Examining the Perils and Promises of an Informal Niche in a Global City:
A Case Study of Mexican Immigrant Gardeners in Los Angeles
Doctor of Philosophy in City and Regional Planning
University of California, Berkeley
Professor Karen Christensen, Chair
The domestic household service sector of contract gardening dominated by Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles constitutes an important and under-examined component of the city’s informal economy. Mexican immigrant gardeners, like Latina domestic workers and Latino day laborers, represent an important and undervalued labor source in this global city and other U.S. cities and suburbs. While domestic help has historically been a privilege of the affluent, the middle-class, since the World War II era, has also acquired the financial means to hire immigrants and racial minorities to perform traditional household duties. Due primarily to the American obsession with the front lawn, the increased influx of low-wage immigrants to the U.S. since the mid-1960s and the structural shift from a manufacturing-dominated industrial complex to a new, service-dominated economic complex during the past several decades, the demand for contract gardeners has become an integral part of local neighborhoods. Although this informal niche provides positive benefits to local neighborhoods—i.e., the (re)production of greener, healthier and aesthetically pleasing communities—scholars and urban planners have traditionally ignored this group. Moreover, scholarly publications and popular narratives commonly frame Mexican immigrants, including paid gardeners, domestic workers and day laborers, as a homogenous group of marginalized individuals who occupy low paying jobs associated with low social status and lack of upward mobility (i.e., “immigrant jobs”).
To address the scholarly shortcomings in the social science literature and debunk the pejorative popular views of Mexican immigrant gardeners, this dissertation provides a complex and nuanced interpretation of this informal niche. This dissertation re-conceptualizes this informal service sector from a homogenous group of immigrant workers to a heterogeneous group (i.e., immigrant workers and petty-entrepreneurs). It also re-frames the popular narratives of Mexican immigrant gardeners as ignorant, passive agents who perform simplistic, labor-intensive activities to intelligent, social agents with agency who engage in complex social relations and economic transactions in the informal economy.
My main finding, and contribution to the social science literature, centers on how the two sub-groups that I examine in this dissertation—immigrant workers and petty-entrepreneurs in an informal economic niche, with similar low socio-economic backgrounds—differ in their outcomes because they self-organize in different economic models based on the availability of their strong social ties or migrant networks and the hierarchical nature of these webs of social relations. Migrant networks refer to co-ethnic ties that link and bond immigrants in the receiving and sending countries. These inter-personal networks consist of immediate family, extended family, friends and hometown associates.
Specifically, my main finding and contributions to the literature consist of four important, interrelated components. First, this dissertation focuses on an understudied group in the academic fields of immigration and ethnic economies: Mexican immigrant entrepreneurs. While much research has been conducted on specific immigrant groups with high rates of entrepreneurship in the U.S., such as Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Cubans, less research has been conducted on Mexican immigrant entrepreneurs.
Secondly, this dissertation focuses on an understudied sector in the academic fields of the informal economy and urban planning: informal, small-scale enterprises in U.S. cities. While recent scholarly studies in this country’s informal economy explore many economic sectors and industries, such as construction, garment, electronics and retail, few research projects focus on immigrant-owned, small enterprises as economic vehicles for upward mobility.
Thirdly, by developing and coining a typology of informal economic models and markets in Los Angeles’ contract gardening niche, this dissertation contributes to a better understanding of how an understudied immigrant group creates informal institutions to pursue upward mobility opportunities in U.S. cities. This typology includes the following models and markets: (1) Petty-Capitalism Model (PCM); (2) Master-Apprentice Model (MAM); and (3) Gardener Markets Model (GMG).
Fourthly, this dissertation also uncovers how these social actors utilize their migrant networks in a hierarchical or rank order manner for differentiated outcomes (i.e., immigrant workers and petty-entrepreneurs). Moreover, it reveals how Mexican immigrant gardeners who migrate from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds organize and govern themselves in the informal economy, providing a paradigm for similar immigrant groups to emulate and improve upon throughout American cities and suburbs.
By better understanding the existing social capital, rich resources and sophisticated forms of organization that Mexican immigrant gardeners possess, scholars, policy makers, planners, civic and community leaders will be better informed to assist this group and other immigrant groups in a collaborative and strategic manner to improve the working and living conditions of all historically disenfranchised groups in American cities. Thus, in lieu of formalizing the contract gardening service sector with high entry costs, strict government regulations and coercive laws, which inevitably lead to the criminalization and further marginalization of this informal niche, as a society, we need to support and provide informal immigrants with the tools, resources and incentives they need to better incorporate them into American society.