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New research examines how second-generation immigrants assimilate into rough urban environments.

Sociologists have questioned how immigrants acclimate to, and are affected by, poor neighborhoods in American cities. Previous theories have suggested that second-generation immigrants assimilate into rough urban environments by picking up on negative behaviors of groups that have lived there for relatively longer periods, or by reacting to discrimination from whites outside the neighborhood.

But a new qualitative study, published in the upcoming issue of Ethnicities, finds that Latino immigrants don't necessarily assimilate in the ways outlined above. Segregation and social isolation in Hispanic immigrant-heavy neighborhoods can force young residents to define themselves using their parents and Latino peers as points of reference—rather than other racial groups within or outside the neighborhood.

This means that while poverty in these populations may be driving urban problems, such as crime and delinquency, the acculturation process probably isn't responsible for them, explains Maria Rendon, the author of the study.

Rendon, a sociology and planning professor at the University of California at Irvine, focused on two L.A. neighborhoods: Peublo Viejo (predominantly a Mexican immigrant locale) and Central City (inhabited by Latino immigrants and African Americans). The two neighborhoods are similar with respect of socioeconomic indicators, such as median household income and rate of male unemployment.

Rendon recruited 21 young men between the ages of 17 and 23 from each neighborhood and conducted in-depth interviews with them over a year. These study participants spent little time outside their segregated neighborhoods and had limited interactions with white people, and so they didn't define themselves in opposition to them—as one of the previous theories held.

"What [extreme segregation] does is that it doesn't allow this group to form their identity in relation to whites or the mainstream, but rather they're forming their identity in relation to each other," says Rendon. A 19-year-old Latino man quoted in Rendon's report, for example, identified strongly with where his parents came from:

I consider myself Mexican in my heart. I feel my soul is Mexican. But many people ask me, ‘How are you going to feel that way if you’ve never been there? You didn’t grow up there. You don’t know the lifestyle. You don’t even know a Mexican street. How?’ They don’t understand ... I know Mexico through my parents.

On the other hand, neighborhoods such as Central City—where African Americans also reside—are "contested spaces," says Rendon. Problems in these areas, like crime and violence, are often blamed on the other racial group, she explains. The presence and the perception of the other group leads second-generation Latino immigrants to "draw boundaries" around themselves, Rendon argues. In doing so, they tend to highlight their own cultural identities, instead of picking up on the other group's negative behavior.

"Instead of a blurring of identities, we see more a brightening of identities," she says.

Rendon's research is qualitative, so we cannot generalize the findings for all Latino immigrants living in American cities. But her interviews show how spatial constraints nudge children of Latino immigrants to create a diverse array of cultural identities among themselves, she says. The young men in these highly-segregated locales are not homogenous (contrary to popular belief), and the cultural dynamics within these inner-city neighborhoods are ripe for further research, she says.

"There's a lot going on in central cities ... that we don't seriously consider," Rendon says.

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