The University of Chicago Magazine April 1995
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Necessary Dreams

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Tienda leads a department meeting.

The Tiendas had their first child, Maggie, in 1948; Marta was born in August 1950. Six months later, a dispute with a supervisor at the cannery where he worked convinced Toribio to pull up stakes. Hoping to land a job in Detroit at a steel mill where his uncle worked, he bought bus tickets for his family and journeyed north.

Though both parents had less than primary-school educations, in the post-war boom even unskilled workers could earn family wages. Still, the family's first residence was a cramped basement apartment in a Detroit slum. When Marta was 2, they moved to a low-rise housing project in a slightly better neighborhood.

To become a U.S. citizen, her father learned English in night school. "He felt, `I immigrated to this country, I'm going to be a citizen, and I'm going to vote,' and he always has," says Tienda. Along with his job at Great Lakes Steel, he worked second shifts for Ford to earn money for a down payment on a house for the family--which had grown to include two more sisters, Irene and Gloria, and a brother, Juan Luis.

In Lincoln Park, a working-class suburb of Detroit, they were one of only two Mexican families. The other, Tienda notes, concealed their ethnicity, "whereas we were always very aware of who we were."

When she was 6, her mother died of complications from a botched gall-bladder operation. Around the same time, layoffs and strikes at her father's mill often forced the family to return to the fields as migrant workers. Tienda recalls, at age 10, picking "ten pecks of tomatoes in the morning and ten in the afternoon. We got new school clothes that year, but we earned them."

The situation stabilized when her father remarried, but she didn't connect with her stepmother and sought nurturing elsewhere. She found it in her family's neighbors, Edith and Lucille. "No matter what, I could always count on them. And I dedicated my first book to Lucille, because she was so supportive. I would give my report card to her, rather than my parents."

Her high school grades were excellent, but it wasn't until she visited Michigan State as a junior--getting her first look at "a real campus, a real university"--that Tienda decided to attend college. That decision came during lunch in the cafeteria, where she indulged in a bit of teen melodrama, slipping a soup bowl into her bag and silently vowing to return it as a college freshman. Bowl in tow, she started in the fall of 1968 on a need-based, full-tuition scholarship.

Academically, Tienda thrived at Michigan State, majoring in Spanish language and literature. One of her professors, George Mansour, remembers her as the kind of student who read not only each assignment but materials mentioned in a lecture in passing. "She applied her drive to everything."

Not entirely everything. Tienda opted out of the anti-war protests and counterculture experimentation preoccupying most students. "I have to think about myself retrospectively as somebody who was--I wouldn't say like Forrest Gump," she laughingly confesses, "but certainly watching from a distance things I didn't understand."

Still, college would gradually awaken her intellect. Writings by Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno and American pragmatist William James urged her to shed conventions and discover her own truths. Liberated to the point of giddiness--"You mean you can question whether to believe? You don't have to?"--she even stopped going to mass, a radical move given her strict Catholic upbringing. (She has since resumed her faith, "but in a private fashion--I rarely attend church.")

When Tienda tried to share these changes with her family, they informed her she was "nuts." No matter. "For me, this was revelation, it was a revolution." She wasn't turning back.

In the spring of her junior year, Tienda was called to interview for a summer job in northeast Michigan's Alpena County. She accepted simply to get away from home, "which was getting difficult with my stepmother. Very difficult."

Her job was to certify migrant workers for food stamps. Tienda thought she could do more. Cruising the county's winding roads in a state car, she stopped everywhere to talk with migrants and the farmers who hired them. Listening closely to workers' complaints of community hostility and unfair hiring practices, with equal care she heard out farmers' objections to excessive government regulations that, in some cases, forced them to underemploy migrants.

Tienda convinced her social-service employers to let her organize a meeting where the parties involved could freely air their concerns. To open the meeting, Tienda remembers saying: "There are many issues here, you need to talk about them. So complain and stand up and shout, but let's agree to start working on these problems."

Tienda calls the summer "a turning point." She had discovered several key strengths: to listen, to organize, to act effectively. Purpose had focused her unbounded energy. She was finding her own truths.

ENCOURAGED BY HER PROFESSORS, she applied to graduate schools, and for a Ford Foundation scholarship set up to encourage Latinos to pursue graduate studies. For the first time, Tienda was being given an opportunity because she was a minority--a realization that caused her some discomfort.

It was a label Tienda's brother, Juan Luis, had already dealt with. At Michigan State, where he enrolled after concluding his military service, Juan Luis introduced her to some Latino friends who, she recalls, "told me I was brown. And I said, you're absolutely wrong, I'm not brown. They said, `Yes, you are. You're not white. You're Mexican.' And that was something I was very proud of, but I had never thought of it as this category: minority."

She'd get used to it. Indeed, as a subject, minorities would become a central focus of her later research. Being "brown," she's learned, means that colleagues--even friends--may wonder if you've gotten where you are because you filled some quota. But it also means that you're more likely to grow up in poverty, as she had--that you've a greater chance of living in the poorest neighborhoods and holding the lowest-paying jobs. For better or worse, being a minority did make a difference.

As it's applied to her own life, Tienda looks at the "minority" label this way: "Growing up, I was disadvantaged, and so getting that extra boost initially helped get me on the road. Is there a point where that label is more a burden than a help? Sure. When someone wants you to join this board or that committee, you wonder whether it's because of who you are or because you're a minority. So it does follow you around for the rest of your life. And it takes a lot of learning and strength to handle it, or your self-esteem can go in one fell swoop."

Although her Ford scholarship to the University of Texas, Austin, was specifically to study Romance languages and literature, after a year of study she received permission to switch to the university's Latin American studies program.

"I had never taken a course in sociology, economics, or statistics," she admits, "and that's how I started in social sciences." However, the attitude of her department mentor, Harley Browning, "was that you need to learn how to do the research; you can always fill in the blanks later." Under Browning, Tienda did her master's thesis--a demographic study of female employment in Mexico. In 1974, he sent her to Mexico for a seminar on women in Latin America.

When she returned, she had a heart-to-heart with Browning. "I said, `Women's studies, I resign. Chicano studies, I resign. I won't do it.' He looked at me, and said, `Well, is that forever?' I said, `Nothing's forever, but for a while don't even think about it. I will not be ghettoized.'"

"Expecting minority students to do dissertations about themselves," Tienda believes, "trivializes our presence in the mainstream." Hers focused on a more general topic in Latin American demography, so that when the University of Wisconsin offered her an assistant professorship in 1976, she knew she'd been hired for her solid research experience--not because she had wrapped her credentials in a Chicano-feminist package.

That same year, the death of Tienda's brother, Juan Luis, in a car accident forced her into a period of grief and introspection. As a law student at the University of Michigan, Juan Luis had been an activist for recruiting and hiring Latino students and faculty. "It was already quite apparent that he was someone who was going to make a difference," says Tienda. After his death, she decided that, "in some way, I wanted to try to carry that banner."

Her chance came in her first year at Wisconsin, when Tienda was invited to join a group of social scientists conducting the first national survey of Mexican Americans. Though far afield from her research at that time, which involved "Peruvian fertility," the topic intrigued her: In her spare time, she began plowing through piles of books and papers on race and ethnic stratification.

This experience came into play in 1978, when the Department of Labor awarded her a grant to perform an exhaustive analysis of its Survey of Income and Education--the largest survey ever conducted of the nation's growing Hispanic population. Her leadership in the pioneering project placed Tienda at the top of her field. By the mid-1980s, she was tenured and "getting good grants. I had a big shop"--but she was also growing restless. Wisconsin "was a wonderful place to launch a career," she says, "but I began to feel like I was on a locomotive moving one direction."

STANFORD AND UCLE WERE ALREADY busy recruiting Tienda when U of C sociologist William Julius Wilson--then chair of the department--offered her a position at Chicago in 1987. "One of the things I told Marta," says Wilson, "is that she would thrive in this highly intellectual environment; that she would be able to work with colleagues at the cutting edge of research; that she would be encouraged to be independent, bold, creative. And I think that message resonated with her."

Tienda also looked to Chicago as a place where she could broaden her methodology. Her early research--working with census figures to create cross-sectional data sets that compared various ethnic and racial groups--had told her some important facts. It told her, for example, that different Latino groups, while starting out on similar economic ground, became unequal over time. Though none had risen to the economic level of whites, Cubans showed the greatest economic upswing, followed by Mexicans--while Puerto Ricans' economic status generally declined.

Yet strictly quantitative analyses can't fully answer what Tienda calls the "why" questions: "Why do we have these patterns, why is one group losing ground relative to another?" The eclectic strengths of Chicago's sociology department offered her a chance to add both longitudinal data--tracking changes over long periods of time--and qualitative analysis--learning firsthand about the lives of the people she studies--to her kit of methodological tools.

Tienda describes her current research as an attempt to "widen the vision of processes that affect a poor person's chances in life." One of her early studies at Chicago looked at how different minority groups fared in relation to shifts in the economy. During a recession, she found, most employers made predictable, racially based decisions as to whom to hire and whom to let go: Whites, followed by Cubans and Mexicans, were at the top of this "hiring queue," with blacks and Puerto Ricans on the bottom.

Tienda believes this phenomenon is partly "a pigmentation issue," with Puerto Ricans' darker complexions linking them in employers' minds to blacks at the bottom of the hiring hierarchy. But she sees a more specific cause of Puerto Ricans' economic decline in the fact that, as a group, they gravitated to garment-trade jobs in New York City--jobs lost as unions crumbled and manufacturers began employing cheaper Third-World labor.

More recently, Tienda has found that low-income blacks and Puerto Ricans share certain cultural characteristics--such as higher rates of out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households, compared to similarly disadvantaged Mexicans and whites. Daughters of black and Puerto Rican mothers on welfare are also more likely to wind up on welfare.

The study suggests certain "race-specific" patterns shared by blacks and Puerto Ricans that lead them into welfare or single parenthood. Or does it? As Tienda points out, low-income whites and Mexicans more likely reside in mixed-income neighborhoods, while blacks and Puerto Ricans tend to live in exclusively poor neighborhoods. That shared experience could, by itself, influence patterns of behavior. "You see, it's very important not to jump to conclusions in discussing these matters," she cautions. "There's just so much going on."

It's a caveat that runs through Tienda's research: Never forget the big picture. From her work emerges a portrait of American society as a large, highly sensitive mobile, where individuals are subdivided by race, class, and education, yet interlocked geographically, culturally and economically--so that a movement in a single section reverberates through the entire structure. It's a subtlety, she notes, that's badly needed in current public-policy discussions of such "hot-button" issues as immigration, poverty, and welfare.

"What I've learned," she says, "is that you can't focus on a single problem--say, trying to improve the classroom for disadvantaged children--without improving the entire school, without improving the home environment and the neighborhood. We can't separate these different components, yet many of the public-policy prescriptions are based on one thing, as if it's unrelated to anything else."

Increasingly, Tienda's research is preoccupied with poverty as it affects the very young. "Because all the `why' questions really start there," she explains. "What exactly happens--at home, at school, on the streets--to a child that influences whether or not he or she will break the chain of poverty? Certain groups are more successful at breaking that chain than others, so we need to look at those children to see what exactly happened to influence that outcome."

For example, a study she released last month with Grace Kao reveals that minority children whose mothers are immigrants outperform students from the same ethnic group whose mothers were born in the U.S.

Immigrant minority parents, says Tienda, are more upbeat about their children's future and more personally involved in their education. Unfortunately, for many groups, that initial optimism rubs off by the second or third generation, as the sons and daughters of minority immigrants discover an American dream that is race-exclusive. "Many come to believe that dream is not obtainable for them or for their children," says Tienda, "so why bother?"

That's a destructive attitude to encourage, she says, for a society increasingly in need of educated, highly skilled workers--a society where "minorities" are, in many places, rapidly becoming the majority population.

"Leaving minorities behind is to nobody's advantage," Tienda argues. "There are so many Latinos who are quite talented and who come from backgrounds like I did who will never be able to attend college unless they have extra support. I'm not talking about a free ride. At some point, people should put back what was given to them. But there's no chance of that happening if you don't give them something to strive for.

"Looking back on my life," she continues, "I feel very lucky that I had a dream, and that I really believed if I worked very hard I could achieve that dream. One of my heroes is Don Quixote--you know, you shoot high, and you see a windmill and you think it's a castle." But even dreams must hold a germ of reality: "It can be some words of praise, a scholarship, or a job that matters to you. It doesn't have to be all that much, perhaps--but it has to be enough."

Tienda takes time out for her two sons, Carlos, 5, and Luis, 12. "Luis is already talking about medical school," she notes with motherly pride.

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