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Volume 9, Number 2

Fall/Winter 2011

Book Review of:

Silvia Dominguez. Getting Ahead: Social Mobility, Public Housing and Immigrant Networks.  2011. New York University Press.

Reviwed by Stephen J. Sills
University of North Carolina Greensboro

Sylvia Dominguez's book Getting Ahead: Social mobility, Public Housing, and Immigrant Networks fits neatly in the tradition of Cecilia Menjivar, Pierette Hondaneu-Sotelo, Mary Romero and other recent longitudinal ethnographic studies of immigrant women's social support networks. Dominquez attempts in this text to bridge the gap between studies of urban poverty and public housing and that of the assimilation and immigrant incorporation literatures. She notes that the "literature on social mobility among residents of high poverty neighborhoods is unproductively divided into theories to explain the experience of low income African Americans living in areas of concentrated black poverty, and less prolific literature to explain the experiences of immigrants living in similarly segregated neighborhoods."

    The introduction to the book provides a narrative biography of Dominquez’s own migration experiences beginning with her exodus from Chile in 1973 during the coup that brought down the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Her parents, politically active in the government and Christian Left Party were instantly targets of the US supported right. They left Chile as political refugees. She recognizes the family's social status and human capital that enabled her Harvard educated father to draw upon social ties with the Ford Foundation and provide the family with an exit strategy. She also experiences the downward social mobility that occurred with this departure. She notes that growing up in the 70s and 80s as an immigrant to Boston, she experienced the traumatic loss of home and family common of many immigrants, as well as the limiting factors of ethnic discrimination and structural barriers that limit social mobility. None-the-less she and her family find a place within the community and she proceeds to complete a BA in sociology and psychology at Boston college, and then a masters in forensic psychiatric social work. She worked mental health services for incarcerated populations and became director of psychiatric services at the largest prison in Massachusetts before proceeding to complete a PhD in sociology.  She explains that these experiences "inspired [her] to study the social worlds of immigrants, especially women, and to explore the dynamics of low-income neighborhoods, the effects of violence, and the factors that impact social mobility."

    Following the introduction, the book proceeds to lay out the theoretical groundwork of the Social Flow Framework. Neatly and efficiently she defines each of the elements and their roles in encouraging personal agency and upward mobility. In turn, she defines social mobility, self-propelling agents, cognitive frameworks, contextual triggers, social support networks and leverage, social position, population efficiency, barriers to efficiency, social network interventions, bridges, and social flow. Once she has provided us with the necessary vocabulary and perspectives, she proceeds to describe the historical context of South and East Boston. These neighborhoods are home to large public housing developments that once were racially segregated and have face extreme ethnic tension as Irish and Italian communities were forced to become integrated with African American and more recently Latin American residents. She concludes that "East Boston and South Boston are very different neighborhoods in terms of racial and ethnic dynamics. While East Boston had a collective agency toward heterogeneity in the population, South Boston had a very strong collective agency toward the maintenance of homogeneity in the population, As such these two neighborhoods provide excellent comparative contexts for looking at the adaptation of Latin American immigrant women who reside in public housing."

    She then proceeds through a series of case studies that flesh out each of the concepts used in her theoretical model. Over the course of about a decade Dominquez follows the trajectory of nineteen first and second generation Latin American women living in South and East Boston housing projects. The book centers on the narratives of five of these women as examples of different aspects of the Social Flow Framework. Using this heuristic frame of analysis, Dominquez explains that these women can be recognized as 'self-propelling agents' guided by the cognitive framework of the hard working immigrant trying to make a better life for herself, and positioning themselves within a homogenous social network of friends and family as social and emotional supporters while leveraging heterogeneous ties as bridges to resources and opportunity structures outside of the public housing projects. In some cases, intervention in the form of educational opportunities, institutionalized social services and social policies played a significant role in promoting a community that was efficient in its positive social mobility and helped individual members to overcome limitations of gender violence, sexual discrimination, teen pregnancy, racial and ethnic discrimination, and classism. She finds that “immigrants are getting ahead despite living in high-poverty neighborhoods, and they are not doing so through assimilation... Latin American immigrant women in public housing are getting ahead through their own initiative, embedded in their self-propelling agency and driven by their frames.” 
Her first case study is of Josefa, an Afro-Honduran immigrant mother, centrally located in social network of friends, extended family, fictive kin, and others who uses her social position and social support effectively to provide resources for her children, maintain transnational ties, and plan for an eventual return and resettlement in Honduras. This case study exemplifies the role of reciprocity in networks, the fluidity of the network, interdependence, the role of supportive husband and male partners, and social positioning with sometimes mixed results. Dominquez points to Josefa's 'success' at leveraging a social bridge to find employment that pays better than that of her husband as potentially undermining his support and position as bread winner as well as the possible negative effect of employment on the educational outcome of her daughter who is held back a grade. Dominquez concludes though that "self-propelling agency and social positioning through networks of support and leverage provide a sufficient condition for social mobility for the first generation." However, she contrasts this success with the perceived 'failure' of Elvira, Josefa's niece who comes to live with her. Elivra, while more socially assimilated and integrated into the local community is non-mobile and lacks the personal agency found in the cognitive frame of the first generation. Due to a lack of sex education and access to family planning information, Elvira becomes a teen mother at 17, negatively impacting her future life chances.

    The second case study focuses on Lisa, a college educated, Afro-Nicaraguan single mother who is a lesbian. As a result of her stigmatized social identity - gay, single-mother, immigrant and Afro-Latina, her social network is very limited. Her parents are deceased, she has only a few extended relatives, and almost no real friends. She finds herself on the outside of the Latino community with its strong anti-homosexual prejudice as well as on the outside of the mostly white LGBT community. She has only two strong social ties – her son Martin and her girlfriend Caroline. Caroline, though closeted and unable to fully engage in a partnership with Lisa, does provide some emotional support, encouragement, and a bridge to a more heterogeneous population than found in the housing development. Caroline is white, well educated, and middle class. This class difference has encouraged Lisa to continue her education and she hopes to go to law school. In the meantime, she works as a community organizer. Dominquez explains that "it is precisely her lesbian identity that positions Lisa for social mobility and provides the primary social leverage in her network."

    Next, Dominquez presents the case of Camila, a young Domincana who came to the US when she was five years old. Like Elvira, she was a teen mother, having a child against the protests of her family at just 15 years old. Similar to Elvira, lack of family planning information played a role. However, she has been able to overcome the potential impediment of teen motherhood with the support of a strong social network that includes her mother, her boyfriend (who is not the child’s father), agency-based intervention, and her self-propelled agency. She calls on the cognitive frame-work of the personal sacrifices of her parents' immigrant experience so that she could have a better life. As a result, she completed her high school education. She also drew upon bridging ties within her social network for introductions to employment that would benefit her more in the longer term than the bakery where she had been working while attending community college. She found a position in a bank and eventually moved from teller to customer service and eventually to an assistant manager's position. This job also paid for her tuition to study at New England College of Finance helped her to move with her boyfriend to an apartment of their own and to have a second child. 

    Next Dominquez explores how childhood trauma and domestic violence hamper social mobility for women even when all of the elements of a social flow framework are present. She draws upon several cases, but focuses on Marta a second-generation Puerto-Rican mother of two who, as Dominguez puts it, "is unable to sustain relationship and employment, despite having good opportunities for both." Marta had two children by the age of seventeen. The father of her children offers financial support and takes the children on weekends for outings, but has recently married and has another child. Marta has had a strong support network that includes her sister, mother, other relatives, and a few friends. She is also supported by a current boyfriend, Ramon, who helps her financially and emotionally. Ramon is a first-generation Guatemalteco who demonstrates self-propelled agency, a desire to buy a home and marry Marta. Yet, as Dominquez explains, "All the women in this group had extended family members with leveled aspirations....[suggesting] patterns of family dynamics associated with violence and multigenerational poverty." Marta sabotages her own social mobility by holding Ramon at a distance and carrying on transnational ties with men in Puerto Rico. She also undermines potential leveraging and bridging ties by her lack of respect for others, lack of reciprocity in relations, inconsistency in her work, and habit of quitting jobs or exiting relationships at any sign of conflict. Dominquez explains that Marta's reluctance to form bonds and inconsistencies in employment are evidence of untreated depression and trauma from her childhood in which she witnessed the arbitrary violence and domestic abuse of an alcoholic father. Dominquez concludes that "Marta and her siblings grew up living for the moment, not knowing if there would be violence or not, they were socialized into the present tense and without an internal locus of control, which is one of the consequences of intergenerational trauma in families." Without intervention, this trauma acts to inhibit social mobility even when social support networks and bridges are present by limiting self-propelled agency. 

    The final case study focuses on Marcela, a Puerto Rican immigrant mother, who like Marta had grown up in an abusive household. While self-propelled and studying pharmacy in Puerto Rico, she became involved with Jesus, the father of her child, who turned out to be controlling and abusive as well. She became isolated from her family because of their dislike of Jesus and forced to leave school because of missing classes. She was battered throughout the pregnancy and escaped shortly after giving birth, deciding to move to Boston though she knew no one there. She was homeless for two years living temporarily with friends. She eventually made her way into public housing and over the course of the study her mother and other family members moved to Boston. Over the course of the study she developed a fairly large and supportive social network of friends and co-workers. However, Jesus also followed her to Boston and over the course of a few years tried to convince her to be with him. He eventually ended up in prison for selling drugs and continued his emotional pressuring via collect calls until she finally had to cut off her phone service. The emotional strain resulted in an episode where she began “reliving traumatic events” while drinking alcohol with some of her friends. Her friends, as well as Dominguez, encouraged her to seek counseling and over the course of a few months her depression improved. Newly empowered, she used the opportunity presented by new social ties to begin studying English and to move to a better job. She also insisted that Jesus attend an antiviolence program while in prison. At the conclusion of the study, Dominquez reported that they were living together without incident and that Marta was working as an assistant manager in a retail store in an "upscale English-speaking neighborhood."

    In the concluding chapter, Dominguez returns to the theoretical level to further expand upon her Social Flow Framework. She explains how there is a selection effect in the self-propelling agency of voluntary migrants because “driven people are more likely to migrate.” Immigrants, she tells us, employ the "struggle-of-immigration narrative" as a successful cognitive framework reinforcing personal agency. The most successful also are embedded within reciprocal social networks that help them have greater access to resources such as childcare, emotional support, and encouragement as well as access to other communities through leveraging and bridging ties. These networks are highly gendered in the case of Latin Americans and also extend across national boundaries. This transnational dynamic as she puts it helps to "reinforce agency" and provides a "dual frame of reference" in which migrants compare where they came from with where they are today. She underscores that social flow does not come necessarily from assimilation.

    Like all ethnographic accounts this book contains rich narrative descriptions of place, space, participants, and social dynamics. The prose in the central chapters is especially accessible and inviting... as an aside, I find that there are two kinds of reading that I do, that which is well accompanied by a nice glass of red wine and that which requires a robust cup of coffee. The central portion of this book goes well with wine; however, as with all dense theoretical readings, the first and last chapters really require a caffeinated beverage. None-the-less, Dominguez presents these potentially difficult sections in a straightforward manner providing us in the first chapter with the vocabulary necessary to understand her theoretical framework and the case studies to understand her conclusions in the last chapter. 

 Return to Sociation Today Fall/Winter 2011 

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