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Reviewed by:
  • Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and Mexican “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago
  • David Roediger
Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and Mexican “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. By Nicholas De Genova ( Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. xvi plus 329 pp.).

This arresting work of anthropology, American studies and ethnic studies will be of great interest to historians of labor, of race, of transnationalism and empire, of cities and of migration. Based on an impressive command of the history of Mexicans and of spatialized inequality in Chicago, Working the Boundaries repeatedly "jumps scales," as recent innovators in geography have put it, from rural Mexico, to Illinois, to United States immigration policy to show both how oppressively momentous and how fictive the border is.

Steeped in theory, and particularly keen in its readings of postcolonial and anti-imperialist scholarship, Marxism, critical studies of whiteness, Chicana feminism, the dialogical methodologies of educational theorist Paulo Freire, and the work of Henri Lefebvre on everyday life and the production of space, the book is avowedly interested in large ideas, and even in raising questions that it can better pose than answer. But at the same time, it is rooted in telling and textured details drawn from extended ethnographic field work, is direct in making even its most complex arguments, and is committed to full disclosure of its radical political vision.

De Genova's richest fieldwork is drawn from extended service as a teacher of English as a Second Language at a variety of Chicago-area factories, while [End Page 792] he studied at University of Chicago and lived in one center of what he calls "Mexican Chicago," the city's Pilsen neighborhood. Sometimes teaching classes in which one group of worker-students was coming off of a shift and another was coming to learn just before working eight or ten hours, De Genova is able to make concrete and vivid the "truly intractable" problems of the practice of ethnography across great differentials of language, status and power that he rehearses with sharp insight and broad range early in the book. Moreover, both his industrial employers and his students shaped the content of his classes, and sharp student interest in why bosses allowed and at times coerced their educations in English animate what often amounts to a critical ethnography of management on De Genova's part.

Thus when the book turns to the racialized social relations of production—to bringing "transnationalism [into] some working relation to imperialism" (123, emphasis original)—it can speak from a wealth of evidence. The insights into class relations derive less from the author's occasional direct involvement in supporting struggles for democratic unionism than from his ability to hear and interpret Mexicans in Chicago as they grappled in and around his language classes with both management and white supremacy in a variety of ways. The best example of this virtue lies in an extended discussion of extremely complex evidence on wildly joking relajo commentaries on whiteness, white manliness and blackness embedded in classroom debates, an analysis only a little marred by use of the word "surrealist" as if it signaled only absurdity and not a body of theory itself much concerned with questions of white supremacy and of insurgent humor.

Influenced, even as he critiques them, by Chicano/a nationalist writings on the dreamed and desired recuperability of an Atzlan home within the territory of the southwest United States, De Genova insists on making Mexican Chicago his subject, following his informants in largely eschewing "Mexican American" as a term and seeing the Mexican character not just of enclaves but of the whole city. At the same time, Working the Boundaries is especially acute in its treatment of the relations—daily, working, represented and imagined—between Mexicans and African Americans, as well as Puerto Ricans and poor whites, in Chicago. It shows how the staking out of an identity that is neither black nor white can generate searing critiques of the United States racial system even as it also can leave some aspects of antiblack racism and the valorization of whiteness intact.

De Genova offers a most careful account reconstructing how the legal production of illegality as a category and as a crime...


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