Latino Studies The Latino Middle Class
Jody Agius Vallejo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0120


Latinos are an important and consequential group in American society, but the majority of scholarship and media coverage on Latinos concentrates on the poor, unauthorized, and uneducated segments of the population, rendering the Latino middle class nearly invisible in both research and public perception. Though the Latino population is composed of numerous different national-origin groups with unique immigrant histories and settlement processes, the majority of Latino immigrants in the United States hail from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, with nearly two-thirds having Mexican roots. These migrants generally arrive with relatively low levels of human capital, and just over half are unauthorized, placing many Latino immigrants and their children in an economically marginalized position. In addition, Latinos in the United States face a negative social context where they are criminalized and racialized. These factors have led observers to fear that the nation’s largest minority group will not integrate into the middle class and will instead become mired in poverty or stuck in the working class. Despite these concerns, recent research has validated the class heterogeneity within the Latino population and demonstrated that Latinos have established a presence in the American middle class via higher education, employment in professional occupations, and entrepreneurship. Scholars do not agree on a clear definition of the fabled American idea of the middle class; however, researchers use various indicators independently or in combination to define middle-class status, including earning an income over the national median; employment in a white-collar occupation; and having a college degree, net worth, and home ownership. Relatively little literature examining the Latino middle class exists, but the foci is growing, the majority of which observes Mexican Americans because they are the largest Latino ethnic group with a long historical presence in the United States. Research concentrating on middle-class Latinos seeks to understand whether they shed their ethnic identities and integrate into the white middle class, as predicted by classical assimilation scholars, or whether they experience challenges related to their class, gender, race, and ethnicity that provide evidence of new patterns of integration into the middle class. Scholars also investigate the mechanisms that foster Latinos’ social and economic mobility into the middle class, as a significant proportion of middle-class Latinos are socially mobile and hail from lower-income or working-class families. Other areas of inquiry include analyzing middle-class Latinos’ experiences in white-collar professions and entrepreneurship. In all, studies of middle-class Latinos are critical to understanding how the early 21st century’s largest racial/ethnic is integrating into the United States’ core social structures as they climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Historical and Contemporary Overviews

Several texts and articles, the majority of which focus on Mexican Americans, provide context to understanding the middle class. Concentrating on San Antonio, Texas, between 1929 and 1941, Garcia 1992 shows how a generation of Mexican immigrants moved away from Mexico-focused elites to forge a new identity, and assimilationist political organizations, as middle-class Mexican Americans. In contrast, Sanchez 1993 demonstrates that the early origins of the middle class in Los Angeles remained dedicated to political causes in Mexico. While these works establish the historical presence of a Mexican American middle class, literatures beyond history generally overlooked the middle class and concentrated on the poor, uneducated, and unauthorized segments of the population, with two exceptions. First, in a groundbreaking early sociological analysis of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and San Antonio, Grebler, et al. 1970 touches briefly on the middle-class experience. A more recent body of literature concentrates on successful Cuban entrepreneurs in Miami (see Portes and Bach 1985), but scholars viewed Cubans as exceptional cases for success because of the confluence of their premigration characteristics and a supportive ethnic enclave. It was not until recently that scholars began to pay attention to the Latino middle class. Early reports such as Bean, et al. 2001 and Clark 2003 attempted to challenge the stereotype of Latino socioeconomic stagnation by providing basic demographic portraits of the emerging middle class in a national context. Researchers have also used nationally representative data to document the emerging Latino middle class in specific geographical regions. Rodriguez 1996 analyzes 1980 and 1990 US Census Public Use Micro Data to establish the existence of a Latino middle class in Southern California. Telles and Ortiz 2008 revisit the respondents investigated in Grebler, et al. 1970, to investigate how the integration of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and San Antonio has evolved, and briefly touch on the middle class. More recently, works such as Agius Vallejo 2012, Jimenez 2010, and Vasquez 2011 have concentrated on examining the integration trajectories and experiences of the Mexican American middle class.

  • Agius Vallejo, Jody. Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

    Examines middle-class Mexican Americans from both poor and middle-class households to unearth the mechanisms that facilitate social and economic mobility into the middle class, such as educational tracking and parental legal status. Agius Vallejo also examines specific indicators of integration, including racial/ethnic identification, interethnic relations, financial obligations to coethnics, and civic participation. She demonstrates that middle-class Mexican Americans follow a range of integration patterns depending on their class background.

  • Bean, Frank, Stephen J. Trejo, Randy Capps, and Michael Taylor. The Latino Middle Class: Myth, Reality, Potential. Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 2001.

    This early report on the Latino middle class analyzes trends of economic progress among Latinos while also highlighting that substantial economic gaps remain between Latinos and native-born whites.

  • Clark, William A. V. Immigrants and the American Dream: Remaking the Middle Class. New York: Guilford, 2003.

    Examines the extent to which immigrants are attaining the traditional markers of middle-class status, such as homeownership, occupational mobility, and income, by considering the relationship between country of origin, immigrant entry status, period of arrival, and settlement region.

  • Garcia, Richard. Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class: San Antonio, 1929–1941. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992.

    Provides an in-depth historical examination of the rise of San Antonio’s Mexican American middle class and their efforts to assimilate economically and politically while remaining culturally Mexican.

  • Grebler, Leo, Joan W. Moore, and Ralph C. Guzman. The Mexican-American People: The Nation’s Second Largest Minority. New York: Free Press, 1970.

    The first comprehensive sociological study of the Mexican American population, this book examines socioeconomic and cultural outcomes among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and San Antonio and incorporates a small but noteworthy analysis of residential patterns and social relations of the Mexican American middle class.

  • Jimenez, Tomas. Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

    Jimenez investigates the lives of later-generation middle-class Mexican Americans and demonstrates that a constant influx of immigrant arrivals, what he refers to as immigrant replenishment, refreshes the salience of ethnicity in everyday life, preventing the development of a symbolic and inconsequential racial/ethnic identification.

  • Portes, Alejandro, and Robert L. Bach. Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

    Portes and Bach argue that the economic success of Cubans in Miami is due to the establishment of a supportive ethnic enclave that relies on ethnicity as a basis for social action and socioeconomic integration.

  • Rodriguez, Gregory. The Emerging Latino Middle Class. Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University Institute for Public Policy, 1996.

    This report is one of the first attempts to demonstrate the existence of a contemporary Latino middle class. Rodriguez attempts to define who is middle class and analyzes specific socioeconomic indicators associated with this definition.

  • Sanchez, George. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Sanchez shows how Mexican immigrant sojourners adapted to Los Angeles, laying the foundation for a Mexican American identity among their children and a struggle for group rights.

  • Telles, Edward, and Vilma Ortiz. Generations of Exclusion: Mexican-Americans, Assimilation, and Race. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008.

    Telles and Ortiz located and reinterviewed the original respondents of the Grebler, et al. 1970 study and investigated numerous measures of integration, including intermarriage, residential segregation, educational attainment, political participation, and ethnic identification.

  • Vasquez, Jessica. Mexican Americans across Generations: Immigrant Families, Racial Realities. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

    Uses in-depth interviews with three generations of middle-class Mexican American families to examine how racial identities change and persist generationally, leading to varying patterns of assimilation.

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