Llana Barber Presents on History of Latinos in Lawrence

Dr. Llana Barber, historian and author, stood before the audience in front of a large black and white photo depicting laughing, Latino youth holding a fake television camera. The faux camera, crafted out of a diaper box, a paper towel roll and a stick, mocked the media’s response and the world’s indifference to the violent protests in their city, Lawrence, Mass., during the 1980s. The photograph set the scene for Barber’s presentation, “Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence.”

In her presentation, which took place last Friday, Barber painted a picture of a rich and vibrant city marred by an unfortunate history of racial tensions and scarcity of resources.

“Latinos in Lawrence were blamed for the city’s crisis, even though the roots of the city’s crisis… began decades began before substantial Latino settlement,” said Barber.

“The two most important developments in the second half of the 20th century were suburbanization — and the impact suburbanization had on urban economies — and immigration from Latin America,” she said.

After the Great Depression, government initiatives to depopulate the crowded and dirty cities began to move people out of urban areas to buy large, single-family homes in the suburbs. Seeing opportunity in the cheap and plentiful land in the suburbs, cities began to deindustrialize as companies built manufacturing centers in suburban locations, Barber said.

The deindustrialization of and disinvestment in the city eventually led to an urban crisis. As people began to leave the city, the once prosperous Lawrence stagnated, while the suburbs gained wealth and prosperity, said Barber.

The next 30 years also saw a sharp increase in the Latino population coming from territories and countries such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as a result of the negative effects of U.S. involvement in their home countries, according to Barber.

Fleeing the problems of their own countries in search of jobs, many Latinos settled in vacated cities like Lawrence. Their presence brought new life to the city, according to Barber.

“Latinos filled [Lawrence’s] streets with small business and restaurants and filled its parks with playing chil dren…. It’s a vibrant city now; there’s music, people are laughing, people are talking, people are in the streets, men playing dominos in the commons,” said Barber.

Due to the disinvestment and economic downturn Lawrence experienced, however, most jobs that Latinos held in Lawrence were short lived. By 1990, 25 percent of Latinos living in Lawrence were unemployed, according to Barber.

“For those who had jobs, those jobs were generally ones that offered very little social mobility. It wasn’t ‘work’ hard and maybe you’ll become a manager some day’; it was more like ‘work hard and work until you die, and if you’re lucky, they’ll bury you,’” said Barber.

This lack of social mobility was partially due to an absence of quality education in Lawrence, as schools were underfunded and overcrowded as a result of disinvestment in the city. Classrooms often had leaky roofs and did not have any textbooks. Due to this failure in the public-education system, Lawrence crime rates went up and the city could not offer the opportunities necessary for success in the modern day.

Barber’s presentation was based on her project, “Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1945-2000,” which focuses on suburbanization, urban economic decline and immigration in the city of Lawrence.

“I became interested in Lawrence when I heard about the riots [of the 1980s], when I had spent some time there and when I saw the kind of racial tension and prejudice that existed in the city,” said Barber.

Barber’s visit to Andover was organized by Alianza Latina, a Latin-culture club on campus.

“I hoped that [people] would see Lawrence [through the presentation] as a city that has what every other urban city has. [At the moment], the way that we see Lawrence as a community is not [in] an amazing way. We look at Lawrence as the poor town right next to Andover where we do community service,” said Isabella Oliva ’16, Co-Head of Alianza Latina.