Latinas on the Fault Lines of Citizenship
Myrna Cardenas and her three children live in a one-bedroom garden apartment in central Long Beach. With its collection of single-story row apartments organized around a communal courtyard landscaped with flowering bushes and imported palms, the “garden apartment complex” is a quintessential Southern California architectural form. Regional developers and architects of the early twentieth century drew upon the California landscape as a metaphor for the transformative power of this new American city, a classless society where newcomers could reinvent themselves and where even the most modest apartment renters, shut out of the dream of the single-family home, could enjoy a small patch of green outside their front door.1
The courtyard complex where Myrna lives is located on the outskirts of Long Beach's renovated downtown shopping district and a few miles from one of the nation's busiest ports. This Spanish-style apartment complex was likely built to house sailors during the navy's heydays in Long Beach in the 1920s. Now, all of Myrna's neighbors in this apartment complex are migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. During the weekdays, the courtyard feels abandoned; the muffled sounds of rancheras or midday telenovelas the only signs of life behind bolted doors and drawn curtains. In the evenings, however, the concrete walkway comes alive as residents open their doors to let in the ocean air, and sit on their front steps watching young children ride tricycles up to the front gate and back again.
In the 500-square-foot apartment that Myrna rents for $650 a month, a full-sized mattress is pushed up against the far wall of the living room for twelve-year-old Ana and five-year-old Jasmine. Their brother, James, a fourth-grade “citizen of the month” at Jefferson Elementary School, sleeps on a cot under the front window. Working 40-hour weeks at an Or-