Book review: Latinos and the Liberal City: Politics and Protest in San Francisco

Reviewed by Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman


Created
2 Dec 2022, 3:03 p.m.
Author
Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman
DOI
10.1177/00420980221135495

Latinos and the Liberal City book cover

Eduardo Contreras, Latinos and the Liberal City: Politics and Protest in San Francisco, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019; 328 pp.: ISBN 13-9780812251128, US$45 (hbk), ISBN 9781512823677, US$26.50 (pbk)

 

Latinos and the Liberal City examines 50 years of Latino struggles for power, electoral representation and civil rights. In this book Contreras offers a detailed historical account of Latino activism in San Francisco between the 1930s and the mid-1970s. He selected San Francisco as the focus for the book for three critical reasons: one, the setting pivots away from the usual white–black binary analysis of activism. Instead, the author details how numerous Latino racial and ethnic groups established roots in San Francisco, thus providing a rich Latino history to examine. Two, Contreras dispels the notion that despite diverse racial and ethnic identification Latinos are able to work within various racial/ethnic groups and coalesce around common economic and political issues. Three, Latino activism, organising and dissent are often overlooked and discounted, as historically, Latinos are often portrayed as uninterested and disengaged in the political process. Conversely, Contreras highlights the many political successes that were developed and implemented by Latinos in the San Francisco area. The author challenges the perception of inaction and brings much needed attention to how Latinos were able to successfully unionise and collectively mobilise to create economic and political change.

Contreras argues that historically the literature on Latino politicisation has not considered ‘Latinos’ preoccupation with liberalism’ (p. 8). The central thesis proposed by the author is that although Latino political participation has centred on the heterogeneity within the Latino population and the inherent competition between groups – ideologically there were unifying liberalism and latinidad causes that brought groups together. Contreras is careful to note that during this era not all Latinos identified as liberal, instead the common issues such as social and economic reforms in terms of race, culture, gay rights, gentrification and labour, as well as other political and economic concerns, were cornerstone issues which united groups. By situating San Francisco Latinos as active agents in the New Deal collation, the author dispels the notion that Latinos were passive outsiders to the ideals of liberalism. Latino civil rights participation is often framed as Latinos building off African American politicking; however, in the mid-to-late 1950s, as racial, political and economic justice issues continued unabated, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and white supporters mobilised for civil rights reforms. Regardless of the success in countering exploitive policies, Contreras emphasises that some Latinos embraced some or all the ideals of liberalism while others rejected the ideology in its totality.

Unlike other manuscripts that examine the role of Latinos in various genres and use the term ‘Latino’ as an all-encompassing term, in Latinos and the Liberal City, the term is applied in four distinct ways. First it is used as a descriptive identifier of residents of ‘Latin American descent and Spanish-speaking language’ (p. 13). Second, the term is used as an ‘ethnoracial marker’ that allows Contreras to track the political and economic progress of Latinos in San Francisco when compared to other groups. Third is the genderisation of the term Latino. Based on archival information Contreras uses Latino/Latino to differentiate between the genders as opposed to Latinx, [email protected] or Latino/a. Fourth, the generic version of the term Latino is used when discussing the community and population.

Chapters 1 and 2 acquaint the reader with the rich history of Latinos in San Francisco between the 1930s and the mid-1970s. Contreras introduces the reader to the population which consisted of Central and South Americans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans – heterogenous ethnic and racial groups who shared common economic and political challenges. The migration and concentration of these populations in San Francisco created a ‘Latino social world unmatched by any other locality at the time’ (p. 16). Mexican communities had long established roots in California, and after the Mexican Revolution were the largest percentage of the Latino groups who arrived in San Francisco fleeing economic and political uncertainty. By the 1920s, Puerto Ricans fleeing the ‘island’ arrived in San Francisco followed by Central American elites who were known for their coffee production and who gravitated towards American capitalism. Contreras points out that regardless of economic or political background a racialisation of Latinos existed in San Francisco creating a unity between various Latino groups. The author notes that an important source of information during this era were the Spanish-language newspapers which kept Latino communities informed and closely united, while also highlighting the latinidad experience to outsiders.

The strength of Latinos and the Liberal City is found in Chapters 3 through 5. In these the author presents an extremely detailed account of the Latino experience in San Francisco. From Latino activism in unions to their pursuit of ‘power, recognition, and representation’ (p. 46) within unions to their staunchness for labour and civil rights, Latinos were politically engaged. Contreras emphasises the importance of collective action amongst the various Latino groups and how collectivity was an avenue to some labour successes. Latinos and the Liberal City chronicles the decade-long campaign to organise labour unions and, even more significant, the grassroots civil rights liberalism movement. Unity or the latinidad experience empowered Latinos to demand higher wages and an extortion free workplace. At the local level, activists understood that they needed to engage the community outside of the union movement with a focus on constant education and outreach. Activists also understood that political efficacy was central to the engagement process. Political efficacy was structured in the form of ‘fair play and equal opportunity’ (p. 83). During this period there was a concerted effort to demonstrate latinidad by promoting Latino unity and cohesion to engage the community.

In Latinos and the Liberal City, Contreras provides a balanced view of the struggles the Latino community in San Francisco experienced. By the mid-1940s, employers and policymakers noticed the Latino labour union movement and began to counter Latino mobilisation efforts. Contreras argues that by the 1950s ‘Republicans envied Democrats virtual control of the Latino electorate’ (p. 109) in San Francisco. In response, Latinos with Republican ideologies organised to increase Latino support for Eisenhower; however these efforts were not successful. The author maintains that Latino activist capitalised on the growing Latino population in order to increase the number of social, economic and political supporters. A larger latinidad base translated to increased political power and representation. The book emphasises that unity activists engaged with Latinos of all races and ethnicities to bring awareness to social, economic and political issues, and that these activists relied on language and culture to create a collective community with shared agendas.

Although Chapters 3 and 5 are the substantive portions of the book, the reader is also introduced to a multitude of acronyms that at times are cumbersome to remember. There are three and a quarter pages of acronyms for the reader to refer to at the beginning of the book. At times, one subsection of a chapter will employ so many acronyms that they distract from the substantive arguments.

In summation, Latinos and the Liberal City examines five decades of Latino struggles for power, electoral representation and civil rights. Latinos and the Liberal City offers a comprehensive historical account of Latino activism in San Francisco. From the 1930s to the mid-1970s San Francisco was home to multiple Latino groups collectively working together to solidify power, representation and equity. Contreras dispels the notion that diverse racial and ethnic identification Latinos were not able to work together, instead the author argues that Latinos coalesced around common economic and political issues. Latinos are often portrayed as uninterested and disengaged in the political process. To counter this Contreras highlights the many political successes developed and implemented by Latinos in the San Francisco area. Contreras challenges the perception of inaction and brings much needed attention to how Latinos were able to successfully unionise and collectively mobilise to create economic and political change.

 

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