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Feature 072213 Villarreal

Monday, July 22, 2013

Education: Immigrants in the USA and the Path to Integration

By Rosa Martha Villarreal

With the U.S. Senate’s passage of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it is set to meet resistance.  Among the issues that have arisen with opponents of immigration reform is that the predominately Mexican population residing illegally in the country, because of the proximity of Mexico, will resist assimilation and not learn English, thus becoming a nation within the nation.

The evidence, however, does not substantiate those claims.  Descendants of Mexicans of today are English proficient, and by the time the third generation enters school they are essentially monolingual. (It is Spanish, not English, which is lost.)

Another  barometer of assimilation is intermarriage. Mexican Americans have historically intermarried at a rate of 30%.  A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center put the most recent number at 26%.  As a Mexican American whose parents were immigrants, I can attribute this trend to one powerful force: public education.  The positive results of public education cannot only be seen in the success of native born generation Mexican Americans, but also, by extension, the varying transformation of the immigrant generation.

The story of my extended family, which is not unique, provides a glimpse into the process of assimilation and syncretism. Before we started school, we the first American-born generation were essentially raised as Mexicans in every aspect.  Our parents were too busy working (several jobs sometimes) to succeed economically, and, thus, it was left up to our public school teachers to begin the acculturation process.  Though I am not an expert in semiotics, I can attest that studying in a language different from one’s first language profoundly affects the thought process itself.  It is as if the difference in syntax, sound, and symbols transforms one’s ability to see the unspoken aspects of a society and infer its value system.  As a community college instructor, I often speak to my foreign born students of the concept of cultural capital: that system of rules, idioms, symbols, and behavioral norms that native English speakers take for granted but are necessary for one’s integration and upward mobility.  Cultural capital is the tool box that provides one with the means of deciphering the invisible map of the power structure, and one’s ability to navigate that power structure.

Public education is also essential in the integration process for the immigrant generation. In my extended family’s journey, our parents initially relied on their children’s language acquisition to help them (the parents) navigate in the English speaking world.  We served as their interpreters not only with regards to language but culture as well.  The younger generation’s education acquisition of cultural capital influences the immigrant community. Thus we see in a matter of a few years immigrant  families celebrating traditional American holidays like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Memorial Day; and acquiring American-style tastes in clothing, food, and entertainment.  The first American-born generation’s public education, thus, serves as a cultural bridge. The degree of acculturation depends on the individual family, especially if the kids go to college like we did in my family.  My parents, for example, were not only very comfortable in their use of the English language, but were avid consumers of American music, television  and cinema.  Among their favorites were  the music of Johnny Cash, the film Fiddler on the Roof, and irreverent television shows like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and Saturday Night Live.

The claim that Mexican Americans want to remain culturally separate is untrue based on the facts on the ground.  Although the Chicano Nationalist Movement of the late 1960’s had called for the creation of a separate nation “Aztlán,” this call did not originate at the grassroots level but among a group of college students who had recently discovered their roots.  Thus, the idea of a separate nation never gained traction in the general community, and, ironically, the establishment of Chicano/Latino/Ethnic Studies, which is criticized by the Right as promoting “hate,”  is one of the reason why the notion of a separate nation is an anachronism. 

The rise of Chicanismo was a reaction to the historical marginalization of Mexican Americans.  Our history in the US, which predates the English settlements in the 1600’s, was essentially erased, and our cultural contributions were ignored.  These Ethnic Studies programs provided an intellectual and institutional forum to recover this lost history and a space for writers, artists, and intellectuals to work and create.  The inter-disciplinary nature of work of these scholars and artists has raised the consciousness of the generation population, and has smoothed the way for the acceptance of Latinos and helped Latinize the nation’s taste and culture.  The academic institutions, by appropriating the themes and symbolism of this movement, succeeded not only by increasing Latino college enrollment and graduations (and by extension, increasing the ranks of the Latino middle-class), but quelled collective indignation and mainstreamed it in the process.

As the Latino community becomes more affluent and politically enfranchised, one can even make the case that these programs should be dismantled and that Latino/Chicano/Ethnic Studies should be part of the regular literature and history curricula.  I couldn’t agree more.  History should teach us all of American history: that of the Anglo-Scots, Spanish, Indians, Africans, Asians, and other immigrants.  Literature should reflect the dreams and artistic visions of  all of a nation’s peoples.  Literature is especially important because it invites the individual mind into that intellectual space called fiction and engages the imagination to live through the experiences of others.  This culturally inclusive education should be extended to all, not just those of a particular ethnic background.  Contrary to what proponents of traditional Americanism think, telling the whole truth about the nation’s history doesn’t subtract from the nation but enriches it. 

Public education, thus, not only provides the framework for the integration of a large immigrant community, but strengthens the nation as a whole by breaking down misconceptions and myths. No longer considered outsiders in our own country, Mexican Americans have undergone a syncretistic evolution, adapting the culture of origin with American-style modernity.  This evolution is reflected in how we self-identified over time -- from Mexicans, to Chicanos, to Latinos/ Hispanics.  We are Americans albeit a unique brand, and we have changed America with our culture and our bloodlines.


Rosa Martha Villarreal is a novelist and essayist and member of PEN USA.  She received the 2008 Josephine Miles PEN Literary Award, and a Silver Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction.  Her children’s novel, The Adventures of Wiglaf the Wyrm, which was inspired by the epic poem Beowulf, will be released as an ebook in August 2013.

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