Recasting the Melting Pot

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Becoming an American used to be simple, or at least that's the way we conjure up the old Ellis Island days of immigration. Foreigners happily left the old country behind and steadily assumed a new identity. Peddler, Plumber, Professional. Little Italy, Brooklyn, Long Island. The predictable transition was complete by the time the newcomers' grandchildren grew up-speaking just a few words in the mother tongue and practicing an ethnic identity attached to holidays rather than everyday life. It didn't happen exactly that way for a lot of families during the first half of the 20th century, but nonetheless the myth of the melting pot informs our expectations for the first half of the next century, when another great wave of immigrants will be finding its place here.

Nearly half of all immigrants today-legal and illegal-come from Spanish-speaking countries. Based on their high birth rates, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that native and foreign-born Latinos will account for more than 40 percent of U.S. population growth in the next decade, compared to less than 25 percent for non-Hispanic whites. unfortunately, the melting pot metaphor does not help much in understanding where this demographic change is taking the nation. Indeed, despite the centrality of this myth in the American consciousness, it may create false or dangerously misleading expectations as far as Latinos are concerned, especially the second generation-the children of immigrants-who undergo the most profound change.

Fortunately, even though we are still at the front end of the assimilation process, some major signposts are available. Look at occupations and education, listen to the music, eavesdrop at dinner table conversations, and you do not see a singular, straight-line progression toward some American norm. Second-generation Latinos are indeed adopting new identities, but they set off in a lot of different directions and, in many cases, the results differ from the linear progression that mainstream America expects based on its idealized memory of the past.

Consider banda music, an innovative mix of rock, salsa, country-western, and norteno-the traditional folk music of northern Mexico. Banda originated with groups that regularly toured the U.S. and Mexico, picking up bits of music in both countries. Precisely because it is so eclectic, banda became a huge fad in Southern California in the 1990s. All-banda radio stations rocketed to huge audience ratings by attracting Latinos of all sorts, including both newly arrived immigrants and those whose ancestry in Los Angeles dates back several generations. Kids who were deeply into hip-hop turned in their basketball shoes and baseball caps for boots and cowboy hats, then headed for night clubs, where they spun around in elaborately choreographed steps.

The music, the dress, and the dancing are neither Mexican nor American, but rather a constantly evolving mixture of the two. Banda is the anthem of a transnational space that is not only home to newcomers and the native born, but also serves as a way-station for Latinos who easily travel between neighboring nations.

Of course, a strong homeland influence has been typical of many immigrant communities throughout history. But Latino immigration is unique in the American experience because it comes from countries so nearby. Many Dominican entrepreneurs run bodegas (neighborhood grocery stores) in both New York City and Santo Domingo, shipping merchandise and capital back and forth and working in both places as it suits them. Farm hands from central Mexico readily come north for the summer home-construction season in the United States and still remain fully productive participants in the work of the family rancho. And now, with the end of civil strife in their homelands, long-term residents from Central America can cut the emotional costs of migration by visiting their families for the Christmas holidays, to attend a wedding, or to sit out a spell of unemployment here.

Banda music is just one example of how this steady, often circular human flow constantly refreshes the sounds of Spanish in Latino communities and even reawakens ethnic identity among English-speaking Latinos. At the very least, this easy access to the homeland allows many Latinos to prolong a sojourner mentality and put off coming to terms with the American realities. Many Latinos come to the United States expecting to stay just long enough to earn a little pile of money, but end up making a life of it once they have children here. Proximity also means that assimilation is not continuous or direct, but rather a rhythmic, periodic process in which immigrants retain aspects of their foreign identity even as they learn English and otherwise adopt American ways.

According to the melting pot myth, Americanization and economic progress go hand-in-hand. As an individual or a family rises toward the middle class, ethnic identification is supposed to diminish; meanwhile, foreign traits remain most pronounced among the poor. The most economically successful Latino immigrants, however-the Cubans in South Florida-have resolutely retained a Latino identity and Spanish as a favored language.

Granted, Cubans are an exceptional case, but there are enough exceptions among Latino immigrants to disprove the rule. Minority group politics and civil rights policies, for example, produce a greater sense of ethnic identification among Latinos who are taking the first steps toward economic advancement than among those who are left behind. It is young people going to college or graduate school or applying for white-collar jobs who are most aware of affirmative action and therefore have the most to gain by formally identifying themselves as a member of a minority group.

European immigrants understood exclusion in terms of their "otherness"-their accents, religions, and the surnames they brought with them. For Latinos, an understanding of minority group status comes only after enough assimilation to perceive historical grievances against the white majority and to acquire hyphenation -that is to move from being Mexican to becoming Mexican-American.

Assessing assimilation among Latino immigrants and their offspring who remain poor is the most urgent and difficult task of all. Should young, second-generation Latinos be considered successfully assimilated when they form street gangs, mark territories with spray-painted tags, deal in crack-cocaine, engage in car-jackings, and punish their enemies with drive-by shootings? Those are, after all, American-made behaviors learned here, and they mark a form of adaptation to American realities. Recently, in a morbid variation on transnationalism, several U.S. street gangs have established branches in El Salvador through the missionary work of youths deported after committing violent crimes here.

More worrisome are the rising rates of high-school dropouts and teen pregnancies among Latinos, especially foreign-born youths, even as the same rates decline for whites and blacks. One big problem is the number of immigrant youths who go straight to work and never enroll in school here. But authoritative studies also indicate that among those who do enter U.S. schools, achievement levels tend to decline after a few years and homework effort drops as immigrant youth begin to spend the same amount of time in front of the television set as their native-born counterparts.

By contrast, assimilation meant academic advancement for the children of European immigrants. Looking back at how the second- and third-generation Europeans became Americans, it's easy to forget that a series of extraordinary events forged a new and powerful national identity during the middle decades of this century: the shared adversity of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War; the rising tide of the industrial economy; and the massive public-sector investments in upward mobility by way of the G.I. Bill and the expansion of state university systems. All of that produced the heat that helped melt ethnics into a somewhat homogeneous middle class.

Absent such factors now, the offspring of today's immigrants are likely to follow more varied and complex paths. Many Latinos undoubtedly will pursue and achieve the prototypical American Dream in the suburbs. Yet even as they conform in some ways, other aspects of their identity-musical tastes or business arrangements, perhaps-will remain linked to homeland realities. Others may model themselves after native-born Latinos whose identity derives from the minority-group experience. A large number will absorb the distinct culture of American urban poverty. Given the multiple outcomes already in evidence, it is important not to base expectations on an idealized past, but instead to understand that during a time of immigration, change comes to both the newcomers and the hosts.

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