Stirring The Nation’s Melting Pot: Assimilating And Americanizing Latinos In The United States

CBS, July 30, 2006

By the year 2040, there will be 60 million Latinos in the United States.

All they had to do was take to the streets, together, this spring to force the question, yet again, in our immigrant history: is it different this time? Is this invasion a threat? Will we become them or will they become us, asks CBS Sunday Morning contributor Martha Teichner.

The Barajas family, gathered at their house in East Los Angeles for a birthday party, offered a glimpse into Latino assimilation in America.

“Happy Birthday” was sung in English and the name on the cake read “Bobby” not Roberto.

Louis Barajas, Bobby’s brother, says everyone he knows comes from an immigrant family. “There isn’t a friend that I have that doesn’t have parents that came from Mexico,” he says.

The Barajas’ are the living, breathing embodiment of a statistic immigration analysts consider proof that Latinos are assimilating into American life——from Louis’s parents to his 13-year-old daughter, Aubrey.

“I talk to my parents in English. I talk to my grandpa in Spanish,” Aubrey says.

By the third generation, the vast majority of Latinos, nearly 80 percent, speak English. Many speak no Spanish at all.

So the good news is that if you look at those numbers, it’s clear that Latinos are no different from the immigrant groups who preceded them to this country, but depending on your viewpoint, that’s also the bad news, because anxiety over Latino immigration is all about numbers and their impact on American culture.

There are 40 million Latinos in the United States, more than 13 percent of the population.

Just turn on the television: Spanish language broadcasting is a multi-billion dollar growth industry. Look around at the nation’s construction workers, janitors, lawn crews and restaurant staff——Latino faces everywhere.

“People always emphasize the Latinization of America, and they don’t look at what’s happening to the Americanization of Latinos,” says Harry Pachon.

{snip}

A White House photo-op last week said it all. The three soldiers, wounded in Iraq, that the president swore in as U.S. citizens: two Mexicans and a Dominican.

“I live among immigrants. These folks had to rip themselves up from another culture, from their families and work in order to achieve a better life. They have voted with their feet and had the faith of the convert,” claims Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.

It’s in the nation’s interest to help them, according to Cisneros, a third generation Mexican-American, who was also mayor of San Antonio, Texas.

{snip}

Until after World War I, there really wasn’t such a thing as illegal immigration in the United States. Millions of immigrants just showed up in great waves, mainly Europeans escaping poverty and politics.

The United States has always been schizophrenic about Latinos, especially Mexicans, over and over again, inviting them in to fill labor shortages and then when times got tough, throwing them out.

For more than 20 years, there was even a guest worker program. It ended in 1964, but the migrants came anyway——illegally——their numbers multiplying exponentially ever since.

Today, an estimated 12 million are here illegally.

A CBS News/New York Times poll found that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans consider illegal immigration either a serious or very serious problem.

“You just have to say, ‘Hey folks, let’s go. “Let’s be practical. Get over it. Let’s think it through in a practical way.’ First of all, they’re really not going anywhere,” Cisneros says.

Born in Mexico, Alex Vega has been in the United States, undocumented, under the radar more than half his life. But in April he defiantly showed himself. He marched through downtown Los Angeles for immigrant rights, one of millions nationwide who understood what it meant to be seen and counted for the first time.

“I’m a ghost. I’m a ghost. I don’t——I’m 45-years-old, I got 10 children, I have a business, I own a house, but nothing is in my name,” Vega says.

Within five years, all 10 of Vega’s children, born here, U.S. citizens, will have reached voting age.

“In 20 years then we gonna run the country. Right now we running the cities. So little by little, we are running the show. Little by little——so the sleeping giant, it’s already awakened,” Vega says.

Last year, Los Angeles elected Antonio Villaraigosa as its first Latino mayor in more than a century. He joins three U.S. senators and something like 6,000 other Latino officeholders at all levels of government.

If that scares some people, it reassures others.

“Yes, it will change the country, but I believe, fundamentally, it adds to the richness of the country and more importantly, this is a population that understands the basic credo, the basic core of the American idea,” Cisneros says.

“They want to be part of the American dream.”

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