eyes on the U.S.

How Obama's Immigration Move Looks From Latin America

The U.S. President has shown a mix of political pragmatism and historic vision in pushing forward  in the face of a backward-looking Congress.

The American dream is still alive.
The American dream is still alive.
Eduardo Barajas Sandoval


BOGOTA — President Barack Obama's bid to regulate the presence of predominantly Latino immigrants in the U.S. can be viewed now as simply a piece of administrative pragmatism. But over time, we may look back at it as a milestone in the country's socio-cultural development.

In the long term, the U.S. is likely to look more and more like Latin America. While the essential components of its political and economic model will remain the same — assuming capitalism can be humanized from what it is now — its social, cultural and ethnic traits will undergo a significant makeover due to the arrival of millions of the continent's native inhabitants, the original Americans, who are invading the U.S. with their music, food, work and values, and ready to mix in to survive and advance. All of this, of course, is in keeping with the American tradition.

President Obama's speech announcing immigration concessions was sharply criticized by the Republican establishment and all the radicals who would forget that they too are descended from immigrants. But millions of illegals, integrated in fact if not by law into the U.S. system, celebrated the announcement that they will have an opportunity to regulate at least a part of their situation and thus fulfill their dream of being accepted.

The Irish, Italians, Germans, Slavs and Poles had the same dream once, when they disembarked from stinking, overcrowded ships onto the ancestral land of today's Latino "migrants."

The president's show of realism and political courage was not an undeserved gift to a community sometimes accused of "attacking" the American fortress. It was instead a recognition of the efforts of people who have been contributing to the national project. In essence, Obama is offering work permits for three years to illegal immigrants engaged — with the cordial complicity of U.S. citizens — in legal activities within that complex economy. In doing so, he is recognizing their contribution to the development of projects of all sizes and acknowledging the collapse of a system that has failed to prevent tens of millions from coming to live and work in the U.S. This they have done illegally, without paying taxes or claiming the rights afforded them by a democratic system designed to protect them.

The president's executive order to members of the federal administration is neither an amnesty nor a concession of nationality. As Obama said in his now famous speech, it is a middle path to alleviate the situation of so many people who have penetrated humbly and in many cases on foot, into the heart of an empire that sees itself as invulnerable. The empire has found the courage to recognize the obvious presence of these immigrants and give them a friendly hand so they may shed the "sin" of their illegal status.

Listening to Obama's immigration speech in Las Vegas. Photo: Pete Souza/Whitehouse

Sure, there are bound to be radicals — the descendants of previous immigrants — who will take their objections to the courts. The judges' response will most likely favor the newcomers, but if they do not, they will only be exacerbating a situation that is by now part and parcel of U.S. life and society. It would, in any case, prove futile in stemming a wave of ever increasing dimensions.

Perhaps in the distant future, the U.S. president's decision will be seen as opening a small door to an historical process that is the effective union of the Americas. He will then be seen as having moved in line with history's inexorable march. Whether we like it or not, people are moving in waves up and down the vast American continent, which, as a result, is undergoing a racial and cultural blending.

Obama's decision also speaks to the triumph of the Hispanic identity on this continent. These Latin American immigrants may not be the most cultured and educated representatives of their respective countries, but they are undeniable flag bearers of a language with enormous cultural weight. Spanish is expanding its geographical sway from a solid base of 20 countries, consolidating itself as one of the most important in the world, and increasingly becoming the vehicle of tremendous political possibilities in tomorrow's world.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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