Latinos Assimilate on Their Own Terms
Enlace, News Report, Hiram Soto, Translated by Peter Micek Posted: Jul 27, 2007
Traducción al español
The Senate’s phone system crashed last month during immigration reform debates, when thousands of people and anti-immigrant activists called their senators to protest the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants.
The massive, unprecedented telephone campaign was sparked by a range of complex motives based on social and economic issues. Among them was a theme that promises to reappear if the issue is revisited: the perception that Latinos are too different to assimilate, do not learn English, and are unraveling the fabric of the identity of a nation that was, ironically, created by immigrants.
“It is one of the ideas that anti-immigrant forces take advantage of: the notion that immigrants today do not assimilate and that other generations did. But it is not true,” says Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza.
In fact, both sides are right.
Latinos are assimilating, but in their own way, keeping much of their identity. Tamales at Christmas. Turkey and menudo at Thanksgiving. English at work and Spanish at home. Dual loyalties to the San Diego Chargers and Guadalajara Chivas. The Fourth of July. Cinco de Mayo.
“Latinos are ending the concept of the proverbial racial salad,” wrote renowned journalist and writer Jorge Ramos in his book, “The Latino Wave: How Hispanics Are Transforming Politics in America.”
The big difference between European and Latino immigrants, according to Ramos and some sociologists, is that Hispanics live next to their countries of origin, allowing them to maintain ties with their family, culture and language.
In addition, there exists today an extensive network of Spanish-language media.
“Culturally, Latinos are never going to totally assimilate. Latinos are creating their own space in this country. And the characteristics of Hispanic culture are changing forever the face of the nation,” Ramos wrote.
This phenomenon plays out each day in the home of Cristóbal Castro, a naturalized U.S. citizen and son of a “bracero” who migrated to the United States in the middle of the last century to work.
“It is going to be very difficult to assimilate, at least for the first generation. What there is is a negotiation,” he said. “There will be things that we accept, like the manner of dress or the education here, and things that we don’t, like kicking your children out of the house when they turn 18, like ‘gringos’ do.”
Latinos’ tendency to cling onto their culture has led them to gradually redefine the American identity.
Assimilation, according to Tomás Jiménez, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, “no longer means you have to disown your culture and adopt a new lifestyle identified with Anglo-Protestant culture.”
In an essay published in the Los Angeles Times, Jiménez said that due to Latinos, “multiculturalism and the appreciation of diversity are much more accepted than before.”
Defining assimilation is as complex as reforming immigration laws.
Can you speak Spanish and be assimilated? Do you have to like hamburgers more than grilled steak tacos? When can you say you have achieved assimilation?
“It is not easy to define,” confessed Ira Mehlman of the anti-immigrant organization FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform). Many Americans resent the fact that Hispanics insist on speaking Spanish and maintaining ties with their countries of origin, he said.
“But I would say that (assimilation) is when someone feels American,” he said. “And to me, people that march, yelling, ‘Nosotros somos América’ (We are America), waving the flags of other countries, are not assimilated.”
Richard Rodríguez, a writer who has published various books about the adaptation of Latinos to U.S. culture, said that assimilating is absorbing the individuality of the United States, and that this is precisely what Hispanics are doing.
“The reality is that the country is becoming more Mexican, and that everything is changing, our food, customs, music and religion,” Rodríguez said. “As Latinos continue incorporating themselves into society, Americans feel they have to learn fragments of Spanish. And there will be weddings, hatred, friendship, solidarity, curiosity and competition.”
What’s certain is that many Latinos live with one foot in each culture, and that they flow like water from one side to the other, something you can see each time the Mexican national soccer team faces the United States in the fiercest sporting rivalry in North America.
Ricardo Castro, brother of Cristóbal and also a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he considers himself 100 percent Mexican. But he could sit and watch the soccer game calmly, he said, because he had no fear of losing.
“I knew that my country was going to win,” he said. “And effectively it won, because for me it was either of the two.”
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