoming visible,8 bonding and bridging different milieux, becomes evident in their spontaneous creation and participation in committees set up following a second wave of development and ensuing gentrification of the neighbourhood in the 1990s.
Of the four community organisations noted in previous chapters, one is retained for its particular interest as an example of the informal politicisation process effected by women in the barrio: DURO (Developing Unity through Residents Organizing—Desarrollando Unidad a través de Residentes Organizados).
Le Texier also demonstrates how the political practice and issues involved transcend the traditional dichotomy between public and private spheres, providing a bridge women are using to cross over from the family to the district, from the personal to the political. This aspect further illustrates questions of visibility and invisibility. The nature of resistance to domination by open, transparent, opposition or by disguised, silent revolt in the form of counter-culture or alternative forms of political (in-)action9 are here explored. Innovative practices, the reversal of gender roles, the feminisation of the political sphere at this local level, have had an impact on perceptions of the barrio, on those of barrio women and their identity.

A discussion of the evolving denominations of the Latino population highlights how self-representation can reflect and disguise the realities experienced. The fluctuating use of the terms Americano, Chicano, Hispano, Latino, Mexicano, Mexican American (in alphabetical order) is given a historic and sociological analysis. Le Texier produces a classification of the terms, which cross-references the variables of country of birth (USA./Mexico) and sense of belonging to the barrio (insider/outsider) resulting in a double-axed hierarchy of identity and identification.
The book ends where it began, coming full circle, with considerations on the politics of public spaces, which prompt reflection on the spatial and territorial aspects of political action. Geographical proximity to the US-Mexican border, in an area which has seen border patrols seconded by private militia, and the antagonisms provoked by long-standing and sizeable illegal immigration in the area feed into the difficulty for Latinos to seek and obtain political recognition.

The methodology, historiography and bibliography provided by this study are rich sources of information and pertinent models for all researchers in social science, be they specialists in American studies or not. The use of works by the French school of sociological research10 anchors the study firmly in the debate and issues on both sides of the Atlantic. To be regretted is the absence of an index and the tantalising mention of a website [58] for which no reference is given.
The pregnancy of the issues raised in the case of the Latino population in San Diego can be judged against the topicality of the political participation of ethnic communities but, equally, such subjects as immigrants’ rights to social welfare, illegal immigration, and the regularisation of immigrants lacking identity cards and work permits. References to recent events in the French context remind one that comparative work is not necessarily detailed cross-examination of two cultures. The readers are invited to draw their own conclusions in the light of this case study of the American experience. Overall the book gives a measured and detailed account of the failures and successes of one aspect of multiculturalism in the United States in the context of the debate on ethnicity and identity.11

1. Arthur Miller, “Group Consciousness and Political Participation,” American Journal of Political Science, 25, No. 3 (Aug., 1981), 494-511 (the reference page 32, note 26 for this reference is erroneous); Richard Cloward & Frances Piven, Poor People’s Movements: Why they succeed, how they fail (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1977);Sidney Verba, Kay Kehman & al., “Race, Ethnicity and Political Resources: Participation in the United States,” British Journal of Political Science, 23 (4), 1993, 453-99. back

2. Mancur Olson, Logique de l’action collective (Paris: PUF, 1978); Anthony Oberschall, Social Conflicts and Social Movements (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973). back

3. Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1959); Oscar Lewis, “The Culture of Poverty,” in Daniel Moynihan, ed., On Understanding Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1968) 187-200. back

4. Mary Waters, Ethnic Options. Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990); Iris Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001). back

5. For a discussion of this, see: Salah Oueslati, “Exclusion et processus politique: le cas des populations pauvres aux États Unis,” CahiersduMimmoc, 1, février 2006, <> . back

7. Wilson A. Schooley, “A Hunger for Justice: The Passion of Rachel Ortiz,” Human Rights, vol. 27, no 4 (Fall 2000) 5-7. back

9. James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990). back

10. Alain Touraine, Sociologie de l’action (Paris: Le Seuil, 1965);Pierre Bourdieu, Raisons pratiques. Sur la théorie de l’action (Paris : Le Seuil, 1994) ;  Serge Paugam, ed., L’Exclusion. L’État des savoirs (Paris : La Découverte, 1996) ; Hélène Thomas, La Production des exclus : politiques sociales et processus de désocialisation sociopolitique (Paris : PUF, 1997). back

11. Social Science Quarterly, vol. 87, issue s1 (December 2006). Special Issue on Ethnicity and Social Change, concentrating on the Hispanic community in the United States.back




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