- The New Face of Small-Town America: Snapshots of Latino Life in Allentown, Pennsylvania by Edgar Sandoval
Edgar Sandoval begins his latest book by relating the story of Nerivonne Sanchez, a fifteen-year-old Puerto Rican on the verge of celebrating [End Page 472] her quinceañera. Part cotillion, part religious ceremony, the quinceañera is a centuries-old ritual that marks a girl's passage into womanhood in some Hispanic and Latino cultures. In times past, the quinceañera served as a public declaration that the celebrant was eligible for marriage, though that function has diminished greatly with changing cultural mores and attitudes toward age and gender. The story of Nerivonne and the larger Sanchez family sets the stage for what could have been a worthwhile examination of the adaptations and integrations of long-standing cultural and national traditions in new contexts among Hispanic and Latino populations in the United States. What follows instead, however, is what this volume's subtitle suggests. There are no in-depth examinations of the social forces or structures that inform Latino populations' transnational movements, settlements, or recreations of cultural rituals in places like Allentown offered here. Rather, Sandoval provides only glimpses—snapshots indeed—into the existences of Latino populations living in this postindustrial town. While Sandoval offers the uninitiated a look into some of the social issues recent immigrants and long-term residents confront on a regular basis, scholars and students of Hispanic and Latino populations looking to deepen their research and studies will likely be left wanting.
Sandoval spreads his snapshots over thirty-one brief essays of about three to five pages each. In addition to Nerivonne and the Sanchezes, readers meet within these portraits the principal of a charter school, public school teachers and students in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, various laborers and workers of different stripes, television and other media personalities from Spanish-language programming, and several other individuals trying to do the best for themselves and their families against some difficult conditions. On one hand, Sandoval provides a service by showing how immigrants from different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean eke out an existence in unfamiliar lands. Yet, his treatment of that existence suffers from the use of the term "Latino" as customarily deployed in most mass-media outlets. Sandoval applies "Latino" somewhat uncritically throughout the book with a seeming presumption that all Spanish-speakers from Latin America and the Caribbean ascribe to a single identity bound by language, socioeconomic status, or both. Striving to portray a pan-ethnic identity in this way ultimately diminishes the overall value of this work.
While the casual reader may gain some insights into the social, political, and cultural lives of these new immigrants settling in an unlikely port of entry rather than a more traditional site like New York, Chicago, [End Page 473] Los Angeles, or Miami, scholars interested in an in-depth analysis of these immigrants' socialization, political engagement, or culture will likely be frustrated, particularly by the book's organization. The essays appear in no discernible pattern. A piece about education is followed by one about news broadcasting, which is followed by one about migrant laborers, and then by one about housing ordinances. Essays addressing these kinds of issues appear at different points throughout the book, but without any linkages to the other related pieces. Themes around which Sandoval could have arranged his essays include familial and social connections, popular media, schools and education, and the politics of housing. Such organizational schemas would have facilitated the development of a larger synthesis of ethnic identity formation and its role in Allentown's Latinos' efforts to advocate for improved educational opportunities, reformed housing policies, and greater access to and representation in Spanish-language newspapers and television broadcasts.
The shortcomings highlighted here could be forgiven. Sandoval is a journalist and not a social scientist, after all. Sandoval even could be forgiven for claiming as he does to be doing the work of...