latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
ow do we measure the impacts of social movement activism? This is the fundamental question underpinning Juan Herrera’s innovative, carefully argued, and elegantly written study of Chicano movement activism and its legacies in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. In the U.S. context, a social movement’s success or failure is often measured by its legislative and policy impact – the new laws, protections, or programs that activists and organizations helped to secure. In Cartographic Memory, Herrera argues for a different way of measuring social movements’ impact – one that prioritizes how they produced urban landscapes through the brick-and-mortar achievements of community organizations, as well as the networks of support, solidarity, and care that those sites and landscapes continue to facilitate.
Looking at a movement’s legacy in this spatially grounded way has several important implications, not least of which is to extend the temporal bounds of the Chicano Movement (and, by extension, other social movements from that period). If we take Herrera’s argument seriously – and I think we should – then the Chicano movement did not decline in the mid-1970s, as is usually assumed. Rather, the movement indelibly transformed the Fruitvale’s built environment and social networks in ways that remain meaningful to this day – even, or perhaps especially, as the neighborhood faces new rounds of corporate investment, gentrification, and threatened or actualized displacement. Indeed, in the context of these threats, we can appreciate the movement’s successes and continuing strengths even more, since, as Herrera argues, “holding onto space over time is important and requires a tremendous amount of work” (26). Herrera’s place-based perspective on el movimiento also honors the community caring labor of women, elders, and young people who were less famous on the national scale, but whose daily work quite literally built the movement’s robust infrastructure. Finally, a focus on the movement’s production of space creates greater awareness of the nuanced relationships between activists, organizations, and initiatives with different ideologies. Scholarship in Chicanx and Latinx studies increasingly emphasizes that the ideological differences between “radical,” “reformist,” and “conservative” organizations are too often overblown. Herrera offers a spatial explanation for why this is the case: groups often shared offices and organizing space within the same buildings, on the same streets, or along the same intersections. Spatial proximity and intersecting spatial trajectories meant that the strategies and ideologies of diverse groups were mutually constituting rather than necessarily clashing.
Herrera’s study is based on six years of ethnographic fieldwork in Fruitvale, including volunteer work and membership on the board of the Street Level Health Project (a free health clinic and community resource center used primarily by recently arrived immigrants), as well as dozens of oral history interviews he conducted with movement elders, and archival research that documents the policy contexts of their work. As a key finding, the aging activists Herrera interviewed tended to remember their activism in explicitly spatial terms, pointing to a school or childcare center as evidence of their success, for example. To account for the deeply place-based nature of these recollections, Herrera develops the concept of “cartographic memory,” which he defines as “a practice activists deployed and a framework for understanding how leaders defined their activities through the invocation and graphing of space” (14). Importantly, these cartographic memories are not straightforward representations of history. Interviewees sometimes had difficulty remembering where things happened, and their memories – like virtually all memories – were sometimes inaccurate, incomplete, or conflicted each other. Cartographic memory thus does not accurately map the past; rather, Herrera argues that it is a selective mapping that emphasizes and elevates the contributions of certain groups (Chicana/o activists, women, children), while making others less visible. It is an explicitly political, and necessarily partial, rendering of place.
So too is Herrera’s own analysis. In the acknowledgements, Herrera describes the book as his “love letter to the Bay Area,” a place that nurtured his intellect, activism, and social networks while he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Yet Herrera also reflects on how encounters in Fruitvale changed his geographical understandings of ethnicity, race, and place. As he recounts in the book’s introduction, he first approached Fruitvale as a typical ethnic enclave that presumably expressed a naturalized, “authentic” Latino culture. However, through his scholar-activism he came to understand Fruitvale quite differently – as a politicized place actively produced through long histories of struggle that were always mobilized in connection with other movements and that continued to reverberate in the landscape and in cartographic memories. Following the conceptions of space articulated by Massey (2005), one of Herrera’s primary objectives is thus to show how Fruitvale was produced through dynamic constellations of multiple, intersecting time-space trajectories.
The book’s organization smartly reflects this dynamic, multiscalar, and networked conception of space. Chapter 1 documents the localized, place-based memories of aging Chicano movement activists in reference to the buildings, neighborhood improvement projects, and spatial actions they created in Fruitvale during the 1960s and ‘70s. Drawing extensively from Herrera’s oral histories, in many ways this chapter is the heart of the book. But from here, subsequent chapters spiral both earlier and later in time, and then outward to other geographies, showing the ways that activism in Fruitvale always existed in relationship to struggles elsewhere. Chapter 2 historicizes the emergence of Fruitvale’s Chicano Movement within activist and governmental trajectories initiated two decades earlier, including other social movements (the civil rights movement, the farmworkers movement in nearby central California, and the Black Panther Party, also in Oakland), but also new federal antipoverty programs, especially the Community Action Program (CAP) established by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. In this context, Herrera argues, Mexican Americans in Fruitvale sought to show they were equally deserving of civil rights and antipoverty resources as African Americans. Led by the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, which consolidated disparate groups and established itself as the sole recipient of federal funding, Mexican American community leaders ultimately “rendered Oakland’s Spanish speaking community legible as rights-bearing subjects and positioned the organizations they created as their stewards” (63).
Chapter 3 then traces the Spanish Speaking Unity Council’s institutionalization in the 1970s through its funding relationships with the Ford Foundation and the Southwest Council of La Raza (now the National Council of La Raza), one of the first Mexican American nonprofit organizations established specifically to provide fiscal and administrative support to Chicano movement organizations. Tracing these organizational and financial connections takes Herrera, and thus the reader, to far-flung places including New York City and San Antonio, Texas. Chapter 4 brings the story back to Oakland through analysis of the Fruitvale Transit Village, a mixed-use hub of social and cultural services centered on a rapid-transit station that was completed in 1999. The Transit Village was the crown jewel of the Spanish Speaking Unity Council’s decades of work on “hard programs” – the built environment and community development projects privileged by philanthropic and federal funding – but it also rested on the commodification of Latinx culture (for example, in the use of Mission-style architecture) and is confounded by the site’s notoriety as the place where 22-year-old Black man Oscar Grant was killed by Bay area transit police in 2009. As a site of Black death, resistance, and Latino vitality simultaneously, Herrera argues that “Fruitvale Village shows the contradictions of the institutionalization of grassroots activism” (142). This site also illustrates well the entanglement of multiple historical and spatial trajectories that is at the core of Herrera’s analysis.
Chapter 5, appropriately titled “Mapping Interlinkages,” moves beyond the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, which dominated Chicano movement activism in Fruitvale during the 1960s and ‘70s, to document other short-lived and sometimes ephemeral organizations and actions. For example, Fruitvale activists supported the United Farm Workers’ strikes and boycotts in California’s Central Valley, and they helped print and distribute books and other educational materials used by the first Chicano Studies departments at California state universities. They also supported regional and national movement activism, for example through the establishment of the Comité de México y Aztlán (COMEXAZ), a news service and reporting agency that collected movement news from across the U.S. Southwest. All this labor occurred in private homes and garages, church basements, university classrooms, and other vernacular spaces across Oakland – places not necessarily visibly associated with the Chicano Movement, but certainly inscribed in activists’ cartographic memories.
In addition to its engagement with geographic theories of space, especially the work of Doreen Massey, Cartographic Memory is in direct conversation with the interdisciplinary field of Chicanx and Latinx studies (including the emergent field of Latinx Geographies), as well as interdisciplinary studies of social movements. Sociological and historical studies of social movements have tended to focus on matters such as the discursive framing of issues, or the political factors that facilitate or inhibit their success in political arenas, but with little attention to their spatiality. As for Chicano Studies, since the field’s establishment in the late 1960s, numerous scholars have documented the Movement’s leaders, collective actions, internal tensions, and connections to global anti-imperialist struggles, among other topics. However, while some important studies within this tradition examine how local and regional geographies affected the form of movement activism (e.g. Pulido, 2006; Barraclough 2019), none of these studies examines in detail the ways in which the Movement itself transformed geography, as Herrera does. Additionally, Chicano Studies has largely focused on cities and towns elsewhere in the U.S. Southwest (such as Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Denver), or the rural, agricultural areas of central California or south Texas. Oakland has been almost completely neglected, perhaps because of the Bay Area’s greater association with Black protest movements, Asian American migration and urban politics, or distinct histories of industry and manufacturing. Thus, in these two ways – its analysis of the movement’s dynamic production of space, and in its focus on Oakland – Cartographic Memory is a signal achievement. It should be read alongside other perspectival analyses of Oakland including historical studies of white racism, labor, and the Black freedom struggle in Oakland (Self, 2003); recent work on the tech economy, gentrification, displacement, and resistance (e.g. McElroy and Werth, 2019; Ramírez, 2019, 2020; Walker, 2018); or regional studies on the importance of everyday geographies to power relations in the San Francisco Bay area (Brahinsky and Tarr, 2020), to name just a few possibilities.
Cartographic Memory raises several provocative questions for future research or in classrooms where the book is sure to be read and debated. First, Herrera’s study investigates the movement’s production of space at a particular conjuncture: deindustrialization and white flight had wracked the urban neighborhoods where many Chicanxs lived, and governmental and philanthropic policy emphasized investments in the built environment to be shepherded by non-profit organizations. We are no longer living at that conjuncture, and policy emphasis has arguable shifted to imperatives that are less explicitly spatial. Thus, how should we apply Herrera’s concept of cartographic memory and his arguments about the spatial legacies of movements to those that have come later and do not focus explicitly on neighborhood-level transformations? Second, Fruitvale’s enduring significance as a politicized space of Chicano movement activity was made possible by the fact that aging activists and their descendants, with all their memories, have been able to stay put in Fruitvale, despite the pressures of gentrification wrought by major tech companies. Herrera’s study thus reminds us that what is at stake in gentrification processes is not only the demolition or conversion of existing building stock struggle, nor the struggle to retain affordable housing and a sense of belonging for working-class people, but also the cartographic memories of past social struggles. How then does cartographic memory shift when activists and their memories are displaced? And how do we ethically document and theorize the violence done to cartographic memory as part of our analyses of urban political and economic transformation? These are just some of the many important questions raised by this important book.
Barraclough L (2019) Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Brahinsky R and Tarr A (2020) A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Massey D (2005) For Space. London: Sage Publishing.
McElroy E and Werth A (2019) Deracinated Dispossessions: On the Foreclosures of Gentrification in Oakland, California. Antipode 51(3): 878-898.
Pulido L (2006) Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ramírez, MM (2019) City as Borderland: Gentrification and the Policing of Black & Latinx Geographies in Oakland. Environment & Planning D: Society and Space 38(1): 147-166.
Ramírez, MM (2020) Take the houses back/Take the land back: Black and Indigenous urban futures in Oakland. Urban Geography 41(5): 682-693.
Self R (2003) American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. Princeton University Press.
Walker R (2018) Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area. Oakland: PM Press.
Laura Barraclough (she/her/hers) is Professor of American Studies at Yale University. Her research examines the historical geographies of race, migration, and colonialism, especially in California and the U.S. West.