During the Chicano Movement, serious conversations about identity always included the challenge of assimilation that left both Chicano activists and ideologues in a cold fury. Those in the community that did talk about the picture of Latinos in an integrated society inevitably turned to the notion of “acculturation” rather than assimilation.
To some, acculturation allowed Latinos to live in the body-politic of American life without compromising identity. They saw American cultural traits as a salad bowl with Latinos being one of the ingredients.
To others, acculturation did not go far enough as they envisioned their own metaphor for a national homeland called Aztlan and academic ethnic studies programs that explained it to the next generation. As the Latino community became more visible and active in mainstream affairs, many people, especially in the so-called Anglo community, reacted to much of this by doing things like passing English-only laws and branding anything else as not American.
As the political battles on this issue subsided, I began to feel the urgency to delve into the underlying causes of this sometimes intractable issue that must be resolved if Latinos are to provide the much needed national leadership in the coming years.
Recently, the Chamber of the Americas sponsored a town hall on immigration where assimilation became a prominent topic highlighted by an accusatory notion that Latino immigrants deliberately separate themselves into Spanish-speaking enclaves and make no effort to learn English. It dawned on me then that some of the same things were said about American-born Latinos throughout most of our history.
In other venues, I listened to questions about why is it that the Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans were able to assimilate and Latinos, to some extent, still have not. These conversations have led me to the belief that assimilation is really a two-way street.
A few days ago, I saw part of the debut of the television series “The Son” on the AMC network that featured the gross mistreatment of Mexican-Americans in South Texas to the point that the prominent Latino protagonist expressed to his daughter the idea that it was very bad luck to be a Mexican on the border. In a sense, that outward violence and concentrated effort to limit the possibilities of some sectors of the Latino community continue today.
Latinos and their European and Indian ancestors have been here for the longest time. They united with the land long before there was an American Manifest Destiny.
As hybrids of two different worlds, Latinos have had to navigate a difficult road that has, at times, tried to erase their identity and sense of place. Remember that the original Latinos did not start as immigrants but were born to the Americas with dreams only of survival.
They endured the ultimate test and undertook a 600 year saga that has brought them to prominence in the Western Hemisphere. The arrival of Latino immigrants in large numbers in the last 40 years serves as a reminder that the process that began with the birth of the first Mestizo on the American continent in 1512 is not finished.
Immigration from Europe to America led to an assimilation that did not accommodate the Native American nor the African American. Immigration from east to west maintained that condition and added Latinos to the outcast communities.
A more perfect and assimilated America will require the Latino community as a major participant and protagonist. Assimilation will reflect a 21st Century political reality where majorities and minorities can exchange places and still be treated the same.