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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights
Edited by William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor

(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1997)
322pp. Index. ISBN 0-8070-4634-5. Pb.: ISBN 0-8070-4635-3.

A significant new addition to the ever-growing body of citizenship and "new citizen" literature, this book offers a provocative description of how some Latinos in the United States are struggling to gain rights and respect within the parameters of a concept the book's writers define as "cultural citizenship."

As a basic premise of the book, the authors view Latinos as outsiders in their homeland since they contend that Latinos are considered foreigners and immigrants even though they might hold legal citizenship. The authors argue that all people of Mexican, Central American, and South American descent are "Latino" whether they are recently arrived immigrants from Argentina or fifth generation Mexicans whose family history predates that of the U.S. annexation of present-day California. Thus, although Latinos in the U.S. compose a rather large, heterogeneous group, the authors make a persuasive argument that people of Latin American descent, regardless of their national origin or legal citizenship status, face particular challenges to gain rights and respect, or "cultural citizenship," in U.S. society.

A rather open-ended concept, the term "cultural citizenship" was first introduced by Renato Rosaldo of Stanford University in 1987 to the Latino Cultural Studies Working Group (some of whose members are contributors to this book). Throughout the edited volume, the definitions of "cultural citizenship" seem to vary according to the particular writer, and also by the wide range of case studies used to illustrate the concept. For example, one contributor summarizes the general idea of the concept by writing that ". . . cultural citizenship is a process that involves claiming membership in, and remaking, America" (p. 58). Another writer defines the concept by arguing that "Cultural citizenship can be thought of as a broad range of activities of everyday life through which Latinos and other groups claim space in society, define their communities, and claim rights" (p. 262).

According to the editors, the intent of the book is to better understand "how cultural phenomena . . . cross the political realm and contribute to the process of affirming and building an emerging Latino identity and political and social consciousness" (p. 6). To illustrate this concept, the essays cover a diverse array of activities such as the participation of Latino women in a cannery strike in Watsonville, California; the experiences of Puerto Ricans in a literacy class in New York; and the weekly exchanges at a swap meet in San Jose, California.

At times the authors seem to give overly generalized examples of why cultural citizenship represents the experiences of Latinos in the U.S.. However, the book does succeed in offering a convincing alternative view to the notion of citizenship. In contrast with the outdated assimilationist model of citizenship, the authors of this book contend that Latinos are "not only entering (U.S.) society, they are reshaping it, remoulding it in their own image" (p. 277).

Thus, apart from describing Latinos' struggle to gain formal citizenship, the writers also offer compelling evidence of how the fabric of U.S. society is changing and becoming enriched in response to the infusion of Latinos and other non-white groups. Given the current climate in the U.S., where there is a growing tide of nativist legislation designed to eliminate affirmative action, cut back welfare, and drastically restrict the rights of immigrants, this book is particularly relevant and timely.

Heather McPhail,
Inter-American Development Bank

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