Who Saved the American City? And Who Almost Destroyed It?

Barrio America is a refreshing argument about the power of Latino migrantes—and a dispiriting reminder of how white racism affected American metropolises.

1964 Mexican Independence Day parade on 26th Street in Dallas.
1964 Mexican Independence Day parade on 26th Street in Dallas. Photo courtesy Richard Dolejs

Just decades ago, American cities were in steep decline. Eighteen of the United States’ 25 largest cities were smaller in 1980 than they were in 1950. Grim urban landscapes faced depopulation, high crime rates, municipal bankruptcies, and economic decline. Conventional wisdom says the “creative class,” some combination of bohemian artists followed by white-collar yuppies, deserves credit for reversing the tide, making downtowns attractive, if expensive, places to live, a reversal that dampened the congestion, alienation, and environmental catastrophe of the suburbs.

Not so fast, says A.K. Sandoval-Strausz in his enchanting new book Barrio America. It was the arrival of Latino immigrants that stemmed the tide of population loss, he says, when they arrived in growing numbers in the 1970s. As Barrio America explains, Latino migrantes found affordable, aging housing stock in the neighborhoods that working-class whites fled, like Dallas’ Oak Cliff and Chicago’s Little Village. Many migrantes had never driven before—in 1960, Mexico had only one automobile for every 45 residents—and they preferred compact walking-friendly urban enclaves over sprawling suburbs. They brought panaderias, then, pupuserias, to aging storefronts, and invested their labor and money into rehabilitating the cityscape. During Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, when temperatures rose to 106 degrees Fahrenheit, triggering the deaths of 517 residents, both Latinos and non-Latinos living in and around the barrios had much higher survival rates; Latinos had modified the built environment in a way that brought residents outside into the lifesaving fresh air.

Barrio America offers a welcome narrative for our demoralizing political moment. As liberal alliances are torn apart by gentrification, isn’t it soothing to imagine a version of urban renewal that isn’t led by white tech workers who call the police for trespassing when neighbors of color enter their own homes? Picking up Barrio America, I was heartened by the largely upbeat argument Sandoval-Strauz puts forth: He says he’ll tell the story of an “urban renaissance,” centered on the oral histories of migrantes.

But the story Sandoval-Strausz ends up telling isn’t a particularly happy one; this isn’t “immigrants, we get the job done,” so much as “white Americans, we will definitely destroy cities and prosperity if left to our own devices.” It takes a full 160 pages of the book for Sandoval-Strausz to get to the part of the story where migrantes start showing up in large numbers—the book, until that point, is largely about what pushed white people out of the cities to begin with: “the refusal of most whites to share the cities fairly with people of color.” Through the 1950s, both Northern and Southern cities were fiercely segregated: by white residents willing resort to violence when their boundaries were threatened, and by white moderates and self-identified liberals in power who thought pacifying vocal racists was the best way to avoid chaos.

The white flight of the 1960s and 1970s was made possible, in part, because of rules and regulations that viewed Latino immigrants as “acceptable buyers—that is those who were clearly not African American and whom city authorities were insisting were legally white.” That ends up being the most critical point of Sandoval-Strausz’ book: The nominal whiteness of Latinos let them access home mortgages and neighborhoods denied to black homebuyers during the mid-20th century, giving them the chance to build thriving barrios, despite the discrimination by employers and police officers Latinos still faced. It’s not the tidy narrative of immigrant exceptionalism we’re often offered: It’s something more disturbing, more interesting, and more important.

Sandoval-Strausz does a masterful job here of weaving together interviews with current and former residents of the barrios, along with language from newspapers and government reports from the past 60 years, to piece together how racial logic operates. It is not, per se, with sympathy that Sandoval-Strausz profiles people like the white real estate agent Richard Dolejs, who welcomed Latino immigrants into Chicago’s Little Village with a Mexican Independence Day parade in 1964 while simultaneously participating in the system that kept black interlopers out of the neighborhood. Nevertheless, Sandoval-Strausz approaches Dolejs and others with enough patience to unpack how various threads of white supremacy evolved across time.

Author photo of Andrew Sandoval-Strausz.
Andrew Sandoval-Strausz Michael T. Davis Photography

Consider, for example, the government officials in Dallas, who, understanding that “race riots were bad for business,” made a movie in 1961 called Dallas at the Crossroads, showing schoolchildren, Boy Scouts, and a choir singing “America the Beautiful,” meant to gingerly convince white Dallas residents not to violently reject school desegregation. The film concedes that white people might prefer to avoid black people, but brings out a judge to remind everybody that “the law is the law.” As Sandoval-Strausz documents how white Americans moved to the suburbs to preserve their racial capital, it’s the bizarrely hypocritical antics of business-minded moderates that really steal the show.

Barrio America’s narrative winds as Sandoval-Strausz implicates everything from the Dallas Cowboys, NAFTA, the Cold War military-industrial complex, the savings and loans crisis, unions, and Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism in explaining the fall and subsequent rise of the neighborhoods that became barrios. He goes on some especially long detours, and at times, it’s easy to get lost in the vastness of the narrative—not because the writing is dry, but because the ambition of the book is grand. After all, in trying to tell the history of cities over 60 years, Sandoval-Strausz ends up describing nearly every important event and trend of the 20th century, all through the lens of how they touched white, black, and Latino residents of American cities.

And where are we now? Sandoval-Strausz tells the story of José Luis Arroyo, hanging out at home in Chicago’s Little Village when a white guy knocks on his door, asking to buy his house. “This was my father’s house,” the stranger explains, adding, “I like it here. I was born in this neighborhood.” The house isn’t for sale, but that doesn’t deter the stranger. When Arroyo asks him why his father left, the stranger says, “I don’t know why my father moved out, he just did.” Immigrants invested in the neighborhoods white residents left behind, and now their children have returned, insisting on their rights to the city. Immigrants built something good, and now white Americans have come for it, with no memory of why they abandoned it in the first place.