Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Mexican American and African American cultural productions have seen a proliferation of upward mobility narratives: plotlines that describe desires for financial solvency, middle-class status, and social incorporation. Yet the terms "middle class" and "upward mobility"—often associated with assimilation, selling out, or political conservatism—can hold negative connotations in literary and cultural studies. Surveying literature, film, and television from the 1940s to the 2000s, Elda María Román brings forth these narratives, untangling how they present the intertwined effects of capitalism and white supremacy.
Race and Upward Mobility examines how class and ethnicity serve as forms of currency in American literature, affording people of color material and symbolic wages as they traverse class divisions. Identifying four recurring character types—status seekers, conflicted artists, mediators, and gatekeepers—that appear across genres, Román traces how each models a distinct strategy for negotiating race and class. Her comparative analysis sheds light on the overlaps and misalignments, the shared narrative strategies, and the historical trajectories of Mexican American and African American texts, bringing both groups' works into sharper relief. Her study advances both a new approach to ethnic literary studies and a more nuanced understanding of the class-based complexities of racial identity.
About the author
Elda María Román is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern California.
"Race and Upward Mobility teaches us to look for big issues and ideas in seemingly small and ordinary places. A tour de force of intersectional critique and cultural studies analysis, innovative, imaginative, and an infinitely generative book."
—George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place
"Admirable for its clarity, Race and Upward Mobility should be immediate, essential reading for anyone interested in seriously engaging the class dynamics of African American and Chicana/o cultural production. Elda María Román not only provides bravura analyses of an impressive number of texts, but also creates a new lexicon—mortgaged status, gatekeepers, status panic, mediators—for talking about those liminal figures that trouble so many of our most important conversations about race and class."
—John Alba Cutler, Northwestern University
"Elda María Román's Race and Upward Mobility provides the reader with critical insight into the psychic and social toll of upward mobility on African American and Chicanx assimilated intellectuals with elegant analysis of literature and film from the 1940s through the present. Rather than cast assimilation as mere aspiration or betrayal, Román treats it with the critical attention it richly deserves. Román demonstrates its creative potential not only for pointed class or race critique, but also as a powerful positionality of mediation and negotiation for those intellectuals who move between hegemonic and minority communities. Without romanticism, and with the aid of postcolonial studies, women-of-color feminism, and critical race studies, Román lays bare the contours of the assimilated intellectual's consciousness in this deeply comparative analysis. Race and Upward Mobility provides an essential guide for Ethnic and American studies in 'post-racial' times."
—María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, New York University
"In clear, concise, and eloquent language, she brings together the formal with the familiar to open a dialogue about the complicated nature of the social experience of mobility. If the sign of a good book is that it makes one think of the ways in which it can be used and extended to better understand the social world, then Race and Upward Mobility is outstanding."
—Marisela Martinez-Cola, Humanity and Society