Intervention – 'At the Edge of the Metropolis: A Call to Expand Barrio Research' by Johana Londoño

Johana Londoño, University at Albany, State University of New York

Johana LondoñoLast fall, students and I analyzed Pew Hispanic Center data on the recent Latino population surge in the southeast of the U.S. The data listed Dominicans among the least likely of Latino sub-groups to be born in the southeast or outside of NY, NJ, CA, IL (Kochhar 2005: 14). As my class debated the reason for this, one Dominican student related a story of his cousin, the first in his family to migrate to the U.S., who boasted of life in Nueva York during her visits back to the Dominican Republic. When my student’s family decided to migrate and join their cousin, they realized she actually lived in Boston. For the cousin, Boston falls within NYC’s boundaries; even though she is among a group of Dominicans who chose different settlement areas, she imagines herself as another immigrant to the largest Dominican concentration in the U.S. – NYC.

It is common to re-imagine the borders of (im)migrant receiving cities. To describe the frequent flights that moved Puerto Rican migrants between San Juan and New York in the 20th century, Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sanchez (1994) uses the term La guagua area (airbus), an abstraction of the geopolitical realities of migration that could very well take passengers from NYC to final destinations in Connecticut and New Jersey. Both the Dominican cousin and Sanchez create a subjective proximity, perhaps a hopeful nearness, to NYC. The problem is that collapsing real distances between actual receiving places and NYC, renders NYC the center, re-enforcing NYC’s identity as an exceptionally important desirable global city whose spotlight outshines peripheral areas.

This intervention argues that barrio research is following a similar path toward centralization by providing major central cities—especially NYC, LA, and Chicago—disproportionate theoretical attention and disregarding locations that are geographically peripheral to these urban centers[i]. In the short space that follows, I highlight the contraction of the Latino geographic imaginary around central cities, what I call the metropoles of barrio geography and research, and the need for an expansion that encompasses the periphery, and indeed, takes peripheral locations as a starting point. This call to expand barrio research particularly proposes a focus on the metropolitan scope of barrio development. Neglecting to broaden the geography of barrio research risks propagating the very invisibility to which inner-city barrios have been subject to. Put another way, focusing on barrios internal to the city can decenter barrios that lie on the outskirts of the city. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries internal barrios have been marginalized from the political, social, and cultural activities of central cities. Latino studies research and activism have sought to reclaim and affirm the status of inner-city barrios. Should we not do the same for Latino places at the fringe of metropoles?

It is a pivotal moment for re-scaling the power relations that barrio scholars insightfully examine in central cities. Cross-regional competition between local governments for jobs (particularly finance jobs) and tax revenue is restructuring barrios at the periphery. Additionally, creative industries and workers are gentrifying places at the fringe once relegated to low-income people. Patterns of uneven geographical development are re-creating barrios across metropolitan areas whose economy, politics, culture and society must also be analyzed to avoid having research on major central cities stand-in for the whole urban Latino experience. Current research on barrios overlooks these geographic practices and flows that speak to but are not exclusively located in central cities. A reconceptualization of barrio research—through multiple sites, scales, and locations—will bring to light these unattended barrio formations and their metropolitan implications.

Undertaking this decentering process requires probing power relations that occur across space. The metropole-periphery framework of analysis is one way to do this. In academic literature, a metropole is a hub that conveys cultural and economic power and implements policies to be dutifully followed by outlying, peripheral, or (post)colonial places. This activity often proceeds keeping in mind the interests of the empire or imperial core in which said metropole is located. However, as postcolonial scholars remind us, the metropole-periphery relation is not unidirectional; peripheries influence metropoles, shaping their culture and identities (Said 1979). In this intervention, the metropole-periphery framework is a convenient metaphor for power relations that can be used to expose the spatial, cultural, economic, and political cleavages between the racially and economically dominant and marginalized in multiple geographies of the metropolitan area.

There are historical precedents for analyzing the barrio through this framework. Echoing the “internal colony” concept stemming from Black scholarship and U.S. Third World leftists of the 1960s, Chicano and Puerto Rican activists of the same decade attended to the existence of their respective U.S. communities under U.S. imperial conditions of marginality and exploitation (El Plan de Santa Barbara 1969; Young Lords Party 1969). By 1972, the internal colony approach to the inner-city barrio entered a more rarified academic venue with the publication of ‘The Barrio as an Internal Colony’ by Mario Barrera and colleagues (1972) in Urban Affairs Annual Reviews.

While the internal colony approach fell out of favor in academic circles in the 1980s because of its nationalist tendencies and under-examination of class issues (Gutiérrez 2004; Young 2006), academic research on barrio-city power relations advanced. Still influenced by the political thrust of the 1960s and 1970s, barrio research published in the 1980s and 1990s augments the focus on inner-city NY and LA and has less of a unifying theoretical stream. Examples include classic books by George Sanchez (1995), Ricardo Romo (1983), and Richard Griswold del Castillo (1982) on Mexican barrios in LA, and Virginia Sanchez-Korrol (1994) on Puerto Rican barrio formation in NYC. Books published in the early 2000s continue to focus on LA, NYC, and increasingly Chicago, but now elaborate on topics including gentrification, transnationalism, poverty, and violence (e.g. Bourgois 2003; Davila 2004; Perez 2004). To be fair, exceptions to the NYC-LA-Chicago triumvirate have surfaced recently: Raul Homero Villa (2000) on San Diego; David Diaz (2005) on the Southwest; Mario Luis Small (2004) on Boston; Mary Odem and Elaine Lacy’s (2009) edited book on the Southeast; Ann Millard and Jorge Chapas (2004) on the Midwest; Daniel Arreola (2002) on Texas; and Mike Davis’ (2001) and Steven Bender’s (2010) research on the Latinization of cities across the nation. All the above books contribute to barrio scholarship’s strong legacy of critically examining inequities in resource distribution and cultural valuation that shape Latino experiences in cities. It is crucial to continue such research. But, and despite a recent nod to geographic diversity, literature on Latino urban issues, and the research interests of up-and-coming scholars, continue to establish the dominance of LA, Chicago, and NYC, implying that marginalized Latino clusters lie in select central cities.

My point here is that barrio research should also address the unequal power dimensions developing at metropolitan levels, if only because current urban demography charts a Latino geography more complex than that which barrio scholarship portrays[ii]. In 2002 Latinos living in peripheries exceeded those in central cities by 18% (Singer and Suro 2002: 1). In 2006, 55% of Latinos in Chicago’s metropolitan area lived in the suburbs (Alejo 2008: 34). As of the 2000 census, the Latino population in suburban Miami-Dade County grew 20 times faster than in the central city, Orange County’s Latino population outpaced LA’s, and the Latino population in Long Island and northern New Jersey, outside of Manhattan, rose at a rapid rate (Singer and Suro 2002: 7-8, 10).

A closer look at Orange County and north Jersey shows that barrios have long existed outside of traditional settlements in major hubs. In the 80s, a large influx of Mexican and Central American immigrants settled in historic Mexican barrios in Santa Ana, Orange County[iii]. The Cuban population in Union City in northern NJ grew in the 1960s after the Cuban revolution, and the population swelled again in the 1980s and 1990s with a diverse Latin American population. Both places are now Latino majority, yet neither has generated as many book publications as neighboring global cities. Only recently were the first scholarly books about Latinos in Santa Ana and Union City published (Prieto 2009; Vallejo 2012).

Given the gaps in barrio scholarship, it is surprising to find that Beyond El Barrio, edited by Gina Pérez, Frank Guridy and Adrian Burgos (2010), encourages researchers to rethink the barrio as a concept or unit of analysis. The editors explain that a research focus on barrios may narrowly characterize Latinos by reproducing stereotypes that stem from spatial assumptions of racial and ethnic bodies (p.2). They worry that similar to the ghetto trope that influences perceptions of Blacks regardless of where they live, attention to barrios will stigmatize the diverse spatial and social experiences of Latinos in the U.S. Instead of the barrio, the editors promote a transnational framework of analysis, and avenues for thinking of Latino urban community formation, such as gender, sexuality, citizenship, and popular culture (p.8). To some extent I salute the call to move beyond the parameters of a fixed barrio concept, after all, not all Latino residential arrangements occur in barrio-like concentrations. Indeed, insofar as I argue for moving beyond inner-city barrios to a metropolitan scope of barrio development, my argument aligns with the intervention proposed by the editors and elaborated on by contributors to the volume, including John McKiernan-Gonzalez’s engrossing chapter on Latino histories of Hillsborough County, near Tampa, FL. Nevertheless, the book’s provocative title suggests an urban authenticity by which only those places already in the literature are attributed the benefits (and negatives) of the barrio (p.6).

I insist it is premature to dismiss the barrio. Doing so passes over places at the edge of major central cities that have been under-examined or not examined at all. A metropolitan scope that illuminates these peripheral sites in relation to the culture and spatial economies of metropoles can reveal a more nuanced picture of contemporary barrio formation and its rapid evolution in conjunction with U.S. urbanization.

Johana Londoño is an Assistant Professor in the University at Albany, State University of New York’s Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies. Her research interests include Latino/a urban culture in the U.S., the political economy of cities, and comparative ethnic studies. Recent work includes guest editing (with Arlene Davila) a special issue of the journal Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power on ‘Race and the Cultural Spaces of Neoliberalism.


An earlier version of this intervention was presented at the American Studies Association Conference in Puerto Rico, 2012. For their helpful suggestions and feedback, I am grateful to Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, and, at Antipode, Katherine McKittrick, Nik Heynen and Andrew Kent.


[i] The barrio research included in this intervention considers Latino urban spaces, culture, and community formation and covers interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary scholarship, mostly single-author or multi-author books. Clearly, this range discounts articles and chapters in edited volumes about Latino-majority places. I surmise that the central-city focus would still be evident if these sources were added.

[ii] For one notable exception that examines global economic restructuring of Latino spaces and politics across LA County see: Valle and Torres (2000).

[iii] According to the Census, Santa Ana is a central city and part of the Metropolitan Statistical Area of Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, CA.


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  1. Alfonso

    Great piece Johanna, Congratulations. Indeed, there are millions of Latinos in places such as Ocala and Orlando Florida, the Inland Empire of Southern California whose experience challenges researchers to rethink the “traditional barrio” and to think about these regions as new sites of power and resistance that our research should unearth. Looking forward to reading your book.

  2. Nicole

    This is an interesting concept for study. Although wouldn’t studying the establishment of outer periphery barrios correlate with the theories of urbanization. For example in the 70’s there was a mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the area of sunset park in brooklyn New York. Prior to this migration the area was predominantly European (polish, Italian, and Irish). If you examine the neighborhood which is now known as “little Latin America” it is predominantly Mexican and South American. I feel that as a group establishes itself within a main barrio they branch out; this is a reflection of social mobility, as well as adopting the culture of the majority a little among other things. As a new ethnic group establishes them self in a neighborhood they bring along with them their mother culture and assimilate into the culture of the majority as well. It is a means for survival. I believe outer barrio studies would show that establishment of such neighborhoods exemplifies assimilation rather than random transplanting of a group.