Migrants: Disobedient in the market and citizens in consumption
Both documented and undocumented migrants
create a demand that only their labor satisfies.
They constitute both the demand and the supply,
mutually strengthening and legitimizing each other.
Their acquisitive power opens spaces to them in the market
and makes them consumers of considerable quantities of goods.
They are thus an economic and also a political citizenry.
They may not vote at the ballot box, or are unable to,
but they do cast a vote with their wallets.
José Luis Rocha
The world of consumption has been assailed for both intellectual and moral reasons. It’s associated with a lack of wisdom and an abundance of vices. A broad current of criticism, nourished by traditional Christianity’s negative views of commerce and money, has surfaced again and again in the history of ideas and of political systems. The most negative views arise from the dualities of consumption/alienation and consumption/conformity, modern formulations of the classical “bread and circuses” strategy portrayed by Juvenal as a way to buy votes and govern the unruly crowds of Remus. The resulting tradition, which has become the commonly accepted view, has tended to disdain and even demonize consumption.
The terrain of class struggle
In ordinary language, as Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini points out, consumption is usually associated with “useless expenditures and irrational impulses,” querying how one can make sense of families who squander their Christmas bonuses on parties and presents when they don’t have enough to eat and dress themselves the rest of the year?
Although French philosopher and sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky’s characterization of the society of hyper-consumption has some merit, one notices in his writings a poorly dissembled homiletic moralism—with aristocratic tinges—when he laments that “living better has become a passion of the masses” and that political militancy has been supplanted by hedonism, nationalist passion by a desire for comfort and revolution by entertainment. Illustrious intellectuals take on the role of political commissars in their denunciations of the consuming masses. French philosopher Jacques Rancière notes that at first people were portrayed as seduced by electrical appliances and by a system that at once exploited them and inspired their dreams. In our own day, he says, individuals are being blamed for the democratic tyranny of consumption. In Hatred of Democracy, Rancière writes that “the laws of capitalist accumulation, and the type of production and circulation of commodities they require, have become the simple consequence of the vices of those who consume these commodities, and especially of those who have the least means to consume.” The capitalist law of profit prevails because “democratic man is a being of excesses, an insatiable devourer of commodities, human rights and televisual spectacles.”
García Canclini observes the emergence of an opposing tendency, citing the studies of cultural citizenship “in which citizenship is seen not only in relation to rights accorded by state institutions to those born within their territorial jurisdiction, but also as social and cultural practices that confer a sense of belonging, provide a sense of difference, and enable the satisfaction of the needs of those who possess a given language and organize themselves in certain ways.”
This conceptualization of consumption was already anticipated by the French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau in his study of contemporary everyday life in France. De Certeau rejected the myth of the passive consumer and posited instead “consumption as production,” which highlighted people’s creativity in adapting the products of mass consumption, from furniture to TV dramas, to their personal needs.
This conceptual framework recalls Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells’ argument that consumption is another battleground of class conflict, one rooted in unequal participation in production but extending also to the distribution and appropriation of commodities. Austrian social philosopher André Gorz went even further when he said that the battle lines of that conflict will be everywhere: information, language, modes of life, tastes and fashions produced and shaped by the forces of capital, commerce, the State and the media… the ‘identity’ of individuals, their values and their images of themselves and the world, are being continually structured, manufactured and shaped.”
If we follow the Marxist tradition, therefore, we have to consider that the basic reason for the conflict between the powerful and the dominated has not been exclusively wages (which are actually purchasing power) but also the world of consumption, at least since the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Glasgow strikes of 1915. Both these events began as rent strikes waged against real estate speculators. Unfortunately, though, Marx himself and the correspondents on whom he depended for information injected their historical reconstruction with a great deal of ideology. As a result, a municipal revolution provoked by a rent strike and partly led by women was transmuted into a proletarian proto-revolution, even though at that time Paris, which had few industrial workers among its inhabitants, did not measure up to such a reality. Perhaps because of the inertial force of that original sin, García Canclini conjectures, Marxist studies on consumption continue to exaggerate the decisive force exercised by corporations on consumers and audiences.
Consuming is a political act
We must not forget that it was Marx who first made us aware of the power material activities have to help us understand what was happening in politics beyond its epiphenomena. He laid the groundwork for being as concerned about consumption as about production. Consuming is competing for what society produces. Consumption becomes political from the moment it is linked to the struggle for wages, and its political character is made quite explicit in a conventional sense when the candidates in electoral contests promise to reduce inflation, broaden access to credit and lower taxes.
Consumption is now a space for interaction in which consumers are not passive recipients seduced by the siren calls of advertising. There are many ways to explore that interaction. One of them is to stress the relevance of being undocumented for the citizenship/consumption relationship. The “citizenship = consumption” equation it is not entirely mistaken in that, for example, access to and consumption of certain cultural goods (books, songs, and TV programs in English) open up opportunities for integration into a society where mastery of English is as important as a US passport—or even more so! Let’s remember that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents stop US citizens who present their passport but don’t speak English, and the inverse happens as well: undocumented persons who speak English pass through the checkpoints without showing their documents).
That equation doesn’t suffice, however, because I want to deal with acts of civil disobedience or those that function as such. I’m thus emphasizing consumption as a means of practicing civil disobedience and as an instrument of boycott. Decisions of undocumented migrants about where to live and what to buy are a powerful economic stimulus to which politicians react and are thus the source of the constructive and confrontational power of the undocumented. Mike Davis has studied home improvements made by Latinos as an achievement that has transformed and appropriated the urban landscape of Los Angeles. It’s the Latino version of the appropriation of space that African Americans practiced in 1927 when they bought lots and organized parties on the Santa Monica beach. Both are cases of civil disobedience via the act of consumption, the African Americans by using beaches traditionally reserved for whites, and the Latinos by remodeling their homes even while undocumented, that is, excluded not only from a residential zone but from the whole country.
Latinos and the entertainment industry
Latinos living in the United States represent an important consumer market, and their participation in that market has had and continues to have consequences for their status in society. This has been highlighted by the Puerto Rican filmmaker and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner: “No one knew it then, but the new Latino cultural scene began in 1995, when singer Selena Quintanilla was killed by Yolanda Saldívar, president of her fan club. Despite the tragic aspect—in the classic sense—of the episode, the explosion of visibility that followed gave many Latinos a new sense of optimism, possibility and self-esteem. The editor of People magazine, for example, got a taste of that vast appetite for cultural citizenship of more than 30 million Latinos (and their $190 billion of purchasing power) when in just 24 hours it sold close to a million copies of the special issue dedicated to Selena. At that moment, the glances of capital and the longing for recognition of the Latinos came together in a prolonged kiss of possibilities, and the current cultural boom ‘exploded’.”
Mattel has been aware of this power since 1968, when it came out with a doll called “Spanish Speaker,” a Barbie with a Mexican accent. Later, in 1980, the company launched its first “Hispanic Barbie,” dressed in a pseudo-Spanish costume called “fiesta-style.” Similarly, Warner Music Company fell in love with the Buena Vista Social Club when it realized how profitable it could be to idealize pre¬revolu¬tionary Cuba.
There’s a very clear connection between that boom and the public stands taken by singers and actors on migratory policies. When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed anti-immigration law SB1070 on April 23, 2010, Latinos and their defenders didn’t keep their arms crossed and mouths shut. The years when immigrants bowed down and obeyed the law without talking back are a thing of the past. Many quickly got on the Internet and sent out messages calling for renewal of the boycott against Kimberly Clark (the company behind the Scott, Kotex, Huggies and other brand names) for its corporate links with James Sensenbrenner, Republican congressional representative for the state of Wisconsin since 1979 and author of the notorious 2005 Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, more commonly known as the Sensenbrenner bill. There were early displays of solidarity from many famous people including singers Shakira, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Marco Antonio Muñiz, Danny Rivera and Paulina Rubio and actors Eva Longoria, Gael García Bernal and George López. Cinematographer Robert Rodríguez even improvised an allusive trailer. Without questioning the political convictions of these and other artists, one shouldn’t belittle the benefits they reap by staying on the good side of the millions of Latinos who consume the cultural goods whose production and sale contribute to their fame and fortune. Other voices will be raised out of devotion either to Latinos or to Lord Lucre.
Here we’ve seen in action the power of Latinos—including the millions who are undocumented—by virtue of their position not in the system of production but in that of consumption. A recent contribution of the entertainment industry that benefited the undocumented was the 2013 documentary film, “Who is Dayani Cristal?” starring Gael García Bernal. It narrates the story of a Honduran migrant who died in Pima County in the Sonora Desert after crossing the border. The migrant’s story was reconstructed based on forensic data, a mapping of his journey and an enigmatic tattoo that read “Dayani Cristal,” the name of one of his daughters. The documentary was so widely acclaimed that its website became a platform for collecting the stories of other migrants (helping them speak out), finding migrants who had disappeared, and opposing the system of detention and deportation; it also helped to raise funds for the organizations in Tucson that help the undocumented, the “Hermanos en el Camino” shelter, and those lobbying in favor of work visas.
Óscar de la Hoya speaks out
The world of sports offers another example of the intense love affair between capitalist enterprise and Latino talent, which has also produced strong statements on US migration policies. The Mexican-American retired professional boxer Óscar de la Hoya, whose income depends heavily on the Latino market, says in his memoir Un sueño Americano (An American Dream): “In my 2006 fight against [Nicaraguan] Ricardo Mayorga, I was wearing on my shorts a proposal for the coming elections, stating my solidarity with the undocumented workers.”
Backing proposals similar to those of the Migration Policy Institute but even more favorable for the undocumented, De la Hoya insists that his responsibility was like that of “anyone caught in the middle of one of the hottest topics in the country: immigration. I can’t turn my back on a problem that affects so many people whose roots are just like mine.… The present system isn’t working, and there’s tremendous chaos on the border. I’m not saying we should open the doors and let everybody come who wants to, but neither do I think we should shut the doors permanently. Many of the people crossing the border only want to work and have a better future for themselves and their families.
“It’s true that there are a few bad apples who manage to give immigrants a bad image, and when that is the case, they should be punished severely. The best thing would be to deport them. But I propose a more diplomatic strategy for the rest.… If they want to come to work, we should give them documents so they can work for six months, and then they could stay another six months. If after one year they have behaved as good citizens, paid their taxes and contributed to the economy, they could begin the process of becoming citizens. Every person should have that possibility.…
“Regarding the illegal immigrants who are here already, I don’t think we should deport them. I’m not saying we should stamp their passports and forget about the past, but we should find same way to legalize them. We should give them an opportunity to take part in the system and become citizens so they can continue pursuing the American dream.… Getting immigrants to come out of hiding would be a tremendous achievement for all Americans since it would bring security for the undocumented immigrants and for the country as a whole.… I believe the people of this country would benefit. I believe the economy would also benefit, and so would the different organisms responsible for law enforcement, health and education.”
De la Hoya is constantly seeking to find a position midway between being pro-immigration and respecting the law. He repeats clichés that everybody knows are false, such as the one about “getting immigrants to come out of hiding,” but most importantly, he speaks in terms that are well received by his many fans.
Although de la Hoya’s Mexican roots make him especially sensitive to this issue and shape his opinions, it cannot be denied that his statements are also inspired by economics. Óscar de la Hoya relates that when Richard Schaefer, a banker of Swiss origin, decided to become his financial adviser, he counseled him “to get involved in the marvelous opportunity you have of being a true Mexican American icon and of capturing this country’s growing Hispanic market in a way no one else can.” De la Hoya adds that “I was aware of the increased purchasing power of Hispanics in the United States, and I thought that, being Mexican American, I would be doubly attractive, both for Anglos and Hispanics.” Under Schaefer’s direction, he invested in sports equipment, sports magazines, tequila brands, Univision (the Hispanic television network), and Frontera Productions (a movie-making business whose clientele is the Spanish-speaking public). He also invested in the ImpreMedia corporation, which owns several Hispanic newspapers: Hoy Nueva of New York, La Opinión of Los Angeles, La Raza of Chicago, El Mensajero of San Francisco, La Prensa of Orlando and Tampa, the Rumbo newspaper chain of Texas and El Diario La Prensa of New York, founded around 1913 and the oldest Hispanic newspaper in the United States. Future investments will include a bank and an insurance company for Hispanics. Óscar de la Hoya’s statements and investments are an excellent scale for gauging the economic heft of the niche market created by Latino migrants.
The purchasing power of
undocumented Central Americans
My field work has allowed me to witness firsthand the heft of that market. Hanging out with undocumented immigrants always included making purchases at hardware stores, fast-food chains, Central American restaurants, supermarkets and large wholesale and retail stores. Latinos make up a large part of the clientele of all these businesses, and in some geographical locations the majority of their customers are Central Americans. Breakfasts at 7-Eleven were de rigueur. Their Guatemalan coffee and Salvadoran quesadillas could be found in almost all my urban excursions with the undocumented. “There are tons of people in all the 7-Elevens,” Fredy Melgar told me. “And even more when it gets cold. I’ve never tasted coffee as good as 7-Eleven’s. The thing is, you fix it yourself right there. I used to throw everything in: I added milk and those little cream things that smell delicious, of vanilla. I used to go there every morning to look for work, waiting for somebody to hire me.” As Lito explained it, that chain is really a “Latino restaurant, a gringo bar” and its parking lot functions as a hiring hall.
In the neighborhoods, cities and counties where Central Americans have a considerable demographic weight, they make up both the clientele and the workforce behind a dynamic economy with more than a few aspects of enclave. The streets near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles are sprinkled with bakeries selling Salvadoran alfajores, Honduran semitas, Guatemalan champurradas, and Nicaraguan polvorones, all of them relatively similar cookies. In Hempstead on Long Island, New York, many stores offer Salvadoran nuégados (deep-fried sweet cassava balls) and chocobananos (frozen chocolate-dipped bananas). In San Francisco Nicaraguan diners have nacatamales (large, pork-filled tamales) and lengua en salsa (tongue in tomato sauce). In Pico Union some grocery stores display large signs advertising “Delicious Nicaraguan chicha” (a non-alcoholic ground corn drink), Salvadoran riguas (corn fritters) and Honduran baleadas (bean-filled flour-tortilla tacos) are plentiful in several counties of Virginia and Maryland.
My visit to a supermarket with Gisel and Yadira gave me a chance to observe the attractiveness of what I will call the “market basket of memory,” which contains products from “there” sold at “here” prices. Included are such items as Honduran red beans (“really soft beans”) at $3.25 for 20 ounces, rice imported from Thailand and distributed by Distribuidora Custcatlán at $2.59 a pound, and La Perfecta sour cream from Nicaragua at $3.29 a pound.
To such customary delicacies must be added the occasional lunches, the weekend visits and the celebrations with family and friends in restaurants that serve from a “Nostalgia Menu.” A typical menu contains such items as mojarras (a type of fish), fried plantain slices, mondongo (tripe soup), fajitas, pupusas (stuffed corn pancakes)…
Like other ethnic groups in the US, Central Americans have managed to reproduce their native diet in the country to which they’ve migrated. Formerly, the “Made in USA” label was a magnet for Central American consumers, and it continues to be for those who are still in Central America. But those who have migrated are demanding “homegrown flavor” and are willing to pay $7 for a half-pound of cheese from Chontales, $15 for breaded fish filet with tomato sauce, $20 for a tender Nicaraguan-style steak, $7.25 for a plate of fried plantain and cheese, $3 for a pound of marquesote (a sweet, optionally anis-flavored bread), $3.25 for silk beans from Morazán, and $2.89 for a frozen package of four “authentic” pupusas from Planes de Renderos, which were actually produced and packaged in California.
The Goya brand’s successful business
This nostalgia provides a strong stimulus to the food industries, which take the lion’s share of the value added in the productive chain and aren’t necessarily Central American. Careful reading of the fine print on the labels reveals that many of these industries import their raw materials from different places (including Thailand, which provides the banana leaves used for Salvadoran tamales and Nicaraguan nacatamales), and process and packaged the food in California or Colorado.
Goya Foods is one of the largest companies producing Central American items; in fact, the inclusion of those items has helped the company expand the number of its products from 900 to 2,200 over the last decade. Founded in Manhattan in 1936 by a Spanish immigrant, Goya Foods began by selling olive oil and olives from Spain. Now headquartered in New Jersey, it cans and bottles Central American nances (a small, strongly-scented fruit), cassava, pacayas (a palm fruit), lorocos (an edible aromatic flower), refried black beans, silk beans, palm hearts, pejivalle (peach palm), tender mangos, elotes (corn on the cob), jocotes (hog plum) Salvadoran curtidos (lightly fermented cabbage relish), frozen guava, tortillas and pipianes (a type of summer squash). Nearly all of them were most likely packed in the 600,000 square-foot plant that Goya Foods opened in New Jersey in return for an $82 million tax break. As could be expected, Goya Foods is a great friend of Latinos: with profits of more than US$1 billion a year, it supports the National Council of La Raza, an association that brings together 268 organizations dedicated to defending the rights of Latinos, regularizing their migratory status and resolving their labor problems.
Central American companies have followed the migrants’ appetite for old-time flavors and the sales opportunities it produces. The Pico Union outlet of the Guatemalan Pollo Campero firm shares a gigantic building with the Curacao company. Fully aware of Salvadorans’ passion for its products and of the immense possibilities of transnational consumption, the company set out to give KFC a run for its money in Central America. Succeeding in that venture it then competed with Colonel Sanders on his own turf. On 23 April 2002, the day Pollo Campero inaugurated its franchise in Los Angeles, hundreds of Central American lined up from early in the morning to taste—as manager and founder Francisco Pérez de Antón put it—”a piece of their own country in a foreign land.” The company managed to set a sales record in the fast-food market US$1 million in 48 hours. Its latest venture has also been hugely successful: “Order here, we deliver in El Salvador.”
Three magic words:
“Se habla español”
There are still many other opportunities in this immigrant market. To obtain medications over the counter without consulting a physician, as is common practice back home, Central Americans trust in tradition and shop at the mini-markets that offer products from the region’s small pharmaceutical companies. These products, whose effectiveness has been affirmed by generations of users, include Sapuyulo Oil, Bear Oil, Esencia Coronada, Bacaolina, Desempacho, 7 Spirits, Parasitol, SanaTos, Angidol, Mentevital Forte, Zorritone, Broncolín, Komilón, Sinestrés, Neurofosfatón, Neurocampolón and Globulón.
Some stores have specialized in typical Mesoamerican articles such as piñatas and all the items needed for the quinceañera (15th birthday) celebrations, including rental of dresses, tables and chairs. Other stores specialize in religious articles, where the most requested images are those of the Christ of Esquipulas and the Virgin of Suyapa, but leave space also for the (no longer exclusively) Mexican Santa Muerte devotion, the reading of Tarot cards, spiritual sorcery, personalization of amulets and cleansings with egg, rue, rosemary, fire or flowers. Strategically located near these stores are the ubiquitous offices of the shysters who contrive and arrange insurance policies, proofs of paternity, completed income tax forms, marriage certificates, permissions for minors, corrected birth certificates, payments of fines, political asylum applications, divorce filings and police records. Their signs—like those that hang outside the offices of dentists, nutritionists and gynecologists—almost always include the three magic words that invariably attract Latino clients: “Se habla español.”
Whether strolling around Hempstead, crossing through San Francisco’s Mission District on the 48 bus line (Quintara/24th St.), walking down César E. Chávez Avenue, or visiting a neighborhood near Echo Park in Los Angeles, you’ll find various businesses on every street that send remittances “in minutes” and ship packages of all shapes and sizes to Central American countries. With names like “Transportes Jireh,” “Xela Express” and “Mi Patria Express,” they transport blenders, bicycles, stoves and even vehicles “right to your door.” Prices vary according to the size of the package and destination. A 30" by 30" box costs $200 to ship to Guatemala, $250 to El Salvador and $300 to Honduras. You can also send according to weight, at $7 per pound.
in the housing sector
Central Americans have also helped invigorate the housing sector, an industry severely affected by the economic crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007-2009. Seven years later David Harvey commented that “the current signs in the United States are not encouraging. The housing sector is not reviving, and new housing production is depressed and stagnant. There are signs it is heading for a dreaded ‘double-dip’ recession, as Federal monies dry up and unemployment remains high. Housing starts have plunged for the first time to below pre-1940s levels. As of March 2011, the unemployment rate in construction stood above 20%, compared to a rate of 9.7% in manufacturing that was very close to the national average. There’s no need to build new homes and fill them with things when so many homes stand empty.”
When applied to the country as a whole, Harvey’s statement is correct: employment in the construction industry rose just 15% between 2000 and 2012, from 8,801,507 jobs to 10,115,885. The number of occupied dwellings in the United States went from 105,480,101 to 132,452,249, an increase of only 25.6% in the whole period or 2.13% per year. The impact of this crisis—as happens with every crisis—affected people very differently. The construction industry is one in which Latinos, especially Central Americans, have a high rate of participation both as workers and as consumers. In 2010 construction employed only 6.8% of the US population, but provided jobs for 25% of the Hondurans, 19% of the Guatemalans, 15% of the Salvadorans and 11% of the Nicaraguans living in the US, a total of 457,111 Central Americans. In 2000 that sector had employed only 120,490 Central Americans. Thus, in one decade the number of Central Americans working in construction increased by 279%, or almost 28% per year, even though the industry underwent a recession. The recent boom in employment, despite the crisis, was not due solely to the arrival of more Central Americans and their increased concentration in that sector (in 2000 about 12% of Central Americans were employed in construction while in 2010 about 17.5% were). The increased need for masons, welders, electricians, carpenters, plumbers and painters also grew out of the demand for housing generated by the arriving Central Americans themselves. Migration in itself is a multiplier of the housing demand. In just 12 years the housing units occupied by persons born in Central America, whether as owners or renters, increased 74%, from 598,650 to 1,039,555.
When my experienced guides, Kelvin Orellana and Lito Melgar, took me to hardware stores in the heart of Washington DC and in several counties of Maryland and Virginia, the sheer number of Central American customers showed me firsthand how involved they are in the building and maintenance of houses. New companies are continually being born, like Transfiguration Services Inc., dedicated to reglazing bathtubs and sinks and refinishing cabinets, kitchen countertops, tile walls and floors of all kinds. We can conjecture that the impact of the financial crisis would have been much greater had it not been for the migration of Latinos to the US. The upheavals that took place in US cities during the 1960s, as Harvey explains, were the result of confining minorities to cities and denying them access to the prosperity and consumerism of suburbanites. What’s taking place now is a silent upheaval.
It’s difficult to calculate the economic dimensions of what Central Americans consume in the sectors of food and housing, but they are in any case impressive. The figure provided by Pollo Campero can give us an idea of how much value Central American immigrants add to the food market in the cities and counties where they have significant presence.
The figures for housing expenses can also help us get an idea of that sector’s importance. Calculations must take into account the fact that in 2010-2011 undocumented consumers made up 55% of all Latino immigrants (20,849,710) and 63% of all Central American immigrants (2,481,927). This high percentage of undocumented immigrants has had political consequences since they cannot vote at the ballot box but do so with their feet and their wallets. Let’s look more clearly at how consumption can be politicized when the quiet encroachment of a multitude functions as an effective boycott.
The consumer-voter boycott
in Prince William County
Prince William, Virginia, is the seventh richest county in the United States. In the decade between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the influx of Central Americans had increased from 7,400 to 32,334. And by 2014 it had 43,850 inhabitants of Central American origin: 36,746 Salvadorans, 5,962 Hondurans, 5,240 Guatemalans and 1,401 Nicaraguans, 8% of the county’s total population, 38% of its foreign-born population and 71% of its Latino immigrant population. The number of Salvadorans nearly doubled the 18,788 Mexicans. Being a Latino immigrant in Prince William County thus mainly meant being a Central American. There was a short period, however, when that growing presence of Central Americans was interrupted and even reversed. With the same kind of quiet encroachment they had used in coming north, the immigrants began to leave the county in reaction to changes in immigration policies aimed at expanding the banopticon within the nation’s borders.
The independent city of Manassas is Prince William’s county seat. Between 2000 and 2010 it has seen the number of Central Americans grow from 1,410 to 5,529, becoming 15% of the city’s population. Salvadorans alone totaled 3,870 (70% of the total of Central Americans and 10% of the city’s population). One of them was 58-year-old Fredy Melgar, a former guerrilla who had migrated to the US for a second time after returning home voluntarily for what he thought would be a permanent repatriation.
It was Fredy who made me aware of how thoroughly the banopticon tactics had penetrated the country: “When I arrived in 2004, Manassas was a quiet place. Things started to turn ugly in 2007 when new laws required the police to cooperate with migration authorities. When the police saw small groups walking down the street, they stopped them and asked them for their papers. If they didn’t have documents, they were taken off to jail. At that time, when you went to jail, you passed by a booth and immigration was right there. So all we had to do was walk down the street, and the police would stop us and ask us for our papers. And since we didn’t have any, we were sunk. ‘Come along,’ they would tell us, ‘now you have to deal with immigration.’ At night they would go to apartments where there were a lot of migrants, ask for papers, and take them away. There were even raids. But that wasn’t happening in other parts of Virginia, which is a big place. Fairfax is next to Manassas; a river divides them. Whenever the Manassas police arrived, we’d swim across the river to Fairfax, where the police don’t bother people. They just looked at us and didn’t say anything—even when we were drinking. The only time they were strict was when we left litter behind. When the police left, we’d swim back over.”
A flurry of legislation
to control the “illegals”
Fredy was referring to a 2007 ordinance approved by Prince William county authorities. In December 2006 the Board of County Supervisors had asked for an assessment to be made of the cost of county services to illegal immigrants. A month later John Stirrup, county supervisor for the Gainesville district, drafted a bill that would bar undocumented persons from access to those services. Then in July 2007 the county board unanimously passed resolution 07-609, directing the police to inquire about the immigration status of anyone detained for violating a state law or county ordinance, including a traffic violation, if there was probable cause to believe the person was violating federal immigration law. The ordinance also directed the police to enter into an agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security and required county staff to determine legal grounds for restricting illegal immigrants from receiving county-provided public benefits and services. In October of that same year the Board of County Supervisors, thinking these measures insufficient, passed Resolution 07-894, which authorized the creation of a Criminal Alien Unit within the police department, directed staff to implement policies consistent with state and county law to prevent business licenses from being issued to persons who cannot demonstrate legal status and further directed staff to develop policies for restricting persons who cannot demonstrate legal status from receiving certain county services.
These directives were only two of many local reactions to the failure of comprehensive immigration reform and in particular the defeat of Rep. Sensenbrenner’s bill (HR 4437) in 2006. They were a local echo of the overlapping of immigration policies with penal legislation.
The federal government had already begun to move in that direction before it was clear that comprehensive immigration reform would fail. In November 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a plan called Secure Border Initiative, aimed at strengthening the implementation of migration policies to reduce “illegal” migration. In April 2006, the DHS revealed a previously unknown feature of the plan: ICE would expand its operations to capture all undocumented workers and individuals who might have violated immigration laws, including refugees, migrants with permanent legal residency and those who, though permitted to reside in the United States, might have been accused of any of the offenses detailed in an extensive list, including non-violent robbery, theft, drug consumption or trafficking, counterfeiting, receiving stolen property, perjury, fraud, deceit or tax evasion. Any of these crimes would be sufficient cause for detention and deportation under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, two laws passed in 1996 but only fully implemented ten years later.
Legal residents were deprived of the hearings to which they could previously turn. And ICE began to use the category of “immigration fugitives”—echoing the “fugitive slaves” category that recalled the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—to refer to those given a deportation order who refused to obey it. These federal dispositions would remain unenforced by a local authority, but the Prince William County ordinances, by merging penal and immigration legislation, provided a solid alliance between the police and the DHS that guaranteed enforcement. Armando Navarro, an expert in immigration studies, described this policy as another of the “efforts to create ‘ethnic cleansing’ legislation” in a number of counties and cities in the “old South.”
Help Save Manassas
polarizes the atmosphere
At his moment of triumph in July 2007, John Stirrup, the intellectual author of the resolutions, declared to the media: “Citizens will no longer accept that our hands are tied and that responsibility lies with the federal government.” He was even more explicit in another interview: “I do believe that this does send a strong message to those who promote and profit from illegal immigration that Prince William County is no longer friendly terrain… to send our, quote, unquote, ‘clients’ anymore to take advantage of the public services there…. I think that the welcome sign or the welcome mat has been pulled in for future illegal aliens to move to the county.”
His words were music to the ears of the members of Help Save Manassas, a belligerent association that belonged to a coalition of seven anti-immigrant groups called “Save the Old Dominion.” It had a legislative committee that worked with a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, lobbying against immigrants and creating a polarized atmosphere. Its membership grew from 690 to 1,453, making it by far the largest anti-illegal-immigration group in the Washington area.
Help Save Manassas complained of deterioration in county services due to excess demand: there was too much trash in the streets, too many children in the schools and too much time waiting to be treated in the hospitals. Their complaint had some basis: a study indicated that the county’s population had doubled between 1980 and 2006, but the cause for alarm was because the number of immigrants had increased fourteen-fold in that same period, with the Latino population tripling and the number of Central Americans increasing fivefold just during the six years from 2000 to 2006. They were attracted by the relatively favorable housing costs, which were increasing but still lower than in northern Virginia. The housing boom decentralized the demand for labor regionally because the larger population increased demand in the service sector. As a result, the number of jobs in the county grew from 55,000 in 1990 to 104,000 in 2006.
Little by little Central Americans and Latinos more generally began to arrive, first as workers and soon thereafter as residents, assisted by housing loans. Some statistical data reveal the evident change in the type of population to be seen on the streets: in the 1980s Prince William County’s residents were predominantly non-immigrant whites, but in the 2000-2006 period the percentage of native whites decreased from 88% to 78% while Latinos increased from 10% to 20% of the population. The prior residents associated the increased Latino presence with a decline in the prices of their properties, even though it was caused by the bursting of the housing bubble all around the country.
Republican politicians feared that the increasing Latino coloration of the streets might mean that ballot boxes would also change color, from their red to Democrat blue. In a piece titled “Virginia: From Red to Blue?” Mark J. Rozell maintains that “in Prince William County, anti-immigrant backlashes have resulted in many of the nation’s harshest policies toward illegal immigrants. Yet the growth in the Latino population in Prince William County and other areas of the state portends some significant shifts in the future for Virginia politics, perhaps pushing the state another step away from its former status as a Republican ‘red’ state.” And indeed the immigrants reacted quickly.
Deciding and taking action
Fredy Melgar told me the story of one non-collective actor who, through various individual actions, became the protagonist of collective political action:
“Things were going from bad to worse for me in Manassas. Then I remembered the old story of Pedro Urdemales [a folkloric character who typifies a rogue or trickster], and told it to my son Lito… Pedro and Quevedo were brothers, but Quevedo was even worse than Pedro for creating mischief. One day they set out in hopes of finding fortune. They talked together as they walked along until they come to a crossroad. Pedro said, ‘Dear brother, we have to make a decision. Whatever happens, we have to deal with life. Let’s see how things go for us. We can’t continue on together because it’s dangerous. I’ll take this road, and you take the other one.’ Pedro went one way and came to a cattle ranch. He asked for work, and they gave it to him, but to get to where the cattle were he had had to pass through a lot of barriers because the lord of that ranch was the king. To get through he dressed as a woman, and they let him pass since he was so pretty.… It’s a long story, but Quevedo and Pedro had agreed to meet again three years later, at that same crossroad where they had separated, which they did and continued on with their lives. What I was trying to tell Lito is that it’s the same thing that’s happening to us today. So I told him, ‘This is what we’re going to do: you go live in Warrenton because the situation here is miserable. If the immigration police come and I have to go back to El Salvador, then you stay here.’ And that’s what in fact happened. We got separated from one another because of the law. I stayed, and he went to live in a house in Warrenton that a niece of mine had bought. Warrenton is a ways away while Manassas is packed with Latinos.”
The strategy Fredy devised worked, and many other Latinos used it as well. Fredy was able to describe it to his son by relating it to a folk tale by the Renaissance Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo and a fictional character, Pedro Urdemales, the protagonist in one of the comedies of Miguel de Cervantes, a classic story about the resistance of underdogs. Cervantes has him traveling to America and returning to Spain, stealing alms from priests and defrauding his masters. Cervantes underscores Urdemales’ cleverness and eloquence, extracting himself from difficult situations by using his tongue with “honor, delight and advantage.”
The feats by which Urdemales confounded the bosses and overseers of the great estates have been recounted in every part of Central America. In fact, when I was helping with the National Literacy Campaign in Nicaragua in 1980, I heard tales of Pedro’s adventures from the peasant farmers in Chontales. They usually began with the misfortunes of his brother Juan Dundo [Dummy John], easy prey for the rapacious greed of unscrupulous bosses. The climax of the stories came with the intervention of Pedro Urdemales, who with great ingenuity and eloquence would turn the situation completely around so underdogs triumphed and oppressors were devastated. He always got the better of the boss, even though the latter had all the means necessary to crush him. In 2006 the villainous boss was the “migra” and the Prince William County ordinances. In the present case, it takes the form of defying established power on the infra-political level, but with consequences in the traditional politic sense.
Fredy was adopting a tradition of resistance designed to foil the authorities, or rather, since he and Lito had already done that by entering the country illegally, to avoid their sanctions and survive unscathed. By drawing on folklore Fredy was able to help his son deal with the predicament they found themselves in, likening it to the time when Pedro Urdemales and Quevedo came to the crossroad of life, expressed as a parting of ways. In this particular case the tradition helped them see their disobedience as reasonable and insert it within a moral context that made it plausible; after all, the strategy was simply the modern equivalent of the picaresque ingenuity of the irreverent and disobedient Urdemales, a folkloric way of understanding the problem that allowed him to come up with a solution supported by tradition. It was successfully adopted by thousands of Latinos in Prince William County, as the population statistics demonstrate.
The total population of Prince William County, which had been increasing by about 12,000 inhabitants a year, grew by only 7,231 between 2006 and 2008 despite an increase of 12,596 in the native population. The Central Americans, which had the greatest proportion of undocumented persons, were the main reason for the drop. A simple look at US Census Bureau statistics makes the lopsided impact of immigration policies clear. Similar information can be found in a three-year study (2006-09) done by the Prince William County Police Department and the University of Virginia. The conclusion of that study, which cost $385,000, was that “the net decrease in illegals could plausibly be anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 persons.”
A successful boycott
by immigrant consumers
Prince William County’s directives were only part of a long list of xenophobic actions by local governments, and their calamitous effects on the economies under their jurisdiction soon made themselves felt. In 2007 Oklahoma passed H1804, legislation that prompted about 90,000 undocumented immigrants to leave the state, causing a loss to the state’s economy of about $1.9 billion. The previous year Georgia had passed S529, which caused a shortage of workers in the agriculture and hospitality sectors. Phil Gordon, who since 2004 has been mayor of Phoenix, Arizona’s capital and largest city, told CNN that the boycotts against Arizona’s SB1070 had cost the state more than $150 million just in the first ten days of May.
Some inhabitants of Prince William County remember the damage caused to the local economy by the anti-immigrant ordinance and consequent flight of undocumented persons. The Washington Post reported that “Latino shops are on the brink of bankruptcy, church groups are hemorrhaging members, neighborhoods are dotted with for-sale signs, and once busy strip malls have been transformed into ghost towns.” Although the 2007 ordinance in Prince William County, Virginia, requiring police to stop and question anyone they suspected of being undocumented was eventually repealed, Aviva Chomsky wrote that “the acrimonious anti-immigrant mobilization surrounding it, as well as fear of its implementation, caused many immigrants to leave. As businesses closed, schools and neighborhoods emptied, and the housing market collapsed, white Americans became more dubious about the supposed benefits of expelling the undocumented.” The consequences of the ordinance are as controversial as the ordinance itself: groups like Help Save Mannasas and people like Stirrup, see the statistics as proof that the policy was successful; for the immigrants, their allies and business owners (whose profit motives were impugned by Stirrup), the policy was a disaster.
But there’s no doubt that the immigrants’ practice of the “art of absence” brought about a change in policies: in April 2008 the Board of County Supervisors unanimously passed resolution 08-500, which prohibited police from inquiring into the immigration status of a person unless the person was arrested. Apart from the foreseeable costs, just the installation of video cameras to protect officers against accusations of racial profiling must have cost $3 million.
Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat, University of Illinois professor of global and transnational studies, maintains that “the massive public demonstration of illegal migrants in Los Angeles on March 26, 2006, to demand legislation to protect them represents perhaps a more striking potential of episodic collective protest of the otherwise atomized agents of non-movements. Of course it is always possible that the subjects may, instead of engaging in immediate confrontation, rationally choose to resort to the ‘war of attrition’—a temporary compliance in times of constraint while carrying on with encroachments when the right time arrives.” The struggle for inclusion was waged on the battlefield of consumption, using purchasing power as a coercive mechanism for neutralizing the rival, as Italian philosopher of law and political sciences Norberto Bobbio would say, to the point not only of making it impossible for the rival to attain his objective but of forcing him to beat a retreat. Today Prince William County has more Central Americans and more undocumented inhabitants that it had in 2006, with Central Americans reaching a total of 32,334 in 2010. Their return to the county was followed by an increase in housing prices. Lito returned to Manassas, where he is currently living with his wife, a US citizen of Salvadoran origin; after a tortuous journey through the bowels of bureaucracy, he has gained permanent residence and is on the way to becoming a citizen.
What happened in Prince William County (the anti-immigration policies, immigrant flight, economic decline, change of policies and return of the immigrants) was an exercise in economic citizenship, a concept Saskia Sassen, a Dutch-American sociologist noted for her analyses of globalization and international human migration, coined to refer to the power of businesses, corporations and financial markets, but which I apply to the broader power exercised by workers and consumers.
Former World Bank senior vice president and chief economist Joseph Stiglitz maintains that “communities that provide the services individuals like and provide them efficiently will experience an influx of individuals; communities that fail to do so will experience an outflux. Such migration (with its consequent effect on property values) provides essentially the same kind of signal to city managers that the market provides to a firm’s managers (a firm that fails to provide a commodity individuals like will find its sales declining; a firm that succeeds will find its sales increasing). Politicians, sometimes under pressure from the electorate, respond to these signals in much the same way as a firm’s managers respond to market signals.” Prince William County’s politicians had to respond to the pressure of the economic electorate, made up largely of undocumented immigrants. In this case they voted with their feet, demanding more considerate treatment. That’s why it makes sense to talk about “economic citizenship.” By virtue of their position in the market and their ability to vote with their feet, the immigrants changed the policies of Prince William County.
Charles Tiebout knew that his hypothesis about local communities competing with each other “to be able to satisfy [consumers] in the same sense that a private goods market does” was founded on assumptions that exist in reality only in a limited, imperfect way: “Consumer-voters do not have perfect knowledge and set preferences, nor are they perfectly mobile.” But here we’re dealing with a case in which it was easy for the consumer-voters to gather the information they needed to make a decision: the immigration police were sending out clear and distinct signals every day. The immigrants simply chose to move to less dangerous areas. Their motivation was clear. They voted to move to places where local politicians offered them the product they wanted: citizenship in the making.
They were able to maintain their position by means of a boycott—an instrument of civil disobedience—that resembled the “car pools” African Americans in Montgomery County used to boycott public transportation until segregationist policies were changed. The Montgomery Bus boycott that Martin Luther King led in 1955 to oppose the policy of racial segregation on the public transport system enjoyed national support and received financial support for the network of car pools that supplied transport services at a cost of $200 a day. Churches in New York, Philadelphia, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Tuskegee and other localities organized collections to support the boycott.
In the case of the undocumented Central Americans, however, the boycott wasn’t centrally planned, nor was there any financial support from funds collected around the country. The “car pools” used by the undocumented were in effect the counties that didn’t enforce policies of exclusion. The protesters didn’t need subsidies: their family networks and their performative civil disobedience covered the costs. Their boycott was the work of a non-collective actor: thousands of Pedro Urdemaleses, each of whom designed a strategy, either independently or together with friends or close relatives. Despite the lack of close coordination, their diverse actions had all the effectiveness of a well-organized group implementing carefully laid plans.
The right to dissent
is a democratic practice
The exodus of the undocumented was a strategy that was partly persuasive and partly non-persuasive. It forced the Prince William County authorities to rescind their anti-immigration measures, but it also sent a very persuasive message both to other immigrants and other municipal authorities, demonstrating to the former the extent of their power and warning the latter about the consequences of adopting measures like those of Manassas.
What happened in Prince William County was a public exercise of dissent, a quiet encroachment that created a lethal economic vacuum and caused local government revenues to drop sharply, thus reducing the ability to govern well. Hannah Arendt argued that the tacit assent that an individual gives to a set of rules can be called voluntary if there is also the right to dissent. By their practice of dissent, the immigrants lent substance to her contention that the social contract between individual and society may not be a mere fiction when both the mobile subject and the welcoming community renew it through internal migration. In Prince William County the local government presumed to withdraw the welcome mat that had been extended by part of society, and the undocumented responded by withdrawing their vital presence.
Obama on the ground
The market is a cultural route that Latinos will continue to travel. An example from the past is the boycott against Rep. Sensenbrenner, great-grandson of the creator of Kotex sanitary napkins, heir of Kimberly Clark and author of the anti-immigrant bill that caused such controversy and fury in 2006. The boycott that Latino immigrants called for against Kimberly Clark, which markets such brands as Little Swimmers, Kleenex, Scott, Huggies, Pull-Ups, Kotex Poise, Viva, Cottonelle and Depend, was effectively countered by a massive promotion offensive of its products in Latino communities not only in the United States but also in Latin America. I recall walls suddenly being covered with huge painted ads for many of those products in the major cities of my home country of Nicaragua at the time. The boycott of Prince William County was successful because the necessary conditions existed there: the jurisdictional diversity that made it possible for the immigrants to use other counties as “car pools” where they could exercise their purchasing power.
But there was also pressure by activists. While the immigrants practiced the art of absence, activist groups issued statements and won favorable coverage in the media. They held several demonstrations with T-shirts reading, “Not with my taxes. Not in my name,” “Rescind the resolution,” “Immigrants are part of our community” and “Immigrants are workers.” Thanks to the combination of explicit politics and the infrapolitics of the market boycott, the exclusionary policies were eliminated. The art of presence in the market had a decisive effect in bringing about the change of policy. But not only local politicians took part in this affair. When President Barack Obama visited Manassas on November 3, 2008, in his bid for reelection, he was attracted by the symbolism of the place (two great battles against slavery had been waged there). He was well aware that he spoke “on symbolic ground, hallowed by an ancient war yet incompletely redeemed from the legacy of slavery,” as political activist and historian Mike Davis wrote. But he no doubt also realized that Prince William County was an anti-immigrant battlefield. In his speech he alluded to the problem only indirectly: “Black, white, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Democrats and Republicans, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, disabled and not disabled, all of us have something to contribute.”
But his campaign had sent clear messages about his commitment to immigration reform. He was in the right place at the right time and he defeated the GOP in a place that took pride in being one of the last Republican strongholds in northern Virginia. As Davis described it, “Virginia’s voters, including the good burghers of Prince William, gave Barack Obama a 52.7 per cent victory in the state and a 57.6 per cent margin in the county—a whopping 12-point improvement over 2004.” From 1948 until then, Lyndon Johnson had been the only Democratic candidate to gain an electoral victory in that area. According to Davis, Obama’s victory in both Virginia and North Carolina was based on an alliance between African Americans and white professionals, reinforced by immigrants and university students. Latinos also spoke through the ballot box, making their demographic weight felt there as well. Their interests coincided with a campaign that presented the Democrats as “the party of suburban pain as well as ethnic diversity.”
Consumption as political action
Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has a purely negative view of the role of consumption as a means for social integration: “It is ultimately for that reason that the passing of a consumer test is a nonnegotiable condition of admission to a society that has been reshaped in the likeness of the marketplace. Passing that test is the non-contractual precondition of all the contractual relations that weave and are woven into the web of relationships called the ‘society of consumers’. It is that precondition, with no exception allowed and no refusal tolerated, that welds the aggregate of seller/buyer transactions into an imagined totality; or which, more exactly, allows that aggregate to be experienced as a totality called ‘society’—an entity to which the capacity of ‘making demands’ and of coercing actors to obey them can be ascribed—enabling the status of the ‘social fact’ in the Durkheimian sense to be imputed.” I agree with him on one point: commercial relations do not exhaust social reality. They cannot be presented as the “total social facts” of the French sociologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. But neither can it be denied that they are part of the materials and mechanisms available to both dominators and dominated for the exercise of power. They are the materials that history has placed at the disposition of the dominated so they can construct their history.
To neglect the political aspect of consumption and of the role of the dominated as consumers is to squander a tremendously rich political realm. What is more, it means yielding to a pre-Marxist interpretation of politics, one that assumes that politics exists mainly in some other sphere, one different from material production and access to what is produced. It basically negates the protagonism of the material conditions of life, and in this case of the exchange, acquisition, possession and use of the means of life.
The world of consumption is the material that is readily available to immigrants and opens up for them the way to political citizenship. Each concept and statement in the quote from Bauman speaks of opportunity for the immigrants. They pass the consumer test, a test they didn’t seek out but in part created since they generate demand for the very products that pave the way to social acceptance. Or perhaps we should say that, in a society modeled in the image and likeness of the market, their act of consuming signifies that they are commercially and therefore socially acceptable. Since their lack of documentation places them outside the American social contract, they have recourse to the non-contractual preconditions in their role as consumers. They enter the hall of political citizenship through the door of consumption, as became evident in the impact that naturalized Latinos had on Obama’s election. History is full of examples of non-political mechanisms that open the doors of political citizenry to outsiders. At the height of the Know Nothing movement, the strong Irish support for the Democrats was rewarded when the politicians granted market licenses to the foreign-born merchants in 1843, thus breaking the business monopoly held by the native-born and laying the groundwork for the economic empowerment of the Democratic Party’s social base.
From commercial licenses
to drivers’ licences
Just as commercial licenses were a vital concern in those days, what proves to be controversial these days is the granting of driver’s licenses or licenses for companies that work in construction or offer services, precisely because these licenses are the bureaucratic authorizations that merge the realm of work and consumption with that of politics. As documents that concede much more than what is bureaucratically established, a driver’s license is a key to inclusion. The most obvious reason for this importance is that in many areas public transportation is so bad that a vehicle and a license to drive it are essential. One study about immigrants’ efforts to get a driver’s license in Tennessee made it clear that the license is closely linked to the right to move freely and have personal identification, so that the “current campaigns for access to the driver’s license are one part of a pre-legal, pre-institutional process that is helping to incubate novel rights claims appropriate for the new economy.”
A license isn’t a substitute for a Green Card, but it’s another step forward in the “already but not yet.” The lack of a driver’s license is usually an indication of irregular migratory status. The converse also applies: possessing a license is an indication of legal residence. Having a license means in a very real way being documented. In fact, many Dominicans enter the United States pretending to be Puerto Ricans: since no passport or visa is required for travel between the island and the United States, a Puerto Rican driver’s license is sufficient.
That’s why the topic of driver’s licenses has caused such great controversy and division in different states of the union. Some states, like North Carolina, have come up with criticized compromise solutions, such as giving unauthorized immigrants special driver’s licenses that are marked “no lawful status.” In Tennessee the struggle to get a driver’s license was successful because the Latino population had reached sufficient critical mass to create free spaces for communication and planning—in places like Latino groceries, Hispanic church services, scattered radio stations and small newspapers around the state. As a result, wrote Fran Ansley in “Constructing Citizenship without a License,” “agricultural employers, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and the police chiefs of several major cities were on our side, in addition to more accustomed allies like church groups, service providers, civil rights organizations, labor unions and social justice groups.” But what most helps migrants is their determination to act as if they were already citizens, for that’s what strengthens resistance processes.
Consumption is a field where
they have greater control
Consumer society supersedes political society and imposes its own priorities. This facet of liquid modernity has its shadowy aspects, as Bauman has often pointed out, but it sets up a force field within which migrants can use the market as a tool for attaining political citizenship.
In fact, Latino absenteeism in elections may indicate, among other things, that voting isn’t among their highest aspirations. They may be making a political error, but it may also mean, as Gorz observes, that they prefer to fight their battles on firmer ground better known to them, to play a game for which they have more skills on a field that allows them more control: they create demand that only migrant labor can satisfy. The demand and supply they generate mutually fuel and legitimize one another: they process the food they consume, rehab the houses they live in, work in the restaurants they patronize, stitch together the T-shirts they wear and manage the soccer fields they play on… Their flow into cities and counties increases the demand for housing, but they also immediately supply the labor to build more houses; they increase the demand for public services, but they also pay taxes that cover the costs.
The Latin immigrants are creators of a nostalgia market that only they can sustain and on which the economic growth of entire counties depends. The transnational firms, taking note of this economic muscle, flock to the massive gatherings of Central Americans with their gaudy stands: S&W Beans, Western Union, Delta, Telscape, IDT, Curacao, Goya, Coleman and Tigo, to name just a few. The Latin immigrants work in those firms and/or consume their products.
Being a consumer doesn’t mean becoming a citizen, as Bauman quite rightly stresses, but being an unauthorized consumer broadens the realm of dissent into a new scenario. There’s currently open dissent in the Congress, where for more than a decade Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reconcile their differences about what immigration reform should look like. The immigrants carry this discussion onto the terrain of consumption: while not legally admitted, they continue to live in a country whose market has already incorporated them and whose political system and political class are highly sensitive to their vote as consumers. Although officially they should not be present at all, they are actively present in the supermarket, the music industry, the businesses that produce for the nostalgia market and in countless other places.
To penetrate further into the meaning of all this, I went back to the concept of “economic citizenship” that Sassen uses to refer to the power of businesses, corporations and financial markets. By extending its meaning to include workers/consumers, I argue that economic citizenship can also be exercised by those Tiebout calls “consumer-voters” but who for the same reasons are also producer-voters or, more generally, worker-voters. If the global citizenship of businesses is based on their economic role, then it can also be said that the ways the dominated use their economic power—their presence and weight in the market—is economic citizenship. This is especially true if in their exercise of that power they achieve a better position on the political playing field. This economic citizenship reveals its facet of civil disobedience in the constructive action of ordinary consumption: the immigrant acquires goods the same way any citizen does. Economic citizenship was exercised as confrontational action when the non-movement of the undocumented used the tactic of quiet encroachment—actually noisy flight—to twist the arms of those imposing anti-immigrant policies in a very conservative Virginia county. The boycott was applied without meetings, without flyers, without barricades, without shouting in the streets… Voting with wallets is a form of suffrage that has been practiced at will ever since boycotts were invented.
The undocumented made their power prevail in the arenas of consumption and production. They made use of a force similar to the one used by the elites in C. Wright Mills’s account, but they did so in a more authentically political way. As part of the anonymous mass, they have no special privileges that allow them just to knock on the door and communicate informally with the big-time politicians. Nor are they given to palace intrigues concocted behind closed doors and kept from public scrutiny, thus completely evading politics as understood by Arendt. They exert their force on what Marx considered the proper terrain of politics, the one where the means for sustaining life are produced and exchanged, but their influence also reaches party politics in indirect ways: they provoke dissent—which is for French philosopher Jacques Ranciére the core of politics—through their perlocutionary effect on the mass media, NGOs, churches and the artists who perform in concerts supporting amnesty for immigrants, massive documentation and a halt to deportations. Although the market and the lever of consumption seem to be the silent guests in politics, they are also the sphere in which the elites assert and enjoy their power. Central Americans do likewise, wielding their consumer power as a tool for embedding themselves in the marketplace. Immigrants have shown that, for the exercise of parrhesia, the market is as effective a platform as the public square—or perhaps more so—and certainly more effective than the ballot box.