Guest post by Juan M. Pedroza, a PhD candidate in sociology, Graduate Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and Ford Foundation Predoctoral Research Fellow (2014-2017).

Review of Latino Heartland: Of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest by Sujey Vega (New York University Press, 2015)

Sujey Vega’s Latino Heartland provides an engrossing account of Latinos in northwest Indiana, USA. Her interviews with local residents provide a detailed account of how Latinos adapted to and reshaped Lafayette, Indiana. The book documents a time when immigration policy debates among ‘Hoosiers’ (Indiana residents) became increasingly volatile. Vega conducted fieldwork in 2006, a time when Indiana joined other states as the site of large-scale rallies advocating immigrant rights. She then conducted follow-up interviews (2009 and 2012) to make sense of how people interpreted legislative initiatives to repel unauthorized immigrants. In retrospect, the book provides valuable insights into the eye of an incoming, but not necessarily inevitable, storm in Indiana. The analyses provide guidance on how to document changes in local communities undergoing rapid, unprecedented, and polarizing changes.

Vega’s narrative starts with a long view of racial formation in Lafayette, Indiana. She contextualizes life in Central Indiana by recounting milestones in the region’s embattled history. Retelling the influence of the Ku Klux Klan aims to exhume silenced memories of injustices. Against a backdrop of historic hostility to minority (non-Latino, non-white) populations, the subsequent chapters on how Latinos remade Lafayette offer clear examples of adaptation. Chapter 2 (‘Kneading Home’) is essential reading for anyone interested in how Latino immigrants, especially women, carve out spaces to express evolving identities and set down roots in unfamiliar terrain. We see vivid evidence of how, as Vega contends in the introduction, Latino newcomers and long-term residents reimagined Indiana. She writes,

Acres and acres of flat farmland used for feed corn or soybean often embody the familiar images of Indiana and the Midwest in general… But this imagined Midwest is far from the reality. Small, barely there bumps alter the landscape and beckon drivers to take a moment and glide… The altered landscape, the subtle yet present scenic shifts, reminds us that moments of change actually come to define space. Here, the topography may be an apt metaphor for demography…’ [p. 4]

These themes reemerge when Vega recounts public displays of Catholic, ethno-spirituality and deliberate efforts by Latinos in Lafayette to seek a sense of normalcy. ‘At these crossroads, Latino ethno-Catholicism melded with an Indiana setting to create traditions that would not be halted by snow or amended by a particular anti-Latino and anti-immigrant moment in national politics’ [p. 79]. In one of many intriguing passages, Vega relays how Latino residents came to terms with the harsh weather of northern Indiana. More than half of her respondents complained of the cold and some spoke about coping with its psycho-emotional manifestation. Weathering a storm, it seems, became a rehearsal for battles to come in the form of hostility at the statehouse. Did ongoing and public displays of ethno-spirituality prepare Latino Hoosiers—at least among the devoutly Catholic—to face a wave of restrictive rhetoric and legislative activity? According to Vega, although church leaders sought to warm the welcome of Latino parishioners, church-goers relied less on religious leaders to help organize the large-scale demonstrations of 2006 and more on the informal networks thickened during the course of making a home in Indiana. Whatever their outward similarities, the narrative does not ultimately settle whether (or to what extent) acts such as sacrilizing public streets contributed to active political mobilization on display during the heart of Vega’s fieldwork in 2006.

The book continues with subsequent analyses of different data sources. Vega conducts a discourse analysis of public data (chapter 3), additional interpretations of Latinos experiencing an increasingly negative social climate (chapter 4), and then introduces insights from interviews with non-Latino, white Hoosiers (chapter 5). Readers interested in how the data sources complement each other may be prompted to wonder about what other in-depth studies have found regarding the manifestation of hostility toward minority populations. For example, do past projects of racial formation place a region on a pre-determined path to exclusion? Conversely, perhaps small and shrinking majority-white communities in off-the-beaten path locations will come increasingly to terms with minority-driven diversity and forego or abandon punitive prescriptions. For example, in Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s, Robert Wuthnow notes the potential for such reconciliation. He relies on social historical sources to define ‘heartland’, which does not include Indiana or most other states in the Midwest, in a way scholars of non-traditional minority and immigrant destinations should note. Moreover, Latino Heartland links Indiana’s past and its recent incursions into restrictive policymaking, but the connection raises a number of unanswered questions. If the past is prologue, should we expect less welcoming narratives endorsed by Hoosier neighbors in communities where nearly all white residents have lived in the state for a long time compared to other places in the state where a sizeable portion of whites are transplants from other regions? After all, if a Hoosier project of animus and injustice is alive today, we should expect it to resonate most among multiple-generation, white Hoosiers. Alternatively, if the source of anti-immigrant backlash expressed by apprehensive whites stems not from the particularities of local places but rather a shared national imagination, then we need to rethink how and where to study threats to identity and belonging. Finally, the book explores the boundary between 54 Latino and non-Latino community members, and all but one of the latter are white. But do everyday encounters change where non-Latino, whites are not the only sizeable non-Latino group? Taken together, these questions strongly suggest the need to study contrasting sites. Indeed, coming to conclusions about the relative importance of demographic versus regional explanations may necessitate comparing sites in different states, as Tomás Jiménez does in his study of Garden City, Kansas and Santa Maria, California.

The value of works such as Latino Heartland will increase as we search for answers on how local communities deal with (or begrudge) rapid demographic change. One thing is clear: Latinos and Latino immigrants will continue to comprise a notable (and even growing) share of places like Lafayette, Indiana. State legislative efforts to repel unauthorized immigrants have failed to propel the intended mass exodus of immigrants and their families, as Vega notes when she reconnects with respondents years after Indiana enacted anti-immigrant measures. It seems restrictive state laws can slow non-citizen in-migration but not dramatically reverse the demographic metabolism still at work in Indiana and across the United States. The book will be especially useful for anyone interested in an ethnographic account of immigrants settling in the interior of the USA. In addition, scholars of Latinos in the Midwest and Latino’s religious practices would also benefit from Vega’s contribution.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Pedroza, J. M. (2017) Book Review: Latino Heartland: Of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/03/book-review (Accessed [date]).