New book examines how Latin American immigrants saved American cities

November 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In his new book, "Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City," Penn State Professor A.K. Sandoval-Strausz details the significant role that Latino immigration played in reviving America's largest cities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Most people had given up on American cities 30 years ago. Many residents had flocked to the suburbs, as evidenced by the fact that approximately two-thirds of America’s 25 largest cities lost population between 1950 and 1980.  Many of the “mom and pop” shops that once lined downtown streets left as well or shuttered their doors entirely, unable to compete against the malls or “big box” stores that were also popping up in the suburbs.  By the early 90s, though, American cities had started to make a comeback; today, they are again powerhouses of the national economy and their crime rates are near 50-year lows.

A.K. Sandoval-Strauaz

A.K. Sandoval-Strausz

IMAGE: Michael T. Davis Photography

Many credit creative young urban professionals, or “yuppies,” with reviving a moribund urban America during the 1990s and 2000s. However, according to Sandoval-Strausz, associate professor of history and director of the Latina/o Studies Program at Penn State, there is another, far less visible group that deserves even more credit for the stunning reversal: Latin American immigrants.

Sandoval-Strausz details this in “Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City” (Basic Books, 2019), which is being released on Nov. 12. In the book, he chronicles the history of this revival by focusing on two barrios: Chicago’s Little Village and Dallas’s Oak Cliff. As he explains, both neighborhoods lost residents and jobs for many years before Latin American immigrants and their families began turning them around beginning in the 1970s.

“Around 1970, following the passage of the Immigration (and Naturalization) Act in 1965, larger percentages of immigrants, and immigrants from Latin American specifically, began repopulating neighborhoods in American cities,” said Sandoval-Strausz. “From around 1970 to 2010, Chicago grows from about eight percent Latino to about 30 percent, while Dallas’ Latino population grows from about eight percent to approximately 43 percent.”

At the same time, more ‘mom and pop’ businesses catering to the Spanish language market begin to replace the businesses that had either closed or left for the suburbs.  “Home values begin to increase by the 1980s,” he added. “There was also a pretty remarkable drop in crime rates beginning in the early 1990s, to the point that by the early 2010s the crime rate in these two cities — and many other cities — were the lowest they had been since crime statistics had started to be measured reliably.”

Throughout “Barrio America,” Sandoval-Strausz uses a mix of vivid oral histories and detailed statistics to demonstrate the impact that Latino migration had on American cities. “Were it not for the arrival of approximately 25 million Latino immigrants and their families, a lot more of our cities would have died instead of thrived,” he said.

Ironically, Sandoval-Strausz said the “back-to-the-city” migration of well-heeled people from the suburbs back to the cities represents one of the greatest threats to the barrios’ continued revival.

“These neighborhoods, which previously had been largely abandoned and rejected, have become so appealing to well-to-do homeowners that they are now threatened by gentrification,” he said. “Today, it’s rural America that is struggling.”

An episode of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s podcast, Democracy Works, featuring Sandoval-Strausz will debut on Monday, Nov. 11.

  • Barrio America Booc Cover

    "Barrio America," written by Penn State Professor A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, chronicles the impact that Latino immigrants played in reviving America's largest cities during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  The book is being released on November 12, 2019.

    IMAGE: Provided by Basic Books

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Last Updated November 07, 2019