Interpreting Identities: The Mexington Ethnography Project

Study Background

There is a vast amount of research into Mexican migration in the United States that continually expands each year as new data sets from multiple academic fields interpret a growing Mexican American demographic. The Southeast United States had seen unprecedented growth in its Mexican population as census data from the last three decades revealed how communities like Mexington have begun to change the face of the region. Studies of the region have examined Mexicans within a broader Latino social grouping, yet noting that the category was primarily composed of immigrants from Mexico. For example, in “Inside the Gilded Cage the Lives of Latino Immigrant Males in Rural Central Kentucky” Benjamin J. Shultz discuss Latino migration to the “New Gateway” states of the U.S. Southeast and notes that Kentucky saw its Latino population between 1990 and 2006 grow significantly: “Kentucky has recently experienced a dramatic increase in its Latino population, growing from 21,000 in 1990 to nearly 100,000 in 2007” (201). The study offers a pan-Latino grouping but with the caveat that most of the individuals in the Latino nationalities represented identified themselves as Mexican or of indigenous groups from Mexico. Nevertheless, the census data marked population growth of Latinos indicative of former migrant farm workers settling in Kentucky as it became a new “gateway” area for established immigrants connecting to transnational social networks. Once establishing themselves, Mexican immigrants in the United States later sponsored future migrating family members, or served as points of contact. The result was migration to new new places of Mexican migration, to less competitive regional markets with potential growth for Mexican labor, along with a lower cost of living. One visible effect for the receiving community happened when ethnic enclaves like Mexington emerged. One less visible effect for the community and which immigrants faced was the result of population growth among Latinos in regions saturated with likeminded low-skilled workers competing for the same low-wage jobs. This drove some immigrants to re-locate to Kentucky after first arriving in higher-density Latino destinations such as in Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois.

The pattern of Mexican migration to Kentucky began with largely male migrants arriving to work in agriculture, jobs imagined as temporary, but as migrations restrictions tightened after 9/11, migrants settled in different pockets around the state. As these men settled, sometimes bringing their wives and children from Mexico or starting families in the Kentucky, their lives and their children’s lives were shaped by the language and culture of their host nation. Language change especially shaped the experiences of youth and their attitudes to their heritage language and their emerging awareness of U.S. racial stratification. The U.S. Southeast of course had a long history of Black and White racial relations, to which newcomer Latinos struggled to navigate, and whom were often racialized as outsiders changing the “faces” of communities. In the same article, Shultz theorizes how Latino migration to Kentucky challenges the biracial divide. The Southeast Mexingtons become recognizable as community character and racialized identity. Shultz claims:

While a growing number of Latinos increasingly avoided traditional gateways and sought new destinations, the South experienced the most significant impacts, challenging the traditional biracial divide that has characterized the region throughout its history (Smith and Furuseth 2004). Southeastern cities such as Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville, Charlotte, and Orlando experienced Latino population growth rates of at least 600 percent during the 1990s (Suro and Singer 2002). Following the West, the South is now home to the second largest number of Latinos in the United States, with Mexicans comprising the largest single group (Murphy et al. 2001; Smith and Furuseth 2004). (203)

One could include Lexington’s name to the list of Southern cities that experienced a tremendous influx of Mexican migration. It bears repeating what Shultlz writes, that the South has in recent decades become the second largest region for Mexican immigrants in the U.S. after the West. Though Kentucky was not a traditional receiving area for Mexicans like other parts of the U.S. like California or Texas, it has become a major area for settling because it has work opportunities, a low cost of living compared to other states, and also a certain “tranquilidad” that results in the segregation of Latino ethnic enclaves to parts of the city where they have little contact with different ethnic groups, therefore less face-to-face instances of racial discrimination. The importance for understanding the demographic shifts in this region will pose problems for states and their social and civic institutions which have little to no experience dealing with Mexican immigrants and the funds of knowledge they contribute to classroom social learning about racial politics.

Literature Review and Project Overview

In this ethnographic project, I seek to bridge a divide between existing scholarship in rhetoric and ethnography (Eldred and Mortensen; Soliday; Villanueva) with post‐structural critiques of expressivism that raise concerns about personal writing and the question of transparency (Behar; Berlin; Fernsten). Quantitative research limited my research goals in terms of connecting valuable micro-level experiences with macro social phenomena. Likewise ethnography provided only a means to apprehend field observations without necessarily moving to larger theoretical issues concerning how social structures shaped and influenced local activities. The incorporation of critical social theories for analyzing ethnographic data proved the most useful for unpacking the macro, institutional analyses of the structured constraints, opportunities, and inequalities the people of Mexington faced.

Social theory research theorizes into agents’ conceptions of practice through social hierarchies and their individualized notions of social structures (Bourdieu; Clark; Gee; Grenfell, Bloome, Hardy, Pahl, Rowsell, and Street; Willis). Such researchers argue for the hierarchization of schooling as one of the primary means for inculcating the social structures of power and the practices of social class norms (Bourdieu and Passeron; Brint and Karabel), or what students understand and acknowledge as the formal varieties of languages as they are institutionalized, standardized, and legitimated into positions of authority through schooling (Gee; Heath; Labov). All students conduct their lives in both informal and localized varieties of language, and with practical intentions depending on the contexts (Jonassen 90; Janassen and Land 3). Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of action and re-action as a game-like situation makes sense, especially when considering how habitus relates to agents’ moves in competition (Practical Reason 98). With immigrant families, the additional element of bilingualism and heritage language use and retention complicate the theoretical implications further.

The sociological studies of Bourdieu frame my theoretical models for conceiving rhetoric, audience, and institutionalized dispositions at the Mexington Library. Bourdieu synthesizes a status-based social model of rhetoric and language economy based largely on J.L. Austin’s theories of performativity (How to Do Things With Words), Basil Bernstein’s theories of class-encoded language (Class, Codes, and Control), and William Labov’s research into the social stratification and “non-standard” usage (The Social Stratification of English in New York City). According to Bourdieu, all speech and textuality in society ascribe to different levels of linguistic capital, only some with “distinction” or prestige (Homo Academicus; In Other Words; Outline of a Theory of Practice). Rhetorical exchanges, then, are always already structured interactions whose form and content carry certain ascribed levels of social value or distinction, low to high. They are produced to serve functions and enact social relationships. He writes:

Rhetorical figures, as modifications of ordinary usage, are in a sense the objective pronunciations of the social relationship in which they are produced and function, and it is futile to seek, in the intrinsic nature of the tropes catalogued in the ‘Arts of Rhetoric’, properties which, like all properties of distinction, exist only in and through the relationship, in and through difference. (Distinction 227)

The rhetorical value or consequence of an utterance or text produced by any speaker or writer depends on the different socially-ascribed values of what agents communicate (message), how they communicate (linguistic form), who they are (social status), and whom they address (audience). A certain amount of cultural capital is behind each rhetorical exchange agents make. Context and social position also affect whether an agent is a high-status individual or one who manipulates high-status discourse well and also credit one’s authority, one’s perception by others that she or he is by difference dominant. I’ve narrowed my rhetorical analysis of my fieldwork at the Mexington Library to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as a structuring structure that students embody in social practice. Habitus is the system of internalized dispositions that mediate between social structures and practical activity, shaped by the former and regulating the latter. It is a system of dispositions that mediates between internal structures and the practices through which social life is sustained and structures are reproduced or transformed. In my fieldwork at the Mexington Library, tutees observed their experiences as “practices” in a school-like setting. Students processed their observations and field data accounting their academic habitus in being responsible for completing their homework.

To ascribe an alternative value-set of motivations to the exchanges of cultural capital in circulation in Mexican immigrant families, I opt for an analysis of Latino families’ funds of knowledge. In order to better understand the Mexican population of Lexington, I approached my fieldwork at the Mexington Library around learning the social history of the institution, learning how it emerged over the last eight years, how it became a community space of civic engagement built from the funds of knowledge the community invested in the space. As a result, a public learning institution gained a better idea about the material circumstances Mexican immigrants faced living in the community. This body of knowledge, when integrated in schooling, presented family strengths as potential sources for study, while at the same time giving credibility to the dignities of students’ lives. This connected students’ homes with school lives, and students’ school lives with home. Luis C. Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez argue for a “funds of knowledge” approach to connecting families to schools and to the educational lives of children. For these linguists and educators, Latino households possess funds of knowledge which are cultural wealth and practices to make sense of their world. Integrating the students’ funds of knowledge necessitates research into

[. . .] how household members use their funds of knowledge in dealing with changing, and often difficult, social and economic circumstances. We are particularly interested in how families develop social networks that interconnect them with their social environments (most importantly with other households), and how these social relationships facilitate the development and exchange of resources, including knowledge, skills, and labor, that enhance the households’ ability to survive or thrive. (132)

Social networks meet in special locations where funds of knowledge have value, such as after-school programs that offer special assistance for Latino communities. Valuing Spanish as a vehicle of learning is one such way to capitalize on the funds of knowledge of Latino families, as well as involving them in the educations of children. Building upon the social relationships within the community must happen first through these out-of-school educational facilities, therefore building community and presenting an advocate for families who fight on behalf of them in matters pertaining to schooling. Funds of knowledge are “intellectual, social and emotional resources that allow modest income families to survive with pride and respect” (10). Funds of knowledge contribute to families sense of dignity, and contribute to the meaning which they attribute to their lives and their social conditions and build on students’ “cognitive and cultural resources by integrating community practices into the classrooms” (3). Educators first must understand the funds of knowledge of Latino families in order to know what families know, to bridge the dignity families ascribe to their lives with the resources of schools, which affirm that dignity and education are two rights for all citizens, that is, cultural citizens. This is also a way of integrating immigrant communities into the social institutions responsible for fostering civic awareness.

One strength of Latino families is the respeto parents show to teachers, and which they demand of their children for their teachers. At the same time, however, this respect means a disconnect from teachers, in the sense that parents unequivocally defer judgement on educational matters to the professionals who they deem more qualified in the matters of knowing their children’s learning. The importance for establishing bridges between schools and families thus becomes of significant importance for drawing out the funds of knowledge of families on one hand, and also to alerting schools to the strengths of families and how to integrate some of the core values of Latino families into the curricula. Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez write that

In the Latino culture, teachers are highly respected and, as such, Latino families may view that any interference from parents is rude and discourteous. Thus, teachers often view parents from their own cultural view point and assume that parents seeking input on assignments and grades as being interested and caring for their children’s education. Latino parents, however, may view this kind of questioning as a sign of disrespect. Cultural differences and norms are misinterpreted because there is not enough direct community to move past these differences. (5)

Schools that don’t take account the lives of families will neglect their involvement, and therefore potentially stigmatize parents as not being involved enough, or at least to the school’s perceptions of involvement. This becomes problematic when schools don’t recognize the language barriers Latino parents may face, as well as their working schedules which may be irregular or long. School satellite programs helping schools and families to bridge the distance are thus of primary importance for establishing firm links between schools and communities (6). Education and community integration are tightly woven, though educational statistics paint a grim picture for Mexican immigrants across the nation. Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez warn that “if the high dropout rates and low educational achievement and performance levels are not turned around, the likelihood of creating a permanent cultural generation without hope of integrating into the mainstream is likely and quite sobering” (11). Subtractive educational practices deem certain student qualities as deficits to be overcome with formal schooling. Rather, schools must tap into the funds of knowledge families possess and rid themselves of deficit outlooks. At best, such metaphors capitalize on economics of families, which often come from low-income socioeconomic classes. Ultimately, the families’ social class gets transposed onto the perceptions of students’ intelligence, or what educators may consider their “lack.” This form of ethnocentrism will prevent instructors from looking to the dignity of students’ lives (12). The out-of-school educational institutions can fit this position as advocates for positive Latino educational outcomes and school support. The distance that some families demonstrate toward schools proves that having an agent out of school supporting their viewpoints. This institutional support lends credibility to the arguments and perceptions of Latino parents, raising their concerns to schools, and advocating on their behalf. Institutional support translates into knowledge about how institutions work. This is not one of the funds of knowledge Latino families bring to the table in schooling situations because of their immigrant status and their still growing awareness about how institutions in the U.S. function, as well as their rights for making claims and checking the power of these same institutions.

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. Print.

Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon P, 1996. Print.

Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies.West Lafayette, IN: Parlor, 2003. Print.

Bernstein, Basil. Class, Codes, and Control: Theoretical Studies Towards a Sociology of Language. London, UK: Routledge, 2003. Print.  

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984. Print.

—.  Homo Academicus. Trans. Peter Collier. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988. Print.

—. In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology.  Trans. Matthew Adamson. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Sage, 1977. Print.

Brint, Steven, and Jerome Karabel. The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunity in America, 1900-1985. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

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Fernsten, Linda. “Discourse and Difference.” International Journal of Inclusive Education 9.4 (2005): 371-387. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 2nd ed. London: Taylor & Francis, 1996. Print.

Grenfell, Michael, David Bloome, Cheryl Hardy, Kate Pahl, Jennifer Rowsell, and Brian Street. Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Labov, William. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Levinson, Bradley A.U., Judson Everitt and Linda C. Johnson. “Integrating Indiana’s Latino Newcomers: A Study of State and Community Responses to the New Immigration.” CES Working Papers 1 (2007): 1-43. Print.

Moll, Luis C, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez. “Funds of Knowledge: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Households.” Theory Into Practice 31.2 (1992): 132-141. Print.

Shultz, Benjamin J. “Inside the Gilded Cage the Lives of Latino Immigrant Males in Rural Central Kentucky.” Southeastern Geographer 48.2 (2008): 201-218. Print.

Soliday, Mary. “Translating Self and Difference through Literacy Narratives.” College English 56.5 (1994): 511-526. Print.

Villanueva, Victor. Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993. Print.