Are Mexicans Melting into America or Not?

Adapted from "Our Hispanic Predicament"
by Linda Chavez, Commentary, June 1998:

In Los Angeles in February 1998, a crowd of over 91,000 fans, made up predominantly of Latinos who live and work in southern California, gathered for the Gold Cup soccer match between the Mexican and U.S. national teams. They did not come to root for the home team. Rather, they booed and whistled through the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner," and then proceeded to pelt the players on the American team with food, bottles, and cans.

The incident provoked days of coverage in the local media, most of it antagonistic to the Latino community. In one of dozens of letters that appeared in Los Angeles newspapers, a Mexican-American fan himself complained bitterly that he and his young son had been sprayed with beer and soda by fellow Latinos for having had the temerity to display a small American flag. A player on the U.S. team noted that he and his teammates had been treated far better when they played in Mexico City than at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Dozens of other letter-writers expressed their disgust with Hispanic immigrants who were happy to take advantage of American jobs, education, medical care, and welfare benefits while spitting on American symbols.

Were this mini-riot and the reaction to it an aberration, or a glimpse into a disturbing future? To put it broadly, can the United States successfully assimilate its large and rapidly growing Hispanic population, or are Hispanics becoming a permanently aggrieved and volatile minority? By the year 2008, Hispanic-Americans, currently 29 million strong, will outnumber blacks and form the largest minority group in the country. In 50 years, if trends hold, they will make up one-quarter of the total U.S. population. Not since the first decades of this century has the United States experienced so intense and far-reaching a demographic shift.

Thanks to a 1965 change in immigration law that gave priority to relatives of persons already living in the United States, a tide of poorly educated, non-English-speaking Mexican immigrants began to wash over U.S. towns and cities. Their ranks were swollen further by substantial numbers of illegal immigrants.

By the 1980s, Mexican-Americans were making economic gains. Except among the most recent immigrants from Mexico and among Puerto Ricans and certain other Hispanics where an underclass culture has taken root, the main obstacle in the Hispanic community today is not a lack of economic mobility. The real problem is that, whatever the degree of their economic success, only haltingly are Hispanic immigrants becoming part of the social, political, and cultural fabric of the U.S. The evidence attesting to this is, unfortunately, abundant.

One key indicator is the rate of naturalization. Even after nearly 20 years of U.S. residence, fewer than one in five Mexican-Americans choose to acquire American citizenship. Another indicator is language. As of 1990, three-quarters of Mexican immigrants who arrived in the 1980s still spoke little or no English. About one-quarter of all Mexican immigrants have not learned to speak English even after decades in the U.S.

What these numbers reveal is that many Mexicans straddle two worlds. While living and working in the United States, they listen to news from their native country on Spanish-language radio and TV stations, make frequent visits across the border, and send money back home to the tune of $4 billion a year. They hope to return to Mexico permanently once they have gained some financial security.

As if to muddy the waters still further, the Mexican government has begun to take an aggressive interest in its foreign nationals. Its most visible step thus far has been to adopt a law allowing émigrés and their offspring to apply for an attenuated form of Mexican citizenship, including the right to own property in Mexico and to hold a Mexican passport. As soon as the law went into effect in 1998, hundreds lined up at consulates throughout the United States to apply for the new status, many simply as a way of asserting their Mexican identity.

Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C., and the author of Out of the Barrio.