Member of the Week: A. K. Sandoval-Strausz

A. K. Sandoval-Strausz

Associate Professor of History

Penn State University


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I’ve been looking closely at the politics and economy of Latina/o repopulation in Pennsylvania’s smaller industrial cities. Places like Bethlehem, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, York, and Hazleton are located in highly politically bellwether counties: Lehigh, Berks, Lancaster, York, and Luzerne. The cities in question are 33% to 66% Latinx today, the counties 10% to 26% Latino.

As we try to understand the political transformation of America’s largest industrial state, we need to figure out the relationships among metropolitan change, Latinidad, and deindustrialization. So I’m thinking in terms of a more-recent, Latino-centered iteration of the close-in histories of metropolitan politics that focused on Black people and their alternately violent and flighty white neighbors—the kind of close-in, who-did-what-exactly-when, analytical narrative that drives a whole urban/metropolitan and political historiography.

Another way of looking at this is in relation to Lara Putnam’s fascinating data-driven article “Rust Belt in Transition” that deals with the past forty years of postindustrial politics in the counties around Pittsburgh. The metro areas I’m looking at are also mostly classified as “Middle Suburbs” by the American Communities Project, but with hundreds of thousands of Latines (and here I’m consciously trying to popularize the gender-inclusive version of Latinx that works in Spanish).

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I’m teaching classes on immigration history and Latina/o Studies, so there’s a lot of crossover there. Beyond the fact of the subject matter, there’s a methodological connection as well. Oral histories are an important part of Latino history and Latinx Studies, since it has often been difficult to find the voices of Latinas and Latinos in the historical record. In an effort to create a durable and usable archive, I’ve been organizing a Pennsylvania Latina/o oral history project. In some respects it is modeled on the project I did alongside @XochitlBada and @FrancoBavoni on Mexican hometown associations. Those oral histories became a major source for my book Barrio America; you can read and hear many hours of them for yourselves (in Spanish) thanks to the @NewberryLibrary, which has digitally archived them.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars? 

There’s so much incredible work these days that I could write about this all day! So perhaps I could focus on book about Latinxs and cities. It’s been so wonderful to see a new generation of scholars create extraordinary scholarship in this field. At the first Urban History Association conference in 2002 there was a panel on Latino urban history and there were only about seven of us there, so ha sido una larga lucha! In terms of recent books, there’s Johana Londoño’s Abstract Barrios, which is a master class in how to see the cityscape. I’ve been hearing about the material in Eduardo Contreras’s Latinos and the Liberal City since we frequented the taquerías in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood to the west of Hyde Park during graduate school, so it was great to see him win that OAH prize. Speaking of Chicago, I love Deborah Kanter’s Chicago Católico, which gives us an in-depth and lovingly textured look at the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church in the Windy City. And of course there’s Johana Fernández’s The Young Lords, which somehow manages to say something really new about what I thought was a pretty well-traveled topic! In terms of work coming out, I’m really curious to see how George J. Sánchez, a giant in the field of Latino history, engages the urban in Boyle Heights—plus I’m a big fan of ambitious subtitles and how to justify them. Finally, Domenic Vitiello is almost done with a book on Philadelphia called “The Sanctuary City” that explores Mexican, Central American, Southeast Asian, West African, and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants that is both deeply researched and evocatively written.[1]

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers? 

If you love cities as much as virtually every urbanist does, it makes sense to figure out how to eventually go pro—that is, to make your passion into your job. Many urbanists do this as a matter of course by pursuing professional degrees in city planning, architecture, social work, administration, and the like. But historians and other urban academics can make their careers by learning the nuts and bolts of very specialized metropolitan processes and institutions and sectors. I really admire books based on detailed knowledge of the minutiae of different kinds of urban work: like Carol Willis’s Form Follows Finance on the design of skyscrapers; or Robin Einhorn’s Property Rules, on the picayune details of taxation for street improvements in mid-nineteenth-century cities; or Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America, which draws a lot on postwar small-business advertising. Books like these start from everyday decisions that people make at their desks or work stations, but they also open outward in ways that tell us about the entire city.

This past summer (a moment that feels so far away now), you published a powerful piece for Made By History at The Washington Post, in which you argue that conservative Republicans’ electoral appeals for “law and order” no longer resonate, now that “cities…have become far safer, economically vigorous, and socially vibrant.” Given all that has happened since June of 2020, could you expand upon this argument for us? Thinking more historically, I wonder how have the architecture and spatial practices of Latinos in the city undercut appeals to “law and order”? 

From his candidacy, through his presidency, and after (including his CPAC speech on Sunday), Trump constantly described American cities as crime-ridden and desolate. His imagined ongoing urban crisis did two kinds of ideological work for him. First, it recalled the long peak of that crisis from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s because the GOP held the White House almost continuously in those years. Second, it comforted Trump’s rural and exurban base, who wanted reassurance that their part of America was the virtuous one, after two decades in which job growth was heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas.

Trump attempted to convert the overwhelmingly urban anti-police brutality protests that followed the murder of George Floyd into political capital by recasting them into a renewed urban crisis in the white imagination. But as I argued in that Washington Post piece, he failed to do so because most people didn’t fear cities in the way they had 30 to 50 years ago.

But conservatives can’t let that racialized image or those demonstrations go—so in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection, they’ve attempted to both-sides an attempted coup by deliberately misremembering those demonstrations—recasting them not as protests, but as urban riots, with the word “urban” used with its “where nonwhites live” connotation.

As far as the role of Latino urban revitalization in undercutting appeals to “law and order,” honestly I don’t think the American electorate thinks a lot about Latino urbanism. What most people did understand (at least before the coronavirus) was not being reflexively afraid to go out into the city streets. And for the well-populated ranks of gentrifiers, they’ve been all too happy to move into Latino barrios and other urban neighborhoods!

Click on the play arrow, below, to listen to A. K. Sandoval-Strausz discuss these topics in greater detail.

[1] The Metropole published a piece by Domenic Vitiello based on this research entitled “Sanctuary and The City.”

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