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Stereotypes, 'coconuts' and giving back: Life in the Latino middle class

A suburban tract home for sale in the predominantly Latino middle class enclave of north Downey, Calif., September 2010.
A suburban tract home for sale in the predominantly Latino middle class enclave of north Downey, Calif., September 2010.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The social mobility of immigrants and their families is a time-honored American tradition. People arrive with hopes of carving out a better life for themselves and their families; some make it into the middle class in their lifetimes, while others at least strive to provide that opportunity for  their children.

So after generations of migration from Latin America, and from Mexico in particular, it makes sense that there is an emerging middle class made up of these immigrants' children and grandchildren. 

University of Southern California sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo has focused much of her work in recent years on these families, the subject of her recently published book “Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class” from Stanford University Press. As she notes in her book (and in a previous interview, in which she shared her research), life for socially mobile Mexican Americans, and Latinos in general, is full of complexities. 

Like with other immigrant groups, there is filial duty and an obligation to give back financially to poorer parents and other relations, especially among those raised in working-class households. Many are subject to stereotyping by outsiders, and by some of their fellow Latinos, who brand them as sellouts. 

And perhaps not surprisingly, their lives are shaped by the immigration status of the generation before them, even long after they reach middle-class status.

In our conversation, Vallejo digs into the intricacies of life in what one day stands to become a large chunk of the American middle class mainstream. Move over, Beaver.

M-A: What are some misconceptions about Mexican Americans and Latinos in general that this book addresses?

Vallejo: Mexican Americans are defined very narrowly in American society, leading to widespread misconceptions about them. Popular misconceptions about Mexican Americans and Latinos is that they are overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, unauthorized, and unlikely to succeed over time. Politicians, pundits, and media reinforce these negative stereotypes.

Some scholarship has also contributed to disparaging images of Mexican Americans and Latinos by arguing that they will never integrate into the middle class. Barrios to Burbs directly contradicts these narrow characterizations by examining Southern California’s Mexican American middle class, a growing population that has been left out of political, public, and scholarly debates.

M-A: What is unique to the Mexican American middle class, and what are the universalities as related to other immigrant groups (including other Latinos) who achieve upward mobility? Are there unique challenges or dynamics involving, say, immigration status and upward mobility?

Vallejo: If you look at middle class Mexican Americans on the surface, they look just like any other middle class group because they have the same indicators of middle class status, such as college degrees, high incomes, and professional occupations. However, when you move beyond these characteristics there are two sides to the Mexican American middle class.

The first side is that many are socially mobile, meaning that they are raised in poor households and neighborhoods by parents who toil in low-wage backbreaking jobs. These middle class pioneers experience distinct challenges stemming from their rapid social mobility. The second side is that some are raised in solidly middle class “Leave it to Beaver” households, as one of my respondents put it. Those raised in middle class households are buffered from the challenges that accompany rapid social mobility.

One challenge experienced by the socially mobile is the retention of strong ties to relatives who have not entered the middle class. These ties usually result in extreme financial and social obligations when poor kin lose a job, can’t work because of a medical problem, or their home goes into foreclosure. Strong financial obligations to poor kin can drain your ability to accumulate wealth and retirement income.

This challenge is not unique to the Mexican American middle class, but experienced by other immigrant groups such as socially mobile Latinos and Asians.

What is unique to the Mexican American middle class is that they must deal with the very damaging and racist characterizations of Mexican Americans when interacting with non-Mexicans in middle class social milieus, especially the white collar workplace.

Middle class Mexican Americans are often insiders to racism when their coworkers make disparaging remarks about "illegals" or the low-wage Mexican workers they employ. Sometimes racial slurs are directed at them and they are also often excluded from social events or from meeting with important clients because they are Mexican American. Finally, what makes the Mexican American, and Latino, middle class different from other immigrant groups is that they are often disparaged if they speak Spanish in the workplace.

M-A: You talk about divergent pathways into the middle class related to different class backgrounds. What distinguishes these members of the middle class from one another?

Vallejo: There are two pathways into the middle class. The first is a pathway into the "white" middle class where Mexican Americans view themselves, and are seen by others, as much closer and similar to middle class whites. This pathway is more common among those raised in middle class households and white neighborhoods.

They are often more individualistic (meaning that they are less likely to give back to poor relatives), they are not strongly tied to Mexican ethnic communities, and their Spanish language ability might be limited. Because they do not fit the narrow societal definition of what it means to be Mexican, they are often able to disappear into the white middle class.

The other pathway is a route into a minority middle class where your ethnic identity as Mexican American is more salient in your everyday life because you retain strong ties to poor relatives and the ethnic community and you have more opportunities to speak Spanish. Even the socially mobile second and third generations retain a more salient ethnic identity than their generational counterparts raised in solidly middle class households.

M-A: How do these family obligations play out, and for how long? How do they play out across generations?

 Vallejo: There are three primary ways in which socially mobile middle class Mexican Americans give back to family. First, they might be the primary financial support of their poor relatives, especially parents.

Second, they might supplement their relatives’ incomes on a regular basis -- a hundred or two hundred dollars a month. This is most common in families where more than one sibling has entered the middle class—the financial obligations are shared by more people.

Third, middle class Mexican Americans are viewed as family financial safety nets and often loan large sums of money when family businesses are in trouble or when parents experience a medical emergency and cannot work. These obligations can last a lifetime because remember, if your parents work in low-wage jobs with no retirement or medical benefits they likely have no wealth to draw on in times of economic need.

The socially mobile also act as important mentors within larger extended families. They coach siblings, cousins, and other relatives on the college application process, they might even pay for their private school or college tuition, and they show others what it is possible to achieve. 

In all, this is a very different life context compared to those who grow up in middle class households with financially secure parents. The socially mobile give back because they retain an "immigrant narrative" of sacrifice and struggle rooted in the mobility journey. Because their parents sacrificed for them they now feel that it is their obligation to give back to their parents and other relatives who remain poor. This obligation to give back is something that continues even among the socially mobile in later generations.

 M-A: You use what I'll refer to here as the c-word, i.e. "coconut." Can you describe how terms like these (vendido is another) apply here? Who is branded and why? Is there any escaping it?

Vallejo: Terms like coconut (white on the inside, brown on the outside), vendido (sellout), or pocho (assimilated Mexican American), are used to describe middle-class Mexican Americans who follow the "white" pathway into the middle class. They are raised in middle class white neighborhoods, they may not speak Spanish very well, they are disconnected from ethnic communities, and they do not feel obligated to help poorer coethnics.

They are branded as coconuts or vendidos by non-Mexicans or other Mexican Americans when they try to claim a Mexican American ethnic identification. This is common because there is a very narrow definition of what it means to be Mexican in the U.S. But this could change as more Mexican Americans enter the middle class and contradict narrow Mexican American stereotypes, and the definition of what it means to be Mexican American broadens.

M-A: So to what degree are we looking at the new American middle class mainstream?

Vallejo: The new American middle class is becoming more and more diverse. Demographers project that the United States will become a minority majority nation by 2040 where Asians, African Americans, and Latinos will comprise a majority of the population. The increase in the Latino population is not due to high rates of Latino migration, but to an increase in the native-born, the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

Thus, it is possible that Mexican Americans might be able to enter the middle class in unprecedented numbers, and it is critical for the nation’s future that we provide more opportunities for Latinos to succeed. For example, my research shows the importance of professional mentors, outside college-access programs (like Upward Bound) and educational tracking in promoting educational mobility. We need to ensure that Latinos have access to these resources.

It is also important that we increase wages and access to benefits for low-income Latinos so that that they do not draw on and drain the resources of the middle class pioneers. This will allow the socially mobile to pass on their class status to their children. 

Another critical factor is that we must enact comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for all unauthorized migrants presently in the country. Remember, there are two different sides of the Mexican American middle class. One side is raised in solidly middle class households.

I find that those raised in middle class households are more likely to have parents who entered with legal status or who were able to regulate their status shortly after arriving in the U.S. Legal status allows for income increases and other benefits which stream down to children. In sum, there are simple steps that we as a nation can take to make sure that Latinos, who are the future of this country, obtain access to resources that will accelerate their entry into the middle class.

M-A: What has been the reaction to this book? How have middle class Latinos in particular reacted?

Vallejo: The reaction to the book has been amazing. I’ve received significant support from general media outlets and the Latino media. Important Latino journalists whom I greatly admire, such as Gustavo Arellano, Sandra Lilley, Russell Contreras, and you, have supported and publicized the book helping to take it beyond the halls of academia. 

I have received a significant number of emails and phone calls from middle class Latinos who have read the book, and who really identify with the patterns and challenges I describe. One Mexican American woman emailed me to say that I described the challenges she deals with constantly, and she was thrilled to FINALLY hear media talking about the middle class because all she hears are stories of the poor and unauthorized.

I’ve received emails from people who relate to the pain and exclusion that accompanies social mobility, and also from people who relate to growing up middle class and being called coconuts or pochos. My socially mobile Latino students at USC also identify with the book. In all, I’m so thrilled that the book resonates with middle class Latinos. It is the most rewarding aspect of this research.

Read more about Vallejo's research on middle class Latinos here.