On the Move

Chenoa Flippen, Assistant Professor of Sociology, examines Hispanic migration patterns.
March 1, 2013

Open any newspaper, and it’s clear that the topic of immigration is front and center in the United States today, especially immigration from Latin America.

Chenoa Flippen, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, puts a lens to Hispanic migration both to and within the United States, in her intensive investigations of a Hispanic community in Durham, North Carolina.

“The Hispanic population of Durham exploded starting in the late 1990s, when many migrants came to Durham from California and Texas, soon followed by immigrants from Latin America,” Flippen says. “But this migration was different—they were coming as single males, not as families. So there were issues not only of culture but of gender.”

Her work on this neighborhood of migrant laborers is both specific and universal. Flippen, a specialist on urban poverty and racial inequality, offers a close look at the challenges and struggles of this particular group. Yet the insights she has gleaned from her studies also illuminate the experience and patterns of immigration both domestically and globally.

Migration to new cities traditionally occurs in waves, Flippen explains, with newcomers moving to established ethnic enclaves. In Durham, a booming economy drew an influx of men seeking jobs as unskilled laborers in construction and other local industries. The traditional aspects of communities that ease migrants into new regions—such as churches, families, and fraternal groups—were lacking. Instead, the male migrants to Durham faced an underserved environment, making them vulnerable to significant health risks including alcohol abuse and sexually transmitted diseases acquired from sex workers. Before long HIV, chlamydia, and other STDs were a pressing public health concern, as were alcohol-related problems like drunk driving. As part of her research, Flippen “cross-pollinated” with local public health promoters to exchange ideas and data and ameliorate some of the health risks faced by the migrants.

To really understand these communities, you have to comprehend the larger structural context that shapes them.

Flippen first became interested in Durham’s Hispanic community when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University from 1999 to 2001, studying gender roles and health behaviors among immigrant Hispanics as part of a research project funded by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.  

One of the project leaders at Duke, Emilio A. Parrado, is now a professor of sociology and director of Latin American and Latino Studies at Penn, as well as associate director of the Population Studies Center. He and Flippen have coauthored several scholarly papers.

“Chenoa helped situate the Durham project within the broader context of race and ethnic relations in the United States,” Parrado says of his colleague. “Her work has enhanced our understanding of how gender both transforms and is transformed by the experience of migration.”

As part of the project, Flippen and her co-investigators recruited members from the local Hispanic community and trained them as researchers and interviewers, so that the work was informed by the perspectives of insiders.

Flippen’s work has also included studies about the migration and employment patterns of Hispanic women, as well as papers analyzing home ownership and housing appreciation among blacks and Hispanics in the United States.

“It’s important to understand what happens to immigrants along various dimensions,” Flippen says. “To really understand these communities, you have to comprehend the larger structural context that shapes them.”