- Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community: Power, Conflict, and Solidarity
In Becoming Neighbors, Gilda L. Ochoa provides a window into the lives of U.S.-born Mexican Americans and their more recently arrived Mexican immigrant neighbors in La Puente, California. What makes this book remarkable is the quality of the in-depth, ethnographic data the author acquires and uses to provide revealing insights into how both Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants experience the often rough road to mutual understanding and respect. This is a must read for anyone interested in Latinos, immigration, culture and social change, and the future of California and the nation.
Ochoa's ethnographic analysis brings into stark relief the range of attitudes, beliefs and experiences framing the interactions of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. She shows that contrary to a less discerning public that often lumps all Mexican-origin people into a homogenous whole, there are real and perceived differences among these folks, whose experiences range from conflict to solidarity. Mexican Americans, whose views Ochoa spends most of her time examining, often hold stereotypes and assumptions about immigrants common in general public opinion. Some of those views include believing today's Mexican immigrants do not need or want to learn English, that immigrants look down on more acculturated Mexican Americans, that Mexican immigrants do not yet have a commitment to American culture and society and remain apart, and more. Ochoa shows that such negative views reflect the experiences of Mexican Americans who grew up during periods of less immigration, when assimilation was expected and use of Spanish not just frowned upon but actively discouraged in schools and at work. As a consequence, Mexican Americans, especially older ones, in La Puente often believe that Mexican immigrants must also move quickly to learn English and "American customs." Mexican Americans holding such views often resent any perceived attitudes or behaviors to the contrary among Mexican immigrants, and even go out of their way to avoid contact with them.
At the other end of the conflict-solidarity spectrum are the Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants who have come to recognize that they have very real shared interests. In particular, Ochoa captures the give-and-take that occurs as Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants work in coalition to try and improve the quality of education in La Puente. Both sets of parents work together in parent/community organizations to try and influence the local school board. Though not always a harmonious relationship, Ochoa shows how such coalitions are the sites where mutual understanding develops.
Ochoa's forte is in not reducing people to stereotypes or demonizing someone for holding views that do not seem charitable toward Mexican immigrants. Rather, Ochoa shows that the holders of such views must be understood within their own historical and structural formations in relation to the larger society. Not only were [End Page 671] Mexican Americans often raised during earlier periods of intense pressure to acculturate and assimilate to dominant Anglo culture, but they are also subject to the same sources of information, or misinformation, abut Mexican immigrants found in the media and public discourse.
Importantly, the people Ochoa interviewed and whose views are so prominently on display here are not static or unchanging. Ochoa shows how people do change and learn to empathize with one another as they interact as neighbors. In this sense, Ochoa's book underscores both the complexity of a working-class Latino community and leaves the reader with a sense of optimism for the future. This book would make a significant contribution to classes in ethnic studies, sociology, race and ethnicity, American studies, and contemporary history.