1.7.17

ASSIMILATION IS EMERGENCE.

Mexican immigrants are poised to reframe American culture, if white people would only let them, argues Sarah Menkedick for Pacific Standard.

American culture is not for "white people" to give, or for "Mexican immigrants," or anyone else to take.  Read the essay and that becomes clear.
[California resident Vianney Bernabé's] family here in Mexico, she explained, thought of her as American: a deserter of her home country, wealthy and privileged, a gringa come to strut around with all the gringa’s carefree assumptions of power. Meanwhile, in the United States, Vianney’s parents clung to the lowest rungs of a racialized U.S. labor and power hierarchy, having worked for three decades to give their children better lives. She and her sisters had grown up in some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Los Angeles, struggling against failing schools, crime, racism, and poverty.
For all our troubles, entering the 142nd year of American Independence, the United States are still home to many a shining city on the hill, including the most stressed parts of Los Angeles.
Vianney had come to Mexico City expecting to embrace her past and to be embraced as a long-lost daughter. Instead, like many second-generation Mexican Americans who return to Mexico, she wound up being confronted with her Americanness. “I have never had turkey at Thanksgiving. I grew up listening to cumbia, but on the other hand my education was from the United States,” she told me. Our conversations were full of this vexed ping-ponging between Mexicanness, Americanness, and Mexican Americanness, an ineffable cultural zone inhabited by more and more Americans, including my own Mexican-American husband and daughter.

For Vianney and the other seven million second-generation Hispanics in the U.S., most of them Mexican Americans, this quest to define identity and establish belonging has significant ramifications. As a Pew Research Center demographic survey put it, “The kinds of adults these young Latinos become will help shape the kind of society America becomes in the 21st century.”
Just let the kids be kids, and the adults be adults, and the emergence will take care of itself.
Thirteen was the year Vianney leaned over the edge of the abyss, and 13 marked the beginning of her rise. Her mother enrolled her at the Harmony Project, an L.A. non-profit that offers students from low-income communities musical instruments, classes, community support, and field trips to cultural events. Vianney trained at Harmony for five years. When she turned 15, at the urging of her music teacher, she applied to the elite Music Academy at the Colburn School in downtown L.A. To her shock, she was accepted with a 50 percent scholarship.

Soon she was competing at summer camps across the country. She won scholarships to the Interlochen Center for the Arts and CalArts. Meanwhile, her family struggled to pay tuition. “My mom had to make payments of $100, and the work she had to do to make those payments was crazy,” she told me. Eventually, seeing the progress she was making, the Harmony Project offered to pay the other half of Vianney’s tuition.

The Music Academy at Colburn is a highly competitive pre-college program, and Vianney said most of the top musicians there were white. They came from elite private schools. She immediately understood how different her experience had been from theirs. “I was taking Honors Literature and I struggled,” she told me. “I mean, a lot. In private school they teach other stuff, because these kids walked into Honors Lit and they killed it.”

She started reading the newspaper every day, studying all the vocabulary she didn’t know. “It became like a mission,” she told me, “to just push myself, push myself, push myself.” In 2008, during her sophomore year, she read the phrase “religious crusade” and understood what it meant, and in that moment it dawned on her that her work was paying off.
Arguably, Ms Vianney is fortunate, in that her immediate family and her classmates in the common schools didn't undermine her at every turn. It's not so much about white privilege, either, as it is about cultural capital. Her classmates at music camp were insiders.

But I think Mrs Menkedick should put the high social science away this summer, and find herself an Oktoberfest and go to it.
For many European immigrants who came to the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the gradual shedding of ethnicity in order to fit into Anglo-Protestant white culture was essential to success and advancement. As one mid-century Italian American put it, “We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents.” For many second-generation Mexican Americans today, the opposite is true: They are becoming Americans by seeking out and embracing their ancestral cultures, learning how to be proud of their parents. Their understanding of what it means to be an American derives not so much from the symbols and institutions of mainstream white culture but from a powerful sense of in-betweenness. For them, Americanness is less a sweeping mythology to which they must submit and more a framework for seeing, thinking, blending, reinventing. Their experience grows out of distinct demographic, social, and economic conditions, and their unique take on identity has challenged longstanding ways of thinking about assimilation.
Let the blending and reinvention start with a good liter of beer!
According to [sociologist Milton] Gordon, assimilation depended first upon acculturation: the immigrant group’s willingness and ability to learn English, and to adopt white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class customs, after which point its members would gradually be allowed into white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class clubs and institutions, and would ultimately identify with and marry into the dominant group. In this theory there is no mutuality, no fusion. Assimilation is a one-way train to the cookie-cutter suburbs of Kansas, Applebee’s, Kmart, and the NFL. Gordon admitted a modest influence of ethnic minorities on cuisine, architecture, and place names, but the sizzlin’ pepper-jack quesadilla was largely the extent of the exchange. To adherents of this view, the “core culture” is stolid and unchanging; it exists beyond reach of minority groups, and cannot be influenced by their beliefs, traditions, and lifestyles. The incorporation of immigrants into white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture is seen as progressive, complete, and irrevocable, a gradual, generational act of erasure.
That's written by somebody who has never seen the cookie-cutter suburbs of Kansas (if there even are such things), let alone contemplated the origins of the Sunday picnic, the Friday fish fry, or the Christmas tree.  (And somehow Thanksgiving morphed from a seaside clam-bake into a roasting of the turkeys.)  There is some academic thinking along these lines.
According to [sociologists >Alejandro] Portes and [Rubén] Rumbaut, the deciding factor in whether second-generation immigrants achieve success is whether they are able to adopt U.S. cultural and social norms while simultaneously honoring and preserving the traditional cultures of their families. In academic circles, this is known as selective acculturation. It is a notion similar to multiculturalism, although more substantive in practice: The goal isn’t for Mexican culture to be a colorful sequence of parades and piñatas adorning the stolid, white, Protestant, Anglo mainstream, but rather to be a reservoir of deeper meaning for immigrants, offering them a foothold of purpose, history, and connection as they interact with often hostile and predominantly white institutions. Selective acculturation, which includes fluent bilingualism and the reinforcement of ethnic identity, could be a cushion against a nihilistic descent into the anarchic, deadly belonging of gangs or drugs.

It is not often discussed today, but the European immigrants who arrived between 1890 and 1920 also experienced a backlash, and in 1924 the U.S. passed a law stipulating that the maximum annual number of immigrants who could be admitted to the U.S. from any given country was 2 percent of the number of immigrants from that country living in the U.S. in 1890.
Yes, and World War I involved European powers, several of which had contributed the huddled masses honoured in the Emma Lazarus poem to the United States, but those European powers were also home to all sorts of dangerous ideas such as Bolshevism, a Russian implementation of a German idea.  Oh, and the unionized factories Mrs Menkedick sees as providing succor to those not-yet-white immigrants?  Not until the Great Depression, when the factories weren't hiring; and the good manufacturing jobs required  the U.S. military to take the competition out of the market for twenty years.  (And somehow Americans of Italian extraction have overcome their association, from the Depression era well into the end of the Cold War, with gangs and drugs.)

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