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The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1980, Volume 26, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890: A Social History. By Richard Griswold del Castillo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Bibliography. Illustrations. Tables. Index. Maps. 217 pages. $16.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Bender, Samuel Rudin Professor of the Humanities, New York University, author of Toward an Urban Vision (1975) and Community and Social Change in America (1978).

The history of Spanish-speaking Los Angeles during the second half of the nineteenth century is an important one. The city and the Mexican-American community were essentially one in 1850; by 1890, however, Spanish-speaking Angelenos were an isolated segment, a barrio in an Anglo city. In The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890 Richard Griswold del Castillo seeks to tell this story. The result is informative, useful, but, I think, not entirely successful.

In his introduction del Castillo associates his method with the so-called New Urban History identified with Stephan Thernstrom. Like Thernstrom, he relies upon manuscript census returns to obtain detailed social information on ordinary individuals. Thernstrom used such material to answer simple questions about occupational mobility: Did men obtain better jobs over time? Did their sons? The creation of a barrio, however, is infinitely more complicated as an historical problem. Census data are useful in pursuing it, but such data must be used within a conceptual framework that will make them speak. Here is the problem with the book.

The book lacks a sustained and a fully articulated theoretical framework capable of bringing together the data and locating them in the context of a developing city. Various series of data rather than an overarching concept seem to provide the structure for the book. And quantitative data presented need to be more rigorously interrogated; the statistical methods used here are quite primitive. Data on the occupational structure, property-holding patterns, family patterns, and the like of the Spanish-speaking population are presented without comparable data for the city at large or the Anglo population. So abstracted from the history and context of the city, it is impossible to determine what social history is contained in the data. It is not until page 80 that any quantitative data on Mexican-Americans is compared with similar data on Anglos. And I recall only two instances where any comparison of this sort is made (infant mortality, schooling). Again and again, what comparisons are offered are irrelevant: eastern cities of the period or contemporary cities. For example, his numerical index of residential dissimilarity for Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles is not compared with other groups in Los Angeles, but rather with Chicanos in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Laredo, and Galveston in 1960. Again, what sort of historical understanding is likely to emerge from his comparison of Mexican-American persistence rates not with Anglos in Los Angeles but with the general (not broken down by class or ethnicity) persistence rates for Boston, Waltham, Poughkeepsie?

His failure to integrate his data more fully and to situate them in their urban context (a common problem of the new urban history) weakens the persuasiveness of many of his major themes. He may be correct in his claims, but his presentation of evidence is inadequate to them. When he says, for example, that Mexican-Americans were excluded from the growth of the city, we are not told enough about the growth of the city at large to know what this means. He shows that LaRaza suffered a decline in property holdings over time, but we do not know whether this represents a transfer from LaRaza to Anglos generally or whether it was part of a general reorganization of the urban class structure that generally reduced the distribution of property in favor of a particular class. When he points out that the number of Mexican-Americans who were able to find new jobs decreased, I wonder whether more detail about the economy would let us know whether this was distinctive or general, whether it pointed toward the creation of the barrio or toward a sequence of urban economic development. While he shows a slight increase in the professional, commercial, skilled labor, and rancho occupational and a decline in the manual labor category over time, he does not tell us what this means. Does it refute the first claim about general decline? Or, in view of the developing barrio, does it refer to what Allan Spear in respect to black Chicago call the “institutional ghetto”? There is, incidentally, substantial non-quantitative evidence of the development of an institutional ghetto in the section of the book where he argues that a new ethnic identity emerged, sustained by new culture organizations and by the barrio itself as a special place.

This book is infused with a welcome recognition-something also apparent in the recent historiography of slavery and the working class-that oppressed groups are not merely passive victims. They are implicated in their own history, and they seek a variety of adaptive responses, often through the family, to their circumstances. Of course, there is a great danger in this scholarship of becoming so impressed with the creativity and dignity of the response that the restrictive bonds of discrimination and exploitation that forced the particular response are left in the shadows. Richard Griswold del Castillo appears to be well aware of this danger, and his work thus points toward a fuller understanding of the ways of power and survival in our society.