We welcome a guest post today from Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr., author of Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco. Born in an explosive boom and built through distinct economic networks, San Francisco has a cosmopolitan character that often masks the challenges migrants faced to create community in the city by the bay. Latin American migrants have been part of the city’s story since its beginning. Charting the development of a hybrid Latino identity forged through struggle—latinidad—from the Gold Rush through the civil rights era, Summers Sandoval chronicles the rise of San Francisco’s diverse community of Latin American migrants.
In the following post, Summers Sandoval examines the history of multinational Latino communities in urban American cities and how their formation becomes even more important in response to current political discussions.
The 2012 U.S. presidential election might be remembered by future historians as the political “coming out” of the U.S. Latino population.
At 10% of the U.S. electorate, Latino voters overwhelmingly (more than 70%) cast their ballots for the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012. Those numbers shed light on how Obama became the first U.S. President elected while losing the “white vote,” as they also signal the changing composition of the 21st-century United States.
While the political emergence of Latinos surprised many in the mainstream media, it’s been a closely watched process for those who study the nation’s second-largest racial/ethnic group. Mexican American and Puerto Rican voters have played decisive roles in particular local elections for generations. And, for the last decade, in a handful of states that have traditionally served as “gateways” for Latin American migrants to the United States—California, Texas, New York, and Florida in particular—a statewide candidate who ignores Latino voters does so at their own peril.
These local and regional patterns are now playing out at a national level. On a near daily basis we are peppered with evidence that the political establishment is refocusing its future efforts on attracting more Latino voters. In addition to tailoring their messages to Latino audiences (like this 2011 DNC video for the Obama campaign), they are also increasingly concerned about their image among Latino voters. As one conservative put it: “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”
As with most “new” things, however, the mainstream United States still has a lot to learn about this growing segment of its population. Perhaps the most common misconception that remains, even in this period of increasing attention, is the belief that there is naturally such as thing as a “Latino.”
My book Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco is more than a history of Latinas and Latinos in the city by the bay. It’s also one of the first books to tackle the history of how diverse Latin American-descent populations can coalesce into united, visible communities. In short, I tell story of how migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and other parts of the Spanish-speaking hemisphere, along with their U.S.-born children, become Latino within the modern U.S. city. It’s a localized historical account of what is clearly becoming the present-day national story.
The story of Latinos in San Francisco puts a lot of our present moment into clear focus. The emergence of a unifying latinidad (or “Latino-ness”) doesn’t just happen naturally over time as migrants assimilate to American culture. It is, in many ways, a response to particular historical conditions of dislocation, marginalization, and the collective desire to create home.
This can be an intentional process. For example, 19th-century San Francisco witnessed an explicit project by Latin American elites to build unity within the Spanish-speaking population. When these diverse and often rivalrous groups were mobilized to create the city’s first Spanish-language Catholic Church, a more cohesive community began to take shape. The church became a hub of the physical and spiritual community, as well as a space where differences between Latinos could be negotiated within a shared commonality—the Catholic faith.
This unity can also come unintentionally, as a response to negative pressures facing many poor and working-class nonwhite populations. In the 1960s, for example, when the primary Latino neighborhood in San Francisco faced being gutted by federally funded redevelopment programs, the residents banded together in the form of a democratic coalition. Not only did they effectively beat back their common foe, they successfully organized to win control over federal funds coming into the city to improve their district. The end result was a unified democratic body that could voice the concerns of the multiracial neighborhood, especially the plurality with roots in Latin America.
The history of Latino community and identity formation in San Francisco resonates with our current political moment. Specifically, the fissures and tensions that separate the so-called “Latino community”—such as national origin, migration status, and language—are being effectively erased under a wave of racially infused debate about immigration. Or to be more precise, Republican recalcitrance with comprehensive immigration reform is fostering 21st-century Latino unity. Political views on a host of issues provide one easy window into this cohesion. Latinos are statistically “up for grabs” when it comes to party affiliation, but hardline stances by some in the GOP are ensuring that won’t be the case for long.
All stories of immigration entail dislocation and loss, as much as they involve the human struggle for survival and adaptation. When Latin American migrants came to establish new lives in the city by the bay, they animated a story that has been the backbone of much of the United States’ past for the last two centuries. So, too, is their story of community formation in the face of ignorance, fear, and racism. Now, at the threshold of a century that will likely close with Latinos being the largest racial/ethnic group in the United States, we have the power to build a more humanistic future that learns from our collective past.
But will we heed the lessons?