Book review: Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City

reviewed by Evelyn Ravuri

7 Sep 2022, 1:58 p.m.
Evelyn Ravuri

AK Sandoval-Strausz, Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City, New York: Basic Books, 2019; 416 pp.: ISBN-13: 9781541697249, US$32.00 (hbk); ISBN-13: 9781541644434, US$18.99 (eBook)


In Barrio America Sandoval-Strausz argues that both US-born and immigrant Latinos have demographically and economically revitalised US central cities since the 1970s. He selected two of the largest Latino neighbourhoods in two of the largest cities in the US for study (Chicago and Dallas). Chicago serves as an example of an industrial city that has suffered from deindustrialisation and the consequent population and economic decline. Dallas is the representative city from the post-industrial era and is a prime example of urban sprawl. The two neighbourhoods examined are Little Village (Chicago) and Oak Cliff (Dallas); both of which experienced massive population loss and economic decline after the 1950s; largely due to suburbanisation. Neither neighbourhood had many Latinos prior to the 1960s, but by 2010, both were over 80% Latino. Sandoval-Strausz’s main argument for the book may be summed in this quote ‘the millions of Mexicans and other Latin Americans…showed up just when the nation’s cities needed them the most’ (p. 133).

Section I (the first four chapters) argues that government subsidies in the suburbanisation process such as highway development, urban renewal and FHA backed housing loans caused population and economic decline in central cities after the 1950s. A detailed discussion of racial covenants, zoning ordinances and lending practices illustrated how non-whites were restricted from moving to the suburbs and how this increased racial segregation within metropolitan areas. The author also explains how race riots and increased crime rates in the 1960s led to a further exodus of population from central cities. Chapter 4 provides a brief synopsis of the demographic and economic processes that were unfolding in Latin America after the 1940s. Specifically, rapid population growth led to increased migration to Latin American cities as economic policies that focused on industrialisation were promoted. To placate a growing and largely poor urban population, food subsidies favoured cities, in effect ‘bleeding the countryside dry’ (p. 110). Some displaced rural migrants immigrated to the US prior to the 1960s, but it is the transnational connections between US cities and Latin American cities that would open the ‘flood gates’ to immigration after the 1960s. These first four chapters contain several examples of how newly arrived Latinos to Little Village and Oak Cliff (a relatively small number at this time) provided a ‘buffer’ between the African American and White populations. For example, ‘in Little Village, they (Latinos) were being offered social status and clear economic benefits in exchange for serving as a bulwark against African Americans’ (p. 40).

Section II examines the settlement and revitalisation of cities by Latinos between the 1960s and 1980s. Chapter 5 begins with a discussion of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Reform Act of 1965 and how this change in immigration policy transformed Latin American migrants from legal sojourners to undocumented residents. At the same time, Latin American cities experienced explosive population growth due to the adoption of modern medicine, political turmoil (e.g. Cuban Revolution, civil conflict in Central American countries) and limited job opportunities due to the mechanisation of agriculture. Changes in immigration policy forced many of these immigrants to resort to illegal methods of entering and remaining in the US Chapters 6 and 7 present a personal dimension to the macro processes occurring on both sides of the US border. Interviews with Latino residents (US born, documented and undocumented) in Little Village and Oak Cliff provided insight into the factors that initiated migration, the difficulties involved with the migration process, how these migrants acclimated to their new communities and the contributions migrants made to these communities. Chapter 8 argues that Latinos had not achieved the political representation in US cities that was on par with that of their demographic and economic contributions. Political representation is again addressed in Chapter 11 when Sandoval-Strausz highlights that government agencies by the early 2000s had realised that not only were Latinos were critical to revitalising decaying central city neighbourhoods, but that Latinos yielded political power to effect change not only locally but nationwide. Although political processes are extremely important for Latino integration into US society, these discussions veered from the critical point of the book: that is, Latinos have been instrumental in repopulating and economically revitalising central cities. I suggest a follow-up book on Latino political representation instead.

Section III focused on the impact of Latino settlement since the 1980s. In Chapter 9, the author discussed push and pull factors that led to emigration from Latin American countries. Neoliberalism and the recession of the early 1980s required retrenchment of both government services (e.g. health care and education) and government employment in Latin American countries. This forced not only the poor, but the urban middle-class to emigrate from these countries. To curtail undocumented immigration from Latin America, the US enacted The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) which provided amnesty to qualified Latino immigrants. However, the IRCA made it more difficult for the undocumented to return to the source country and had an unintended effect: ‘strict border enforcement had not kept migrants out – it had shut them in, turning them into immigrants who were here to stay’ (p. 238). Chapter 9 ends with a discussion of how remittances have been instrumental in economically ‘revitalising’ migrant communities of origin and further creating a sustainable transnational flow of migrants, culture and capital between the US and Latin American countries. Chapter 10 turns to a discussion on the built environment and how Latinos have reconfigured urban space (residential, commercial and public space) in US cities. Latinos have also transformed these neighbourhoods into pedestrian-friendly ‘meccas’ that are now the envy of real estate developers and ‘gentrifiers’.

Throughout the book, Sandoval-Strausz criticised scholars for largely dismissing the effect that Latinos and immigrants in general have had on the revitalisation of central city neighbourhoods in the US. These scholars (e.g. Florida and Sassen) have attributed central city revitalisation to ‘gentrifiers’; the in-migration of higher educated/higher income, mostly non-Hispanic White individuals into disinvested neighbourhoods. However, by examining only one neighbourhood in Chicago and one in Dallas, Sandoval-Strausz may be missing the bigger picture. There may be a synergism between Latino/immigrant settlement and gentrifiers that has strengthened economies in US. central cities. Section II of Barrio America begins with 1965 as a watershed year for Latino settlement and revitalisation of central cities in the US. Gentrification, a term coined by Glass in 1964, was already a recognised process in select US cities by this time (Osman, 2016). Perhaps, a city-wide examination of the settlement patterns of Latinos and ‘gentrifiers’ in Chicago and Dallas may have produced different conclusions concerning the ‘revitalisation’/‘gentrification’ debate.

While Sandoval-Strausz was able to capture the macro-scale demographic and economic processes that led to the revitalisation of US cities by Latinos, he focused too much on large cities with long histories of Latino settlement. The author briefly discussed the increased settlement of Latinos in smaller cities without prior Latino settlement in Chapter 11. Hartford, Connecticut and Allentown, Pennsylvania were noted for rapid growth in the Latino population and revitalisation of their cities after the 1990s. A more detailed discussion on how Latinos have revitalised these small cities would have shown how pervasive this process is throughout the US urban hierarchy.

The concluding chapter stressed that due to the ageing of the non-Hispanic White population in the US that Latinos will become even more important as workers and consumers in the future. While the late 20th century was the era of Latino revitalisation of central cities in the US, the 21st century is likely to see Latinos becoming important in the demographic and economic revitalisation of suburbs, small towns and rural areas throughout the US.

In summation, Barrio America provides a great synopsis of the demographic, political and economic circumstances that have led to the exodus of migrants from Latin American countries to the US and the positive contribution these migrants have made to central cities just when they were most needed. The interviews with Latino immigrants helped to provide a human dimension to the macro-scale demographic and economic processes occurring at the regional, national and international scale. This book is applicable to scholars of the social sciences and would be appropriate reading in undergraduate upper-division courses in Sociology, History, Geography, Latin American Studies and Planning.



Osman S (2016) Gentrification in the United States. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Available at: (accessed 20 June 2022).


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If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Gentrification and Community Fabric in Chicago by John Betancur 

"This paper attempts to specify impacts on low-income racial/ethnic groups (Latinos in particular) in five Chicago neighbourhoods, with a particular focus on neighbourhood-based fabrics of support and advancement."

Neighbourhood effects and beyond: Explaining the paradoxes of inequality in the changing American metropolis by Robert J. Sampson

Sampson advances a unifying framework on persistence and change in urban inequality, highlighting a theory of neighbourhood effects and the higher-order structure of American cities.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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