Barrios are urban neighborhoods within the United States that have a high concentration of Hispanics, variably identified as Latinos, Hispanos, Mexicans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, or other nationalities from Central and Latin American. These neighborhoods often have deep emotional and cultural meanings for those who live there, for they are places where families and friends share both the positive and negative experiences of growing up Latino in the United States. Individuals often have a strong identification with their barrio, a pride in being from this place and of knowing other people from the barrio. It is a place where the inhabitants can be themselves, speak Spanish, conduct business, and generally feel accepted by others. It also serves at times as a refuge for poor and marginalized people who have been affected by the consequences of poverty, segregation, and discrimination. The barrio, then, is a both a place of familial and cultural identification and a place where there is often an experience of crime, poverty, and racism. Many barrios are characterized as having poor housing, bad schools, gangs, police harassment, and illicit drugs. Nevertheless, the Latinos who live there often feel a pride in being “from the barrio.”
Perhaps the first barrio within the United States was the Tlasclalan barrio of Analaco, located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This barrio was inhabited by the Mexican Indian servants and slaves who accompanied the Spanish settlers to New Mexico in 1598. After 1848 many barrios grew up within Southwestern cities as the result of the Anglo-American military conquest. Sometimes, as in the case of Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Tucson, the Mexican barrio grew out of the historic pueblo or town where the Mexicans had always lived. As Anglo-Americans came to predominate in these areas, they surrounded and isolated the barrios, which became segregated areas where Mexican workers and their families were expected to live.
Before World War II, the mining towns of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado were strictly segregated, with the Mexican miners being restricted to the less favorable part of town, where they were forced to live by the mining company who owned the dwellings. By custom, and sometimes by regulation, Mexican residents were expected to stay on their side of the town. In the agricultural towns of California and Texas, Mexican farm workers and their families were often segregated by having to live “on the other side of the tracks” in dilapidated housing. In the late nineteenth century, white Americans developed a culture of segregation with respect to African Americans, and they often applied this to dark-skinned Mexicans, who were also segregated to prevent mixing with whites in public places such as movie halls, schools, parks, “plunges” (swimming pools), barber shops, churches, and the like. Almost everywhere in the Southwest before World War II, ethnic Mexicans were segregated in public schools, public facilities, and housing.
As a result of this segregation, Latinos developed their own ways of surviving, fashioning a culture that relied on family and cultural relationships within the barrio. They formed social, political, and cultural groups, and mutual aid societies sprang up in the barrios to provide emergency relief for those who were unemployed or to pay for funeral expenses of loved ones. The barrio was also the place where Mexican musicians, singers, dancers, and performers could find an eager audience. Local restaurants, owned and operated by barrio residents, catered to Mexican and local tastes. In southern Texas, especially before World War II, the barrio was the political base of many aspiring Tejano leaders who managed to achieve modest electoral successes because of the voter concentrations in the barrio.
Barrios emerged outside of the traditional Southwest as different groups from Latin America immigrated to the United States. Puerto Rican immigrants established urban barrios in New York City, and especially in Brooklyn, following World War II. Over the years their barrios have grown in size, mixing with other urban poor, particularly African-American and Afro-Caribbean immigrants in central Brooklyn. Puerto Rican immigrants also found their way to south Chicago, where they lived in barrios along with Mexican immigrant working-class families. The Puerto Rican barrios, whether in New York or Chicago, remain vital communities in the early twenty-first century, and new immigrants from Puerto Rico still go there to find jobs, housing, and a familiar culture. As the numbers of poor urban residents increase, however, so do the accompanying problems of family stress, illicit drugs, underemployment, and school dropout rates.
Cuban immigrants to the United States came in great numbers after the end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Encouraged by the U.S. government and given special assistance, the Cuban enclave established itself primarily in Miami, Florida, living in several barrios. Because of the large number of educated, middle-class Cuban immigrants who were assisted by the U.S. government because they were anticommunist, the barrios developed into a launching pad for economic success and political achievement. Within their barrios, the Cubans have an extremely high sense of cohesion and unity. Spanish is spoken by rich and poor alike, and family solidarity and assistance is high. Involvement in local, state, and national politics is the norm, and Cubans have a high rate of graduation from secondary schools and colleges. There are also poor Cuban and other Caribbean immigrants in the barrios, and they provide the low-wage laborers for Cuban-controlled businesses.
The most important Hispanic barrios, in terms of numbers and visibility, are those in Los Angeles and San Antonio, where the majority are of Mexican descent. According to the 2000 census, Los Angeles had a Latino population of 1.7 million. Not all of these individuals live in barrios, however. A large number live in suburban enclaves mixed with other groups and nationalities. The historic Mexican barrios of Los Angeles, located in East Los Angeles, have been followed by newer ones emerging further east. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America has been a major factor in changing barrio life, renewing language and culture even as older barrio residents move out. As noted by Joan Moore and Raquel Pinderhughes (1993), the trend has been toward increased political participation and a decline of community-based organizations. Family ties and loyalties are still important for linking barrio residents to those who have moved out. The barrio merchants, schools, churches, theaters, and restaurants reflect a revitalization of a metropolis. At the same time, gang violence and crime remain a constant reality of life in the barrios.
During the civil wars in Central American republics in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants came to Los Angeles. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was estimated that more than 500,000 of these individuals lived in barrios located in the central and south central part of the city. Of necessity, the Central American communities are mixed with other nationalities and groups. Whites, Mexicanos, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, African Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other immigrant groups vie for inexpensive housing and jobs within the regions of heavy Central American residence, such as Pico Union, the Westlake District, and Watts. Despite a high crime rate, gangs, and drug dealing, the Central Americans have revitalized the decaying inner-city neighborhoods that have become their barrio. Churches, social action agencies, schools, and political organizations are working to meet the community’s special needs.
According to the 2000 census, 60 percent of San Antonio’s population is Latino, mostly of Mexican descent. This means that these barrios, some historic and some relatively new, predominate in city life. San Antonio’s urban problems are the problems of the barrios: Poverty, crime, inadequate housing, and bad schooling are all on the agendas of the local politicians and numerous community agencies. City life remains vibrant in places, attracting tourists who enjoy the Mexican flavor and ambiance. San Antonio’s older barrios, particularly the Westside, have a long history going back to the nineteenth century. The economic, cultural, and political elite of the city have come from its barrios. While Mexican immigration to San Antonio’s barrios continues, it is not a major cause of the city’s growing Latino population. The rising birth rate is. The barrios have experienced a general population growth, and they have a strong tradition of family and community leadership. The barrios are responsible for a growing Tejano music industry as well as a thriving Spanish-language media industry.
The diversity of the Hispanic condition in the United States must be considered when thinking about the word barrio. There are barrios with histories going back 300 years (Albuquerque); there are barrios where Latinos live with African-American, Central-American, and Asian neighbors. Some Cuban barrios reflect an affluence that one would not encounter in Spanish Harlem in New York. In most barrios, a degree of urban decay and lawlessness is mixed with a vibrant, hopeful, and confident rebirth of cosmopolitan life. Ancient traditions from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean mix with modern technology and behavior. The barrio in the United States has become a metaphor for the future of urban life: a fast paced, multilingual and cultural experiment that offers creativity mixed with challenges.
Moore, Joan. 1991. Going Down to the Barrio: Homeboys and Homegirls in Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
———, and Raquel Pinderhughes. 1993. In the Barrios: Latinos and the Underclass Debate. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Morales, Julio. 1986. Puerto Rican Poverty and Migration: We Just Had to Try Elsewhere. New York: Praeger.
Orfield, Gary. 1988. Latinos in Metropolitan Chicago: A Study of Housing and Employment. Monograph No. 6. Chicago: Latino Institute.
Portes, Alejandro, and Alan Stepick. 1993. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Romo, Ricardo. 1983. East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Richard Griswold del Castillo
bar·ri·o / ˈbärēˌō/ • n. (pl. -os) a district of a town in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. ∎ (in the U.S.) the Spanish-speaking quarter of a town or city. ∎ a poor neighborhood populated by Spanish-speaking people.