Harvard Educational Review
  1. Citizens but Not Americans

    Race and Belonging Among Latino Millennials

    Nilda Flores-González

    New York: New York University Press, 2017. 175 pp. $27.00 (paper).

    The cover of Nilda Flores-González’s book is striking: a young Latina woman stares out, her gaze direct, her expression solemn, her arms crossed beneath the title—Citizens but Not Americans: Race and Belonging Among Latino Millennials. The image, and the book, forces readers to reckon with our deeply engrained beliefs about who is permitted to lay claim to an American identity and who stands beyond the boundaries of those included in our vision of the nation.

    Flores-González builds on previous work on racial and ethnic identity by exploring how Latino millennials develop a sense of their ethnoracial identity and the contrasts these youth draw between their own constructions of identity and others’ perceptions of who they are and where they belong. She draws on ninety-seven in-depth interviews conducted with Latino millennials (born between 1980 and 1995, in her definition of the generation) conducted in 2009 in the Chicago metropolitan area. Although the data are nearly a decade old, the questions Flores-González poses—about racial identity, feelings of belonging and marginalization, and sense of being American—remain critically relevant in an era in which the metaphorical and literal boundaries of America are being so stringently policed.

    Unlike other recent scholarly work that explores the experiences of undocumented or DACA-mented students of the same generation (Gonzales, 2015; Gonzales & Burciaga, 2018), Flores-González explicitly investigates the experiences of Latino millennials who are citizens primarily by birth. In doing so, she adds to our knowledge of the largest and most diverse generation of Latinos living in the United States. She begins by examining how her participants are marked as racial others through the racial politics of belonging, noting how phenotype and speaking Spanish mark these young people as both invisible and hypervisible in public spaces and places. We hear the voices of young people describing how they are alternately stared at and followed in stores and restaurants or ignored, reminding them that their belonging in the nation where they were born will always be contested. Given the emphasis on place in these first two chapters, it would have been good know more about the particular geographic and social landscapes of these young people’s lives in order to better contextualize their stories and experiences.

    The middle three chapters delve into substantive findings that make this book an important and interesting contribution to the extant literature on Latino youth and the role of race in beliefs about American citizenship. In chapter 3, “Latinos as an Ethnorace,” Flores-González reveals how racial identity, or the way young people see themselves, and racial identification, the ways in which they are required to identify, cannot be conflated. She describes how the racial options provided to Latinos—being forced to choose black or white or having to mark “Some Other Race”—inadequately capture how these young people see themselves. In her framework, three key elements comprise Latino millennials’ understanding of their ethnoracial identity: a coupling of ethnicity and race; a Latino prototype, based on physical traits associated with being Latino, such as brown skin, dark eyes and hair, and medium height; and the weight of Latin American ancestry (p. 60). Her participants deploy ethnic markers like “Mexican” or “Puerto Rican” to describe their racial identity but find that others use dominant assumptions of what Latinos should look and sound like—the Latino prototype—to categorize them as not belonging. Even when they may be able to “pass” as white, knowledge of their Latin American heritage trumps their light skin or unaccented English, causing these young people to be marked as outsiders despite their birthright citizenship. Yet, as Flores-González reminds us, by rejecting “ill-fitting and inaccurate racial labels in favor of more meaningful and representative labels, these youths make themselves visible and relevant, and claim their rightful place in the U.S. racial landscape” (p. 79). While Flores-González is not the first scholar to consider Latino racial identity, this chapter illuminates important nuances in racial identity construction and its implications for a sense of belonging in America.

    After exploring this groundwork of identity construction, in chapter 4, “Latinos as a Racial Middle,” Flores-González probes Latino millennials’ understandings of the US racial hierarchy. She shows how her participants crack the typical white-black hierarchy by claiming a place in the racial middle, a social, cultural, and economic space between the higher position of whites and the lower status of blacks. Other scholarship has theorized this distinctive racial middle, but Flores-González extends this work by demonstrating how her respondents are well aware of the entanglement of race and power in US society. Throughout we hear from these young people how this knowledge of racial power shapes how and why they position themselves as part of this diverse racial middle. Some pull on shared experiences of discrimination or segregation to identify as black or situate themselves in the racial middle but feel more kinship with their black peers. When others classify them as white, these Latino young people occasionally identify as white or closer to white, but this identity is rooted in others’ perceptions of their phenotypical features, not because they actually feel white or feel they benefit from the privileges afforded their white peers. As Flores-González shows, racial identity for these Latino youth is intertwined with the ways in which the racial hierarchy is used as a mechanism to distribute resources or, perhaps more aptly, as a way for whites to maintain their privileged economic, social, and political positions. In this especially poignant chapter, she shows the youth grappling with the profound injustice inherent in America’s entrenched racial hierarchy and struggling to make sense of their location within a sociocultural landscape marked by profound racism.

    This discussion of how Latino millennials negotiate their identity as “real” Americans was the most thought-provoking and compelling part of the book. Flores-González presents nuanced, complex evidence that, as much as these Latino youth feel marginalized, they claim their right to belong to this complicated, contradictory nation. She furthers previous theorizations about race and citizenship, namely Rosaldo’s (1997) notion of Latino cultural citizenship and Tsuda’s (2014) concept of racial citizenship, to propose an “ethno­racial citizenship,” defined by racial and cultural traits that signal “non-Americanness” to dominant social and cultural groups. Accordingly, many of the youth believe that the American ethnoracial ideal is a white, middle-class, nonimmigrant, flag-waving, Christian male, an image they differ from on many dimensions. Yet they posit that their ability to understand multiple cultures and bridge different worlds is precisely what makes them more American than anyone. Throughout the interviews, youth reiterate the pragmatic value of their citizenship, noting that even when they don’t feel they belong, and even when others emphasize their non-belonging, their citizenship is irrefutable evidence of their Americanness. They also point to the quest for social mobility as part of what makes them quintessential Americans, while also demonstrating sophisticated understanding of the complex social structures that block access to mobility for many Latinos, as well as other groups with marginalized racial identities. The voices in this chapter highlight a contested, but proudly claimed, American identity, one in which “being American and being ethnic are separate identities that complement and exist alongside each other” (p. 144).
    Flores-González productively critiques existing frameworks and theories for thinking about the intersections of culture, race, and ethnicity. She writes with clarity, insight, and respect for the young people who have shared their voices and perspectives. The theories emerging from her findings, including ethnoracial citizenship, the heterogeneity of the racial middle, and Latino contestation of the American ethnoracial ideal, are important developments for anyone concerned with the intersections of race, identity, immigration, and citizenship. By weaving a discussion of the racialized anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2016 election and the current presidency into her introduction and conclusion, she convincingly reminds readers that these are perennial and unsettled questions about our notions of our nation.

    And yet, in some places, there are pieces missing from Flores-González’s analyses. For instance, she discusses how gendered tropes about Latino men as gang members or unwilling students exclude Latino millennial men from being viewed as worthy. Yet she doesn’t reckon with how hegemonic images of hyperfertile Latinas may contribute to marginalizing young Latina women in distinct but also damaging ways (Chavez, 2008). Similarly, a socioeconomic class analysis needed to be more at the forefront of her investigation. In describing her sample, she notes that nearly two-thirds of her participants were college students, and thirteen had college degrees and professional jobs (p. 27). Given that this distribution is not representative of Latino educational attainment in the US, were there salient social class factors that might have been at play for the millennials in this study? Finally, the identification and socialization processes of the participants are presented without adequate consideration of their familial and relational contexts. Many Latino citizens are embedded in mixed-status families and communities, and while Flores-González intentionally focuses on belonging for US citizens, more was needed about how family, social relations, and legal status may intersect to shape these youths’ processes of racial identification and feelings of belonging.

    Citizens but Not Americans is a powerful testament to the endurance of racism and the hopeful contestation of the American racial hierarchy and the American ethnoracial ideal. As Flores-González writes, “Pushing for their own Americanism—that is, setting their own terms for becoming American—creates a crack at the door, one that they will continue to pick at in their demand for inclusion in the American national imaginary” (p. 149).

    Sarah Bruhn


    Chavez, L. R. (2008). The Latino threat: Constructing immigrants, citizens, and the nation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Gonzales, R. G. (2015). Lives in limbo: Undocumented and coming of age in America. Oakland: University of California Press.

    Gonzales, R. G., & Burciaga, E. M. (2018). Segmented pathways of illegality: Reconciling the coexistence of master and auxiliary statuses in the experiences of 1.5-generation undocumented young adults. Ethnicities, 18(2), 178–191. doi: 10.1177/1468796818767176

    Rosaldo, R. (1997). Cultural citizenship, inequality, and multiculturalism. In W. V. Flores & R. Benmayor (Eds.), Latino cultural citizenship: Claiming identity, space, and rights. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Tsuda, T. (2014). “I’m American, not Japanese!” The struggle for racial citizenship among later-generation Japanese Americans. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(3), 405–424. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2012.681675
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