By: Jean Kayitsinga

In Stagnant Dreamers, María Rendόn examines how America’s poor and segregated urban neighborhoods shape the lives of children of low-skilled Latino immigrants and how these children adapt and integrate into U.S. society. The central finding of Rendόn’s study is the debunking of fears of “downward assimilation,” or the idea that negative acculturation processes limit social mobility among second-generation Latino young men. She contends that a common trope in the national imaginary—and in some scholarship—is that all inner city residents adopt worldviews and behaviors that keep them in poverty. In contrast to this, she notes that the majority of her respondents were attached to the labor market and pursued higher education. Through the eight chapters of the book, she seeks to explain how young Latino men from disadvantaged neighborhoods aspire to better their circumstances yet still face limited social mobility.
Rendόn draws from immigration, urban sociology, and social capital frameworks and shows how urban violence and social isolation in segregated contexts shaped the acculturation and integration processes of young Latino men; how the growing presence of immigrants in America’s cities has altered these communities; how social capital in terms of family-based social support, community institutions, and social leverage ties help them mitigate the negative impacts of growing up in poor and segregated neighborhoods; and why some young men get ahead while many others sink deep into poverty.
Methodologically, Rendόn uses qualitative research and follows forty-two young adult Latino men from two high-poverty neighborhoods in Los Angeles as they transition into adulthood. She relies on in-depth interviews as well as ethnographic observations of Latino young men and their immigrant parents.
Rendόn finds that America’s poor and segregated neighborhoods impact second-generation Latino youth and reproduce their working-class background. Second-generation Latinos confront challenges associated with high neighborhood poverty, high incidence of violence and crime, heavy police surveillance, and failing schools; poor physical and mental health, and undesirable life outcomes, including higher odds of becoming a victim of and engaging in crime and violence, being incarcerated, attaining few years of schooling, scoring low on achievement tests, dropping out of school, and earning less over time than those growing up elsewhere. Rendόn argues that the American urban context dampens the social mobility prospects of inner-city residents and stalls the successful integration process of second-generation Latino immigrants.
Rendόn argues that race matters greatly in America. Although civil rights legislation outlawed blatant forms of racial discrimination, housing discrimination practices and the legacy of segregation persist across cities, sustaining both spatial and racial inequalities. Poverty remains most concentrated in historically segregated neighborhoods, and people of color, including Mexican Americans, are confined to those places. Rendόn indicates that the concentration of Latinos in poor and segregated neighborhoods sustains their racialization, as does the flow of and negative rhetoric around Mexican (and Central American) immigration.
The assertion that growing up in
America’s poorest neighborhoods reproduces poverty and limited social mobility is a given social fact. Poor neighborhoods tend to have weak collective efficacy and are associated with higher rates of violence and crime, poor mental and physical health, and poor educational and income outcomes. Rendόn, however, finds, contrary to popular belief, that as immigrants settle in poor and segregated neighborhoods, violence declines.
Mexican immigrants rely primarily on social support from family and extended kin. According to Rendόn, parents draw on this family-based social capital to buffer their sons’ exposure to urban violence. Rendόn finds that although bonding ties are necessary they are not enough to help young Latino men move upward on the socioeconomic ladder. Instead, she argues, social leverage ties (or bridging social capital) are critical for them to access and navigate institutions of higher learning.
Stagnant Dreamers is a well-written book that accounts for the ways second-generation Latino immigrants adapt to life in inner-city poor and segregated neighborhoods and how some of them forge ahead to realize their American dream. The concentration of Latino immigrants and their children in disadvantaged neighborhoods profoundly impacts their integration into American society and their chances for upward mobility. Violence in those neighborhoods, in particular, contributes to negative well-being outcomes. Family-based social support and community institutions are protective and buffer against the negative effects of violence and social isolation, but they are not enough.
Social leverage ties are necessary to help second-generation Latinos gain access to institutions of higher education and move up the socioeconomic ladder. Without such ties, young Latino men with promising paths would fall back on family and neighborhood ties and are relegated to low-income segments of the working class. Young Latino immigrants without family-based, neighborhood, and social leverage ties are left further behind and remain in poverty and in impoverished and segregated neighborhoods. Proactive measures by colleges and universities, Rendόn argues, are critical for creating opportunities that further their integration.
Stagnant Dreamers will be of interest to scholars working in the areas of immigration, social and spatial inequality, and the influence of neighborhood structural and social processes on the life outcomes of young Latinos and other minority populations, and should be a required text for students in these fields of study.