America has not been a nation for well over a century. She is more like an Indian stew: Never taken off the fire, the mess of wild carrots and fish is gradually transformed by the daily addition of squirrels and squash, birds and deer, and the odd bit of human body. By the end of a month, the burgoo has gone through so many transformations as to be unrecognizable. In the same way, a largely Anglo-American Protestant nation was transformed first by Northern Europeans; then, by Southern and Eastern European Catholics and Jews; and, in the latest phase, by Latinos, principally Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, and, above all, Mexicans.
No one knows how many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans live here. In the roundest of numbers, there are perhaps 15 million Mexican immigrants, a third of them illegal, and perhaps 15 million U.S. citizens of Mexican origin or descent, for a total of some 30 million. There are at least ten million more people from other parts of Latin America. As a percentage of the American population, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have overtaken African-Americans as the dominant minority group, and, if the current rates of immigration are permitted to continue, the Mexican and Latino proportion of the population figure could double in ten years. Given the differential in birthrates between non-Mexican native-born Americans and Mexican-Americans, the United States may be rapidly headed toward a situation resembling that of Canada, which is bilingual, bicultural, and binational. In the worst case, this would produce an armed struggle between the two groups. More optimistically, one might imagine a future United States in which Americans of Mexican descent have been peacefully assimilated.
The term assimilation has distorted many a discussion of immigration. Mexican immigrants are not a blank slate on which pop culture and public schools can engrave some predetermined “American” message; they are a distinct people, with their own language, culture, and history.
When two cultures come into a long-lasting contact, several results are possible, ranging from conflict to amalgamation, though the two are not mutually exclusive: In border areas, the people of one culture may imitate the other’s folkways without growing to love the people across the frontier. Texans on the border have learned to eat Mexican food and pepper their language with mispronounced Spanish phrases, but they may still express hostility to Mexicans, both individually and collectively. Similarly, Mexicans in Juarez and Nuevo Laredo may watch American television, eat at McDonald’s, and spend a good deal of the year on the American side of the border, while harboring resentments against their wealthy neighbors to the north.
The most dangerous meeting of cultures is the sort of warfare carried on by the Indians of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico with European settlers. For generations, the Apache fought with Mexicans and Americans to maintain their very existence. They lost and became marginal players in a country they once possessed, much as Mexicans, after two wars, became marginal players in the northern parts of Mexico that are now American states.
Even the most violent conquerors will take women from their subjects and absorb at least some of their culture. To describe this process of mixing, I prefer the word amalgamation, because assimilation assumes that cultural transformation is a one-way process. Rather little of the vast, largely unreadable sociological “literature” on assimilation that has overflowed the study of immigration addresses real-world issues. Few of the social scientists appear to have any idea of what, historically, the American identity (or identities) is (or are).
For one neoconservative pundit, America is defined as the public use of the English language, liberal egalitarian political ideas, and the Protestant Work Ethic. Such an abstract definition conveniently leaves out large groups, including Catholics, Southern crackers, and traditional conservatives. Fond of graphs and choking on a speciously technical vocabulary of invented terms, those who subscribe to this view display little knowledge of American history and still less of traditional American culture. They write glibly of immigrants assimilating, without ever considering what it is they are assimilating to, and, when confronted by natives who do not welcome a massive influx of foreigners, they take no interest in any nativist point of view, which, even in its mildest form, is condemned as racism.
This abstract approach to assimilation derives, ultimately, from the conviction that America is an exceptional nation, one not rooted in blood, soil, and kinship but “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Proponents of this view are quick to label the more old-fashioned view, that the nation is an extended family, as bigotry, but no amount of repetition or rhetorical extravagance can disguise the dangerous logic that is at work.
If I love my country because it is mine, I must be loyal to it, even when I disagree with its policies, but I do not necessarily regard it as superior to everyone else’s country, and I may have no inclination to say that all other countries, to the extent they are legitimate and worthy of respect, must approximate my own. The advocates of the “propositional nation,” however, insist that the United States is not only the best nation in the history of the world but a beacon to all mankind, the natural home of all the good and decent people in the world, and the enemy of all regimes that deny their subjects equal rights. Thus, by the same argument, a propositional nation is not only obliged to open its borders to strangers “yearning to breathe free” but justified in engaging in endless crusades to impose its propositions on the rest of the world.
American exceptionalism is as dangerous to Americans as it is to the rest of the world. Violent immigrants may, in fact, destroy a native culture and identity, as British settlers did in North America. On the other hand, it may be the immigrants who are absorbed, peacefully or not, by their hosts. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, France received a steady stream of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Poland, but the comparatively slow rate of immigration and the power of French cultural institutions (army, schools, Church) did a thorough job of assimilating the newcomers.
More often, however, a small but dominant immigrant group gradually adopts the language and culture of its subjects, particularly when the preceding culture is older and on a higher level. This is, to one degree or another, what happened after the German occupation of France, Italy, and Spain, but not until the standard of living had collapsed, and, with it, much of the cultural proficiency of the Roman world. Medieval Italy was not simply a revival, much less a continuation, of the old Roman order. The everyday language was less complex and contaminated with Germanic words; personal vengeance and dueling were acknowledged forms of justice; sanitation, hygiene, and health had collapsed to a primitive level.
Finally, in some instances, different ethnic groups may live side by side as the French and English have done in Canada, the Flemish and French in Belgium, and the French, Italians, and Germans in Switzerland, to say nothing of the ethnic patchworks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or postcolonial states in Africa. Sometimes, the coexistence is peaceful, as in Switzerland; at others, one or the other group may long for separation, as in Quebec, Belgium, and Yugoslavia.
Which scenario will be played out here, as the Hispanic population becomes, say, one fourth or one third of the population? An answer to this question will be determined partly by the circumstances and partly by the outlook of those giving the answer. Certainly, most non-Hispanic Americans, whatever their views on immigration, expect Spanish-speaking immigrants to abandon their language and accept the mainstream “values” of American culture. There are leftists, as well as Chicano nationalists, who oppose assimilation. Some might welcome a reconquest of the territory taken from Mexico, while others speak of a multicultural society that will include many cultural alternatives to the white-bread Anglo-American tradition.
Assuming, for the moment, that the preferred model is assimilation of immigrants to the “American way of life” and that the least desirable would be a reconquista that turns the Southwest into something like Quebec, what are the most favorable conditions under which a sizable minority can be integrated into the mainstream? There are two sides to this question, defined, roughly, by the border between the United States and Mexico.
Any country that expects to absorb a large population of aliens must have a coherent sense of itself. Such a sense of identity is the product of many elements: a single language; a unified culture based on shared moral values and common faith; and a sense of history. To shape and transmit this identity, strong institutions and traditions are required: a national literature and an accepted set of classics; effective schools that reflect and reinforce the moral and social outlook of the nation; a self-confident church or, failing that, a set of cooperating churches; some form of adolescent initiation, such as universal military training.
America meets none of these requirements. Mexico, with her distinctive cuisine, music, and historical mythology, comes far closer. The differences between Mexicans and Americans are not superficial, nor will economic success eliminate them. As Octavio Paz pointed out in 1979, “Our countries are neighbors, condemned to live alongside each other; they are separated, however, more by social, economic, and psychic differences than by physical frontiers.” While the more obvious differences in wealth and power might be overcome, he added, “the really fundamental difference is an invisible one, and in addition it is probably insuperable.”
Why would decent Mexicans want to assimilate? Mexican immigrants arriving today are greeted by a shoddy mass culture—fast food, canned music—that offers few incentives except to the lowest characters. The choice of most immigrants is either to assimilate, jettisoning language and cultural identity in favor of the mass culture, or remain Mexican. Ironically, the latter may be the better choice; the longer immigrant children remain in the United States, the worse off they are, and “the more ‘Americanized’ they become, the more likely they [are] to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, unprotected sex, and delinquency.”
Immigrants who arrived 100 or even 50 years ago were confronted by an American myth that emphasized the courage, generosity, and rugged independence of the American spirit. That patriotic myth, however, has been displaced by a New Myth, in which ruthless white patriarchal males eliminated the Indians, exploited blacks, subjugated women, and poisoned the environment. The American ideal lay not in the past but in the future, at the end of a long road, signposted by the liberation of slaves, women, children, homosexuals, and immigrant minorities. Lincoln took the first big step forward toward a just world, and he was followed by the IWW and the AFL; Martin Luther King, Jr., Betty Friedan, and César Chávez; and an endlessly expanding circle of Latino-rights agitators.
The New Myth also offers a new version of U.S. relations with Mexico. For earlier generations, the defenders of the Alamo were heroes who were ruthlessly slaughtered by Santa Anna, the archetypal Mexican leader—corrupt, violent, and incompetent. The American left, by contrast, has applied its universal paradigm of American oppressor/minority victims to Mexican-American relations. Although only the tiniest fraction of Mexican-Americans today are descended from Mexicans who once lived in the American Southwest, all Mexican immigrants have automatic entrance to the privileged class of victimized minorities. Of course, this privilege is not translated into bank accounts or good jobs—those are reserved for immigrants who learn to speak English and play by American rules. But students in public schools are encouraged to cling to their native tongue and taught the litany of complaints against the Anglo ruling class.
At heart, the celebration of the Mexican identity in American schools is an attack on Euro-America. Students are taught to hate the American past and to despise the pathetic Anglos who are the only obstacle to the reconquest. Chicano radicals have little influence today, but they are funded and encouraged by public schools and public universities. If Mexican immigrants refuse to integrate into the American mainstream, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Sunk into a stupor of buying and consuming, we have turned our backs on our own civilization and offer nothing to our children but the gospel of success.
But we should look on the bright side. Ten years from now, Anglo teenagers will be trading in their rap CDs and baggy jeans for straw hats, boots, and corridos celebrating the homicidal exploits of drug runners. This could be the accordion revival Tony Bukoski is dreaming of.