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Working the Bounderies:

Race, Space and "Illegality"

in Mexican Chicago

(Duke University Press,  2005)

Cover image, Chicago, 1995  (N. De Genova)

“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 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 beautyHighly recommended!”

 -- Howard Winantauthor of

    The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World 

    War II,  and  

    Racial Formation in the United States 



“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.  Steeped in theory … the book is avowedly interested in large ideas … but at the same time, it is rooted in telling and textured details drawn from extended ethnographic field work.  Working the Boundaries shows how the staking out of an identity that is neither black nor white can generate searing critiques of the United States racial system even as it also can leave some aspects of antiblack racism and the valorization of whiteness intact.  A splendid, learned and spirited study, Working the Boundaries deserves the widest possible readership inside and outside of the academy.”

  -- David Roediger, author of  

     The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the               American Working Class,  and

     The Production of Difference: Race and the Management       of Labor in U.S. History



Solidly researched and decolonized ethnographic accounts [such as De Genova's] typically produce a knowledge structure akin to that which I am here seeking to establish directly....  Geographical theory... helps release political energies and the political imagination to examine afresh the whole issue of the most adequate form of territorial organization of human societies to meet socio-ecological aims.  It poses key questions head on and so helps us ... [identify] the requisite tools to reconstruct places in an entirely different image.  The mere concept of a Mexican Chicago is, for example, one place to start....  [There is] a crisis of place construction in the contemporary world system, one in which a narrow absolute definition of a place dubbed a state makes less and less sense.  This crisis is rendered explicit in the work of De Genova.” 

         -- David Harvey, author of 

               The Limits to Capital;  The New Imperialism;  and   

               A Brief History of Neoliberalism

               (quoted from: Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies

                of Freedom, pp. 268-73)



“The [2006] mobilization of migrants … has opened up a confrontation fraught with consequences for the future of democracy in the United States.  De Genova’s book helps us see with greater precision what is at stake.  He shows how the long history of policies for controlling Mexican migration to the United States has in fact created a general condition of ‘deportability’ for migrant workers.  Identifying "an active process of inclusion through the illegalization’ of migrants," De Genova formulates a thesis that is useful to examine even in the rather different context of Europe.”

          -- Sandro Mezzadra, co-author of 

             Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor


"Nicholas De Genova’s brilliant … theoretically sophisticated anthropological study … serves as a critical link between Chicano/a, Latin American, and American studies."

          -- Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, editor of 

Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migrationand Global Latin(o) Americanos: Transoceanic Diasporas and Regional Migrations

"Nicholas De Genova has written an important counter-narrative [using] inductive reasoning to redefine or broaden concepts such as race, space, and 'illegality'."

          -- Rodolfo Acuña, author of

             Occupied America: A History of Chicanos

Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago examines the processes of racialization, labor subordination and class formation, and the structures of citizenship and immigration law that have historically defined the relationship of Mexican migrants to the U.S. nation-state as its iconic “illegal aliens,” through an urban ethnography of the transnational socio-spatial formation that De Genova calls “Mexican Chicago.” More than a mere presence of Mexicans in Chicago, the author posits the emergence of a transnational conjunctural space that conjoins Chicago to innumerable communities throughout Mexico, and explore its meaningful repercussions for the critical reconceptualization of Latin American, Chicano, and “American” (U.S.) studies alike. Indeed, the remarkable dynamism and creative ferments of everyday life are central to De Genova's formulation of a radically transnational paradigm for the study of migration, citizenship, and the production of nation-state space.

The ethnographic research for this study was primarily located in a variety of industrial workplaces and urban spaces throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, and drew from extensive participant observation in the communities where the author lived and worked, as well as semi-structured, open-ended, life-history interviews conducted in people’s homes. Thus, the research was situated in a wide array of urban and suburban working-class and impoverished communities, where Mexicans commonly found themselves inhabiting either notoriously segregated Mexican (or mixed-Latino) interstitial zones between impoverished African American communities and working-class white neighborhoods in flight, or ghettoized enclaves within those same deteriorating, historically white working-class areas. However, while much of the ethnographic work was principally focused on questions of race, class, and citizenship, and despite its quite substantial immersion in apparently “local” struggles over racialized urban space or workplace conflicts, De Genova's research locates the everyday life of Mexican Chicago in relation to experiences of undocumented border crossing, the practices and sociolegal history of migrant “illegality,” and the innumerable productions of a transnational social formation that deeply link such sites in the United States to countless communities throughout Mexico.

2006 Book Award 

Association for Latina and Latino Anthropologists


2007 C.L. R. James Book Award

Working-Class Studies Association

2005 C. Wright Mills Award

Society for the Study of Social Problems

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