Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Hay Jae, Te Dije Que Aprendieras Español!"


A longstanding discussion/debate/argument that has plagued America, and specifically California, for decades found it's way to the forefront of my Diversity class last week, and I couldn't help but feel the heat of the matter as tension rose in the room. The issue is immigration and acculturation, namely with Hispanics, Latinos, Mestizos, Chicanos, whatever they wish to be called (ironically enough the argument was between a black and a white woman). These people are making their way across the border and scrambling to find their place in the scheme of America, but many struggle with their identity vs. their new environment.

A little about me, since self-disclosure is rarely an explored topic on this blog. I am biracial, born to a third generation Irish mother and stand as a first generation American to my Mexican immigrant father. Now my father came to America as a young child in the 50s, during a time when immigration from the south was even less accepted than it is now. There was no such thing as holding to one's roots, if you came to America, you were American, and that was the end of it; forget all past residencies. He was forced to learn English almost immediately and encouraged to avoid Spanish at all costs with the exception of his parents, who struggled with the language. Amidst discrimination and racism, my father decided, as most immigrants do, that the best thing for his children would be to become pure red-blooded Americans: "conform and life will be grand". He married a white woman and we ate predominantly Euro-cuisine and we spoke only English and such was life. But life wasn't grand.

My grandmother never learned English, aside from a few phrases here and there, and my grandfather, although well-versed, still struggled sometimes with communication with us. The 6 short years I knew my grandmother before she passed away, we hardly spoke, though in the last few years I spent nearly every day at their house. In the 9 years I knew my grandfather, though we survived with his English and love was never lost in translation, we never had a real conversation before he passed away. Last week, we had family visiting from Mexico. Though I hadn't seen some of them in as long as 20 years, we had nothing to say to each other, because I couldn't speak their language. And the lasting effects of my father's assimilation didn't end there. I couldn't stomach Mexican food until about three years ago, and in class, while we were discussing Latin Americans, the three "obvious" Latinas in the room were constantly asked referential questions in regards to Mexican culture, while I was overlooked repeatedly despite the fact that my last name is obviously Mexican and I was sitting up front with the rest of the Latinas. I just simply don't look the part.

Many Americans believe this is the way it should be. As if we should install ethnic-cleansing showers at the southern border with a sign that reads: "America! We Take Only the Best Potatoes!" But the immigrants are refusing to bend to the slightest degree.

What was pure assimilation in the 50s has today turned to pure separation, as John Berry would describe it, or the total rejection of one's host culture. Mexicans are less likely than ever to adapt to the language or to integrate with Euro-Americans if they don't have to. Scared of losing their roots and a sense of themselves, they hold tight to whatever fragments of their motherland they managed to salvage from home, almost as if they're refugees who can never return. They find their niches in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods and stay safe and secure in a cultural bubble far away from the American influence. While some have called America the great melting pot of the world, a more accurate description would be that of tiny blobs of oil in a pot of water, just floating about, bouncing up against other encapsulated blobs of oil; components never mixing, membranes never breaking.

Unfortunately, this method has its downfalls too, not only for the culture they immigrate to, but for them as well. Refusing to acculturate at all and remaining within their bubbles isolates the immigrants from the outside world. They rarely set foot outside their neighborhoods or away from their families and friends, and if they do, they are usually accompanied by a chaperon, a tourist with a cultural guide navigating through some vast unexplored jungle.

Meanwhile, the people of the host culture are taking offense, and this segregation fosters an Us vs. Them mentality. It bears the questions: "why don't they want to be part of us?" "do they think they're better than us?" Like having someone move into your home but refuse to be a part of your family. In addition, more anger and frustration comes from the government's handling of immigration, whereby we have gone above and beyond our means to accommodate our neighbors in their transition and they give little in return. The vast amount of money spent in the last decade printing everything from advertisements to government documents, exams, even labels on products in Spanish could probably finance the state of California through its bankruptcy for the next few years. Likewise, many of us versed only in our native tongue are losing jobs to bilingual applicants because we didn't bother to master the language of another country to get a job in our own. It's like losing a job in Wisconsin because you don't speak French. But, despite offering free adult education classes that teach English, they refuse to learn the language because they don't want to be "Us", they want to be themselves, they want to be Mexico in America, refusing to adapt, expecting us to adapt to them. And people are becoming intolerant.

What has proven to be psychologically and sociologically healthy for both parties involved is what Berry called "Bi-culturation". It allows immigrants to retain their own culture while familiarizing themselves with the host as well. In other words, a compromise, a balance of both worlds. Keep your culture and your rich ethnic background. Speak your language with family and friends, teach it to your children. But, learn the language of the culture outside your door. Learn to live in the new world you've chosen to come to, rather than barricading yourself away from it. But until we both reach an understanding, neither side will reach a compromise.

Assimilation costs people their identity, their origin, and important relationships within their families and friends. Separation causes people distress, isolation, and fosters segregation and discrimination in a society. In order for cultural harmony, immigrants need to be more readily adaptive when moving to a new country; likewise, that country needs to exercise a healthy amount of accommodation, without completely catering to our newer tenants.

I'll never be able to regain the countless conversations I should've had with my grandparents, and I've committed myself to learning Spanish this summer so I can talk to my family before they're gone too, but I have to admit I grow wary of what may soon be an English-second language country looming on the horizon.

1 comment:

Dee said...

Jae I think all countries have this issue but America, being one of the larger and less tolerant, has mishandled bi-culturalization so badly for over 60 years they're backpeddaling and trying to fix it. I say don't fix it. Move forward. Start here and now because you can't fix the past errors but you can make it easier for those caught up in them to NOW gain the ability to intermix without loosing their own identities.

I'm in the opposite situation. Living in Morocco I need to learn Arabic and/or French. In order to interact with my new family I have to learn these languages. In order to interact with my neighbors and community, I have to learn. It's difficult at my age but you're never too old.

Give it a go Jae. You'll probably pick up Spanish quicker than you'd expect. You've had exposure your entire life. Relax and let it happen.