Andrea FloresFeb 28, 2022
How Immigrant Youth Are Transforming What It Means to Belong in America
University of California Press 2021
Dr. Andrea Flores’ most recent book, The Succeeders: How Immigrant Youth Are Transforming What It Means to Belong in America (University of California Press, 2021), is a detailed account of how immigrant youth in Nashville, Tennessee negotiated the stakes of academic achievement by reproducing terms of belonging while at the same time recasting what it means to belong in the United States. By focusing on a nonprofit college access program for Latino youth from which the title of the book is derived, Flores argues that Succeeders’ educational achievements were viewed “as positive moral proof against deficit constructions of Latinos while also maintaining a link to educación’s [emphasis in original] personal, cultural, and familial value” (16). The hybridity of assigning moral value to book learning while also hinging their striving to familial networks is what Flores believes to be critical to the Succeeders’ perception of self. By offering a radically different route to belonging through the vehicle of family and care, the Succeeders hoped to earn not just their own national membership, but also the membership of those near and dear.
Flores conducted ethnographic research for twelve months while also serving as a volunteer for the Succeeders program of southern Nashville across four campuses for the academic year 2012 - 2013. She observed effective communication skits, field trips, organizational meetings, community service activities, musical performances, athletic games, scholarship selection committees, and graduation ceremonies to best understand the lived experiences of Succeeders within and outside of their educational institutions. Flores also conducted thirty-one semistructured interviews with Succeeders whose families were primarily from Mexican and Central America. Further, half of the interviews included undocumented youth, and students from all levels of academic achievement were selected. Strategic selecting of Succeeders allowed Flores to examine how students across a variety of academic preparations and immigrant backgrounds perceived themselves within larger conceptions of Latindidad and educational achievement. Interviews with the program’s leaders, teachers, and admissions officers revealed the internal dialogues of those most tasked with the Succeeders’ success. A robust textual archive in the form of college admissions handouts, college entrance essays, and Succeeders curricular materials were collected by the author. These mixed methods allowed Flores to provide detailed and rich accounts of how Latino youth navigated the college application process, the end of high school, and their personal lives.
Parts II and III take up most of the book. In Part II, “Leaning to Belong,” Dr. Flores reveals that Succeeders’ negative perceptions of Latindad, and the U.S. as a success-based society, formed the basis for why Latino youth sought to strive (Chapters 2 & 3). However, striving also reinforced Latino respectability politics. Flores writes, “As [Succeeders] strove to distinguish themselves as proper Latinos, these efforts also illustrated how those most vulnerable to exclusion from belonging can reinforce its limited terms” (64). The border between “proper” and “improper” Latinos divided the Succeeders’ educational exceptionalism from those who did not take school seriously, from those who spoke in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and from those who were undocumented and uninspired. Flores coins the term moral minority to describe a person who “conforms to U.S.-specific assumptions regarding how ‘good,’ and therefore successful, minorities behave and act” (84). By attributing themselves as having both the morality and mentality to strive in the educational institutions, and therefore the nation, Succeeders reinscribed inclusion’s exclusionary terms of belonging.
In Part III, “Unlearning to Belong,” Flores directs us to how the Succeeders transformed their individual position as moral minorities into one of a collective good. By underscoring parental and sibling kin obligations (chapters four and five), Succeeders leveraged their success to make claims about expanded notions of belonging. Flores notes that the Succeeders framed their parents’ immigration into the U.S. – whether documented or undocumented – as an act of parental care and moral good in the name of kinship. As a result of this immigration, the Succeeders were able to enter into academic institutions and succeed. This narrative of migration to academic success proved their parents were good nurturers and therefore fit to belong to the nation-state. In relation to their siblings, Succeeders understood themselves as the progenitors of success, caring about and for their siblings at every step of their U.S.-based academic journey. Their own scholastic achievements would come to serve as a guide for their siblings and lead to good academic habits. By framing their care for parents and siblings through their own merit, these Latino immigrant youth were making highly-political acts about belonging. Flores writes, “Care mattered, not only because it produced meritocratic success, but also because it affirmed their siblings’ and families’ collective work” (133). By connecting the moral good of their parents’ migration history with their own uncertain but hard-working present, the Succeeders leveraged their academic skillsets for a hopeful future of belonging for their younger siblings. As Flores argues, care and caretaking as success were the powerful alternatives to the divisive and dividing Latino threat narrative and xenophobia in the United States.
Over 194 pages and six chapters, Flores makes clear that Latino immigrant youth are primary actors in shaping the parameters of national belonging in quotidian and political ways. Even if contradictory, national belonging can be based on caring obligations rather than meritocratic success. Flores’ book will be vital in considering how Latino immigrants and their youth are incorporated and navigate educational institutions in “new migrant destinations” such as the U.S. South. The Succeeders will contribute to this growing literature in Latino Studies, educational anthropology, and immigrant youth studies.
Jonathan Cortez is currently the 2021-2023 César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @joncortz