Ruth Horowitz: Honor and the American Dream: Culture and Identity in a Chicano Community; Rutgers University Press; New Brunswick, NJ.
Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez: Bonds of Mutual Trust: The Cultural Systems of Rotating Credit Associations among Urban Mexicans and Chicanos; Rutgers University Press; New Brunswick, NJ.
Mexican-Americans have been more maliciously stereotyped than blacks at times, perhaps partly due to their ethnic idiosyncrasies, and perhaps partly because they have not, until recently, been in the mainstream of civil rights battles and have not had articulate national spokesmen. The language barrier, at issue in the bilingual education debate, would seem to enforce their isolation from mainstream America. Latino politicians can be heard repeating the old canard that progress lies in affirmative action programs and increased educational opportunities, while others stress that the path to assimilation is through greater self-discipline and a back-to basics approach.
It is likely that commentators on both sides are wide of the mark, for the nature of Chicano culture remains largely hidden. In Honor and tbe American Dream, Ruth Horowitz banishes some stereotypes, confirms others, and provides a somewhat disheartening picture of a culture not in harmony with the rest of American society. Horowitz’s book is another in the “personal experience” genre; the book is based on her residence in Chicago’s 32nd Street Chicano community. Though Horowitz is a sociologist her book does not drift off into sociological gibberish, nor is it mere storytelling. Well-organized and readable, Honor and the American Dream is a comprehensive picture of a Chicano community.
Honor and reputation are highly important to the residents of 32nd Street, but it is a superficial and mutable idea of honor seemingly unconnected with any notion of virtue. Several sets of norms and parts of the code of honor conflict with each other. The attitudes about sex provide an apt illustration. Young women are expected to maintain their virginity until marriage: family honor depends on it. Yet women are supposed to be submissive to men, and men are encouraged to demonstrate their masculinity and prowess by seducing women. While it is socially acceptable for men to be sexually active, it is not socially acceptable for women; hence, the use of birth control is scarce. Birth control is objected to not on religious grounds, but because its use by a woman would signify her “loose morals.” If, however, a woman submits “in a moment of passion,” she is absolved of moral responsibility. The natural result is a high incidence of unwed motherhood, and very few women remain virgins until marriage. But unwed mothers are socially accepted, so long as their sexuality is seen as “bounded,” or restrained, thus preserving a superficially honorable reputation.
It is also a sense of honor and reputation that is at the root of Chicano gang activity, according to Horowitz. Youth gangs provide a collective framework for asserting masculinity and “coolness.” Violence is considered normal and appropriate behavior in the community, the only means of responding to insult and restoring honor. Many Chicanos remain attached to gangs well into adulthood because, Horowitz believes, a sense of the self and belongingness is unavailable elsewhere in the community.
For most 32nd Street residents, the “American Dream” means chiefly making money, the key to which is the acquisition of a high-paying job. Yet even with that ambition, most of the community remains economically marginal. Thirty-Second Street is not a slum. Its largely unskilled residents have a great deal of pride: “We are the respectable poor,” explains one. But, as with sexual honor, paradoxes and ambiguities abound in the approach to education and economic advancement. Staying in school and getting an education are highly valued and praised by the community, and yet the dropout rate is very high. Many seem to lack the self-discipline, self-confidence, and patience required to succeed in school. Few of the 32nd Street residents think in terms of careers: a job is measured solely by how much it pays. Thus there is little long-term planning or foresight that would foster discipline, individual initiative, and creative thinking.
Horowitz’s picture is not all negative, nor does she condescend to mouthing liberal platitudes. Chicano families are very stable, the divorce rate is very low, and motherhood is still highly esteemed, as yet unaffected by feminist propaganda. One hears no cant about “alienation”or various other new-age “identity crises.” Many elements of their social world, Horowitz concludes:
are ethnically based and freely chosen. These would not necessarily change if the economic situation shifted. For many residents, 32nd Street and ethnic identity offer them something of value…The United States as a melting pot may not only be unachievable but undesirable. Why should every one be the same?
Whilte Horowitz’s is a helpful book, the same cannot be said for Carlos Velez Ibaftez’s Bonds of Mutual Trust. The problem with this book is that it is a “full length treatment” of a rather minor subject: Rotating Credit Associations (RCA’s). An RCA is essentially an informal credit union of sorts. Members of an RCA make regular contributions, and each takes a turn at receiving the total sum collected. Velez-Ibanez is interested in the mutual trust needed to form RCA’s in Chicano communities, and in the mutual trust and confidence nourished by the successful operation of RCA’s.
But Velez-Ibanez, a university anthropologist, writes a dreadful academic prose that is both redundant (“adaptive flexibility”) and unnecessarily obscure (“interstitial dimensions”). For anyone untrained in decoding such heavy-handed anthropological malarkey, the book is nearly unreadable. This is unfortunate, for it provides some good information here and there, and RCA’s have been successful in engendering those virtues that Horowitz found missing in Chicanos: self-discipline, long-range planning, economic advancement, and responsible obligation to oneself and others. It is regrettable that the author turned another wise useful inquiry into an academic tome.