Depictions of Latinx experiences in the US grapple with upward mobility and linked fate.
As morality tales, stories about upward mobility disseminate values and offer critiques of our socioeconomic hierarchies. Films about organized crime and the finance industry like The Godfather II and Wall Street convey that you might rise financially, but you can descend ethically. In contrast, a film like The Pursuit of Happyness, with its honest protagonist who leaves behind homelessness through perseverance and education, emphasizes that moral strength leads to success. Meanwhile, Cinderella, Pretty Woman, and Maid in Manhattan suggest that love can transcend class divisions and anyone can rise up through a generous partner or marriage.
Yet stock stories about upward mobility vary depending on genre and method of distribution, as well as on race and ethnicity. Even when they’re about individuals, narratives involving Latinx and African Americans often engage with the economic barriers that particularly affect these groups—barriers like not having the level of intergenerational wealth and resources that white families have (which determine schooling, residential, and employment options) and also criminalizing discourses that impact rates of incarceration and deportation. Despite differences in class and ideology within ethnic groups, ethnic upward mobility narratives try to impart a sense of collective identity for social action. How do they do so?
Stock stories about upward mobility vary depending on genre and method of distribution, as well as on race and ethnicity.
Stories about class differentiation within racialized populations reflect tensions in US society broadly, in that people may feel linked to or distinct from others based on how they see themselves and how others see and treat them within social and economic hierarchies. In my book Race and Upward Mobility, I analyze a wide range of texts, from the 1940s to the 2000s, about Mexican American and African American class dynamics. Many of these texts show how heterogeneous these populations are. Take, for example, the group labeled “Latino/a/x” or “Hispanic.” These terms do not indicate the time or circumstance of arrival in the US, class background, history of racialization, or citizenship status—all of which are factors that can affect whether individuals within the group identify with others in the group.
Latinx have been found to differ in the degree to which they feel a sense of “linked fate,” or the idea that one’s fate is linked to that of their racial group. This phrase was coined by political scientist Michael Dawson, who demonstrated that African Americans feel linked fate even as they move up in class, due to the history of slavery and the effects of racialization. Studies about whether Latinx also feel a sense of linked fate are mixed. Some studies find that Latinx also feel linked fate, but that it is affected by class and generational proximity to the immigration experience; specifically, those coming from lower levels of income and immigrant backgrounds feel a stronger sense of linked fate. Another study finds that compared to other racial-ethnic groups, including blacks, whites, and Asian Americans, Latinx express the lowest sense of linked fate. The authors of this study speculate that “Latinos may, for example, be genuinely more individualistic and less committed to group identity” or they might feel more linked to those from their national-origin groups rather than “other Hispanics.”
In the face of the value that US society puts on individualism—and the differences that exist within a pan-Latinx population in terms of class background, country of origin, etc.—Latinx representations often try to create a sense of linked fate and collective identity for social and political purposes. In the 2000s, the immigrant rights movement has had a cultural counterpart: Latinx representations in film, television, and literature have depicted the history of US intervention in Latin America, the effects of past and current immigration policies, and the ideological divisions that hinder empathy.
Latinx representations often try to create a sense of linked fate and collective identity.
Through my research, I found that writers, filmmakers, showrunners, and other creatives use particular narrative strategies to depict intragroup class and ideological divisions. Among these strategies are four recurring character types that stand in for sociopolitical strategies and model distinct ways of dealing with race and class: status seekers, gatekeepers, mediators, and conflicted artists. Whether featured as major or minor characters, they help give form to otherwise abstract ideas and social patterns, reflecting and shaping the way people act in actual life.
The status seeker, for example, represents the desire for mainstream approval. In the first season (2015) of the ABC drama American Crime, the small-business-owning Latino father (Benito Martinez) insists his family is different from the “illegals.” He is filmed by a news crew declaring, “You see those are the ones, always make the rest of us look bad”—a sentiment that receives pushback from his family and community. His assertion of their difference is emblematic of a longstanding socioeconomic phenomenon. Historically, markers of difference have prevented economic parity and social incorporation, leading individuals and communities to distance themselves from racialized peoples, the poor, and undocumented immigrants in attempts to erase or mitigate those differences and to access resources usually reserved for white Americans.
Sometimes, status seekers correlate with gatekeepers: individuals who bar others from accessing the resources they themselves enjoy. The 2002 film aptly titled The Gatekeeper represents both a status seeker and gatekeeper through its protagonist, a half-Mexican border patrol agent (John Carlos Frey) who hates Mexicans and tries to rile up sentiment against the “invasion.” Like the Latino father on American Crime, he has internalized the alarmist discourse against immigrants and now helps to propagate it. In another Latinx immigration film, Machete (2010), the Mexican American border patrol agent (Jessica Alba) also distinguishes herself from all the undocumented migrants she is tasked with profiling and deporting. At one point, she recounts her upward mobility trajectory as proof that the “system works here.” However, just like the agent in The Gatekeeper, she ends up aligning herself with undocumented immigrants after gaining ethical awareness and developing a sense of linked fate. Both agents are transformed from gatekeepers to mediators—characters who use their position between groups to help coethnics.
Stories are able to make otherwise abstract social and political stances more apparent.
Through their characters—people we might identity or disidentify with—stories are able to make otherwise abstract social and political stances more apparent. Status seekers, gatekeepers, mediators, and conflicted artists (characters who bring up ethical issues tied to representation) can serve as allegorical pathways of social incorporation. In other words, these types stand in for the ways people identify within, between, and against groups. With the possibility that socioeconomic gain and assimilation can influence a person’s sense of linked fate and concern for coethnics, many Latinx representations attempt to forge a sense of group solidarity by depicting these characters in relation to undocumented immigration, among other ethical issues.
The texts mentioned above were all produced in the 2000s and are informed by the same historical circumstances: long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric, criminalizing discourse, the militarization of the US-Mexico border, the growing presence of Latinx in the United States, and the formation of a Latinx middle class. These phenomena have led to the creation of stories about Latinx upward mobility that deal directly with the unevenness of social and economic integration, delving into issues that prevent or that forge a sense of linked fate and emphasizing the need for mobility in collective, not just individual, terms.
This post also appeared on USC’s Center for Immigrant Integration blog.