by | Dec 29, 2003

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
So proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

—Carl Sandburg

A city can elevate or diminish life. Supplying playgrounds, restaurants, politics and museums, a city offers opportunities for growth to both the young and the old alike. Representing itself in art, architecture, transportation, and neighborhoods, cities declare what we value most in life. But are they good places to have a family, to raise children, to be educated and to develop a career? For me, Chicago became the place to explore such matters. Not because I live there; I never have. It is my profession as a social scientist that draws me to this massive “onion field,” or place of bad odors, as the Pottawattomie called it. In the 20th century, it stands out as being the most thoroughly understood city in the world. If it was London that taught us about cholera, industrialization and urban poverty in the 19th century, Chicago has been our mentor on migration, gangs and crime for the past 100 years.

Over the past decade, I have traveled to Chicago more than 150 times to conduct the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN). This project is studying children by directing special attention to the contribution that neighborhoods and schools make to children’s development. Over the course of these years, my reactions towards the city were slowly transformed. I had been warned that this big study would “blow-up in my face.” Citizens of Chicago were fed up with university professors and their graduate students asking questions, collecting data, and doing surveys. “What good does it ever bring us?” they asked. Hardly an ally during these the initial years, the City regarded me and my colleagues with great reserve, if not frank suspicion. Transparency and patience gradually changed that.

By 1997, some four years after starting the study, we discovered that the quality of life in a neighborhood does make a difference in the rates of violent crime. Through the collective agency of its residents, some communities, even poor neighborhoods, are able to maintain security while others experience notoriously high rates of homicide and robbery. Similar neighborhood characteristics are associated with reduced levels of infant mortality and favorable birth weight.

These findings are important because they support policies and actions directed to enhancing the human dimensions of urban life. However, the “color line” is deeply engraved in Chicago landscape. Segregation by race is a way of life. Because of this, there was understandable concern that neighborhood social conditions be understood apart from the composition of its residents. Poor African-American neighborhoods can have high levels of trust, reciprocity and activism despite their disadvantages just as middle class neighborhoods can have low levels of these attributes despite many having advantages. We knew less about Latino neighborhoods. We thought there might well be a “Latino line” but we knew fairly little about how rigidly defined it was.

In the mid-1990s, it started to become obvious that the large proportion of Latinos in our sample was not a statistical mistake. It was widely known that the 1990 U.S. Census produced an undercount of Latinos and African-Americans. But it was anybody’s guess as to how large of an error this had been. It was at this juncture that we were selecting a representative citywide sample of all children in Chicago. By the time we had interviewed the thousands of children and parents in this sample, a startling fact emerged. Latinos had become by far the largest ethnic group and the combination of Latinos and African-Americans was now a landslide majority. As my colleague Marcelo Suárez-Orozco reminded me recently, José has become the most common name given to newborn boys in Chicago.

Over the course of a century, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans had replaced the Poles and Germans. The very same neighborhoods that had been Polish were transformed into urban villages genuinely resembling the ambience of Mexico. A European-American dominance was exchanged for a preponderance of Hispanic-American culture.

All of this only gradually crystallized in my thinking. I realized that it was a chapter in the history of Chicago not yet written. Migration from rural Mexico had suddenly changed the social character of the city. Through the painting of murals and the rapid expansion of small, family run shops, the physical dimensions of neighborhoods were changing as well. An intensity of purpose prevails in these places. To be a part of this enormous City, to play a role, to earn enough money to send back to relatives in Mexico, to see one’s children go to college, to buy a home, to retire with security; these are some of motives that vitalize life in the most recent Chicago. The personal industry and collective intent characterizing these immigrant areas are largely absent from many other communities in the city.

It is this setting that reveals what has been termed the “epidemiological paradox” in public health parlance. It is well established that poverty, characterized by low income, poor housing, and insecure neighborhoods, impacts a wide range of health conditions, including infant mortality, low birth weight, homicide and suicide, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Cutting across such a diverse set of adversities, the paradox reveals surprisingly good health among Latinos. It is as if there is something about being Latino that protects them from the ill effects of poverty.

On closer inspection, this is not true for all Latinos but those who are recent immigrants. Since more than 80% of Mexicans in this Chicago sample were either first or second-generation immigrants, our findings are weighted towards families who are adjusting to life in a big American city. The longer the interval over which a Mexican descendent can trace her family’s emigration to the U.S., the poorer is this person’s health. First generation Mexicans have better health than those do in the second generation. By the third generation Mexican-Americans have a health status that is more closely aligned with the expected income and social class gradients for other Americans. It is as if the transition from being an immigrant to becoming a citizen is taxed with a decline in health and well-being.

How do social scientists explain this? The paradox is typically regarded as an instance of acculturation, defined as a process of accommodating to the host culture while maintaining an alliance to habits and traditions of the sending culture. The primary explanation of the acculturation process conceives of it as reflecting roots in a tradition of strong extended family. Since most Mexican immigrants settle in the same neighborhoods, cultural norms introduced in the family may also be more resistant in areas of concentrated immigration.

A second type of explanation challenges the notion of acculturation by suggesting that immigrants gradually become absorbed in American society. Any Mexican who continues to celebrate traditional holidays can still be considered somewhat acculturated, and there is a point at which the host culture overrides the sending culture. Becoming naturalized represented such a threshold for European-Americans at the turn of the 19th century. If this explanation applies to the current immigration experience, then the assumption that a “toxic” element exists in U.S. society and is responsible for the deteriorating health of immigrants across the generations is misguided.

The resolution of the paradox may be registered in the “healthy immigrant effect.” The motivation, energy and determination it takes to voluntarily leave one’s country of origin inherently “selects” the healthiest candidates. This first generation effect distinguishes persons who have successfully emigrated from at least three other groups: those who could have left but chose not to; those who tried to leave, but were unsuccessful; and those who made the journey but returned shortly after arriving.

Although the literature on the paradox of acculturation is growing, there exists little information on the process of selection. This is true of the Chicago study as well as many other social science projects. At the beginning of the 1990s we did not anticipate having a sample that was almost half Hispanic. Our interviews did not provide sufficient coverage of the kinds of questions that would help us understand the challenges and choices immigrants make. It was as if we were looking backwards into the demographics of the 20th century and not ahead to the 21st century.

But all is not lost. Chicago remains in a good position to mark the transition in urban life that marks the beginning of a new century. The City has a new spirit of industriousness among adult immigrants and a seriousness of purpose among many Latino children. No doubt new poets, architects, athletes and politicians will come forth to redefine and redirect American optimism in Latin terms. For social scientists like me, Chicago remains the place to be. As Richard Wright once said, “Chicago is the known city: more is known about how it runs, how it kills, how it loves, steals, helps, gives, cheats and crushes than any other city in the world.” How it deals with Mexican immigrants will soon be known. Scientists, artists and politicians must be prepared to capture this story.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2
Felton Earls is a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. While anchored in Chicago, his interests in charting the well-being of children have led him to conduct research in many cities throughout the world.

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