Carolina Sarmiento: Learning Art and Inequality: The Experiences of Immigrant Communities in the Creative City

Carolina S. Sarmiento is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the School of Human Ecology. She is a graduate from both World Arts and Cultures and Urban Planning from UCLA, where she obtained her B.A. and M.A. She received her Ph.D. from UCI in Planning, Policy and Design. Her research investigates the intersection between urban development, governance, and the creation and destruction of cultural spaces in working class communities of color. She examines the everyday responses of working class communities ranging from community-based planning, transnational development, to the creation of new democratic processes and spaces. Unlike previous research on creative cities, this work places working communities at the center of discussions around economic and cultural development. She also forms part of a joint research team studying transnational indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico and Los Angeles that build economic projects across borders.


This research places the Mexican immigrant working class community at the center of cultural- and arts-led development. Research on creative development has often examined the role of artists in the creative city but neglected the role of low-income communities of color. Literature on the creative city finds that culture-led development can have consequences ranging from increased diversity to the marginalization and exclusion of working class communities. This [lecture] rethinks the concepts of marginalization and exclusion by examining the interdependencies and relationships that include the working class in the production of cultural spaces. Using cultural production and racial formation theories, [Sarmiento] analyze[s] the sociohistoric context of immigrant communities’ development of cultural spaces paralleled by their struggles around rights to the city. The research is built on more than four years of ethnography and participant observation, as well as in-depth and semi-structured interviews of workers. Based in Santa Ana, California, a city of mostly Mexican immigrants and a "poster child for the troubles of the country's immigration policies and of Mexican immigrants in particular" (U.S. News, 2008), this research finds that immigrant working class communities learn, contest, and transform what it means to be "Mexican," “undocumented," and from "Santa Ana." Workers reproduce racial and political categories but also contest them in different cultural spaces that can both form part of grassroots.

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