Working the Boundaries

Race, Space, and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago

Working the Boundaries

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: Published: October 2005

American Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Chicanx and Latinx Studies

While Chicago has the second-largest Mexican population among U.S. cities, relatively little ethnographic attention has focused on its Mexican community. This much-needed ethnography of Mexicans living and working in Chicago examines processes of racialization, labor subordination, and class formation; the politics of nativism; and the structures of citizenship and immigration law. Nicholas De Genova develops a theory of “Mexican Chicago” as a transnational social and geographic space that joins Chicago to innumerable communities throughout Mexico. “Mexican Chicago” is a powerful analytical tool, a challenge to the way that social scientists have thought about immigration and pluralism in the United States, and the basis for a wide-ranging critique of U.S. notions of race, national identity, and citizenship.

De Genova worked for two and a half years as a teacher of English in ten industrial workplaces (primarily metal-fabricating factories) throughout Chicago and its suburbs. In Working the Boundaries he draws on fieldwork conducted in these factories, in community centers, and in the homes and neighborhoods of Mexican migrants. He describes how the meaning of “Mexican” is refigured and racialized in relation to a U.S. social order dominated by a black-white binary. Delving into immigration law, he contends that immigration policies have worked over time to produce Mexicans as the U.S. nation-state’s iconic “illegal aliens.” He explains how the constant threat of deportation is used to keep Mexican workers in line. Working the Boundaries is a major contribution to theories of race and transnationalism and a scathing indictment of U.S. labor and citizenship policies.


Working the Boundaries is a timely book that will likely make waves in a number of fields in the social sciences and the humanities.” — Peter Benson, Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“De Genova has produced a work that will serve as a model for future research. Working the Boundaries is a study that will help scholars to further frame questions about the connections between the state, racism, labor and capital migration, class relations, and borders.” — David R. Smith, Journal of American Ethnic History

“De Genova’s book provides a substantial contribution to the literature at a very timely moment in both American academia and society.” — Matthew Gritter, International Labor and Working-Class History

“Professor Genova is a rare scholar that provides groundbreaking theory and research, making it accessible, interesting, and enjoyable for the reader. In short, this new book provides challenging and thoughtful analyses for studying immigration.” — Lisa Magaña, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies

“This arresting work of anthropology, American studies and ethnic studies will be of great interest to historians of labor, of race, of transnationalism and empire, of cities and of migration. . . . A splendid, learned and spirited study, Working the Boundaries deserves the widest possible readership inside and outside of the academy.” — David Roediger, Journal of Social History

“Emphasizing a processual ethnographic approach that historicizes subjectivity, Working the Boundaries analyzes transnational migration, racialization, class struggle, and state repression expressed through ‘illegality’ toward Mexicans in late-twentieth-century Chicago. Nicholas De Genova vividly renders ‘Mexican Chicago,’ where social relations are simultaneously imbricated in the U.S. political project of regulating labor and immigration and Mexican workers’ immersion in regional economies and politics in Mexico. His at times provocative assessments of current scholarship will engender further clarity in research and policy discussions about Mexican migration, contributing to American studies, Chicana/o studies, and the ethnography of North America.” — Patricia Zavella, coeditor of Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader

“In this stunning ethnographic achievement, the Mexican workers of Chicago reinvent the city, the labor process, the United States, and ‘our America’ as a whole: a region that knows no borders. But at the same time the nation-state, the systems of law and politics, and their working lives confine and encumber them. Working the Boundaries shows how much agency and insight are built into the realities of immigration, how limited and self-defeating are the core politics of U.S. nationalism and racism, and how powerful a weapon ethnography can be in the fight for freedom and justice. Nicholas De Genova has produced a book of great insight and beauty. Highly recommended!” — Howard Winant, author of The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nicholas De Genova is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Latino Studies Program at Columbia University. He is a coauthor of Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Preface xv

Introduction: Working the Boundaries 1

I. Politics of Knowledge/Politics of Practice

1. Decolonizing Ethnography 13

2. The “Native’s Point of View”: Immigration and the Immigrant as Objects of U. S. Nationalism 56

3. Locating a Mexican Chicago in the Space of the U. S. Nation-State 95

II. Everyday Life: The Location of Politics

4. The Politics of Production 147

5. Reracialization: Between “Americans” and Blacks 167

III. Historicity: The Politics of Location

6. The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant “Illegality” 213

Conclusion 251

Notes 255

Bibliography 281

Index 311
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Finalist, 2005 C. Wright Mills Award, Society for the Study of Social Problems

Winner, 2006 Association for Latina and Latino Anthropologists Book Award

Winner, 2007 C.L. R. James Book Award, Working-Class Studies Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3615-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3626-6
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