- Sueños Americanos: Barrio Youth Negotiating Social and Cultural Identities
For ethnographer Julio Cammarota, the knowledge of Latino/a youth in a California barrio he calls El Pueblo is a resource for exposing and changing entrenched inequalities in a stratified society. Yet the difficulty posed by applying such "critical perspectives" to sway policy is exemplified in the anecdote of a school principal dismissing the ethnographic research of students as failing to present "hard data" (159). The conundrum that to become socially effective, knowledge is expected to conform to narrowly defined patterns, also speaks to shortcomings in Cammarota's own book.
Sueños Americanos examines the experience of Latino/a youth in the spheres of work and education. Specific chapters deal with large-scale political-economic context, the domestic finances of the familial home, fast-food jobs, community centers and work programs, and school. Among its contributions are to document generational change in gender politics, and the shared neoliberal logic of a burger joint and the local high school. This sprawling attention seems to lack focus until it is justified in the epilogue as a holistic view that is central to a critical pedagogy and the basis for a program in social justice education that Cammarota organized.
From the introduction, however, it seems that the chapters are organized around a theory of "cultural organizing," which describes youths' agency in selectively engaging various ideas and practices to intervene in their social situation. This at first promises a connecting thread that will bring all of the sites of inquiry into conversation with one another, but the integration is hampered on two counts. First, the contribution of the term is not clear. Cammarota presents cultural organizing with relatively passing reference to Paul Willis's "cultural production" and Paulo Freire's "praxis" (11). While Cammorota claims that his notion of cultural organizing "moves one step further" than Willis's concept, it is never clear how. The waters are also muddied relatively late in the book, when Cammorota starts to call community activists involved in program work "cultural organizers," which implies a much more specific and limited notion of "organizing" than the first sense of everyday bricolage. Work by scholars like Nestor García-Canclini, that could shed considerable light on the contested and historically fluid notion of "culture" that Cammarota's ethnography seems to suggest, does not figure.
It is not that Cammarota neglects prior literature, but the citations do not always advance his project. So it is with the central category of "youth." Early on, Cammarota cites the same list of six or seven sources three times to situate his project within a field of youth studies, but "youth" is not necessarily the same operative category in all of these. How, then does age matter in this book? In sections on home and family life, it is clear that Cammarota's interlocutors are speaking to coming-of-age issues and negotiating relations with parents. But do these individuals still view themselves as "youth" up to age twenty-four, the upper limit of Cammarota's sample? What changes at that age to make them "adults," and how is that change relevant to the study? It becomes clear that it is relevant to split these hairs near the end of the book, in the quotation of an organizer of a summer employment program about recruiting "men" and "women" from the high school (146). The boundaries around these terms are clearly subject to negotiation in the [End Page 305] contexts he describes, yet to join the social science literature, Cammarota treats "youth" as a self-evident category.
The uneven conversation with prior works and definition of terms detract from the major strength of the book, which lies in Cammarota's relationships with people in El Pueblo, and his extensive field experiences there. The empirical material generated from this fieldwork suggests that Latino/a knowledge generated in El Pueblo could sustain a more probing cultural critique. As a reader, I was left hungry for more narrative engagement with that material, including autoethnography. In a chapter...