Monday, October 17, 2011

Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists

Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists by Christian Zlolniski is an ethnography of Mexican immigrants in the Silicon Valley region of California. Dr. Zlolniski focuses on people living in a low-income neighborhood known as Santech. He starts off with discussion of his field methods and a general discussion about Mexican immigration to California. This lays a framework for the rest of the book, which will be about the lives of the Santech residents. Some of the topics covered (as stated by the chapter headings) are the sub-contracting of janitors in high-tech companies; the informal economy; family structure; and community politics. Names of individuals and of companies have been altered for the book.

I took Dr. Zlolniski's course last semester on the Anthropology of Migration, and this book was one of our assigned reading materials. It's written in very accessible language, though, so anyone should be able to pick this up and have no trouble reading; besides, there are graphs and tables included that make the data presented a little easier to look at. There are also some photos and a map, which is something I always love to see in a book.

There are a lot of stereotypes and generalizations made about Mexican immigrants coming into the United States - Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists is an excellent book because it gives a look into what some of their experience is actually like, and of course many of the things people think of are way off mark. I am sure that just like with any group of people, there are some Mexican immigrants who will be lazy or stupid. But those two words also describe a large number of US citizens, so I'm not really sure how "lazy" came to be associated with the immigrants from Mexico. After reading this book, I was even more confused on that point, because the people whose stories were featured work harder than most people I know - certainly they work harder than I do! They struggle to make ends meet (and make do when they cannot make ends meet). They put up with a lot while at work - things that any of us would be going to Human Resources to file a complaint about. Many immigrants were trained professionals in Mexico, but cannot find jobs in their fields in the United States because their credentials aren't recognized - so they take work in lower-wage jobs that we tend to look down on in a way (fast food, janitorial services, street vending, etc.).

Immigration is a hot-button issue, and people tend to have fairly strong opinions regarding the topic. Regardless of your position, and regardless of your stance, I think this is a book everyone should read at some point. It brings to life the people who are the center of the debates; it gives a perspective on their experiences and their circumstances that are not shown in the general media stories about immigrants and immigration. I think if more people understood where these people were coming from, situation-wise, and realize what a big part they play in our economy, we would be better able to address the concerns that arise because of immigration. Any political decisions made could be more informed and we might actually be able to find solutions that could benefit both sides. Idealistic, yes, but you never know - a little genuine understanding can go a long way. It's just too bad politics doesn't work like this.

As you can tell, I enjoyed reading Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists. Some things I thought I knew turned out to be more complex than what I'd thought, and I like books that make me think about or re-evaluate something. I also especially liked reading about each of the informants in the informal economy chapter.

Obviously, it's not a film adaptation of this book, but we watched the movie Bread and Roses in the same class for which this book was assigned, and I would recommend it also - it covers the same issues brought up in the first couple chapters of this book.



University of California Press

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