Dos Caminos:Two Roads
by Diane Alden
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
or 500 years America has witnessed a tide of men braving nature, isolation, uncertainty and sometimes fear looking for something. That something may be religious, political, economic or personal, but their search has had profound implications for the entire world. Millions of immigrants have taken a chance on America and America has in return taken a chance on them. In each wave, the newcomers have had one thing in common: the price they paid for seeking the unknown country.
Of those who have braved the process of exploration and discovery, some have found more than they could have hoped for while others have found themselves on a road to nowhere. The reasons for the difference in outcome are as numerous as the individuals and the paths they chose. English, Italians, Irish, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, East Europeansethnics from every continent and country have brought their cultures, sensibilities, and expectations. The mixthe American souphas been a tasty blend of colors, customs and traditions. As each ethnic group has been assimilated, each in turn has adopted political, social and cultural norms and forms which are uniquely American.
Yet, whether ethnic and racial groups have come to America as a result of free choice or as a consequence of some kind of bondage, their impact on American society remains both dynamic and charged with difficulties and complications.
As the most recent wave of mankind to America, Hispanics face some of the same problems and choices of previous immigrants. Others, however, are uniquely their own, colored by American historyespecially that of the last 35 years. The choices Latinos* face and the decisions they make about those choices will have a far-reaching effect on the American future. The question of choices is the American question.Choices "Our families are strong but they must work so hard, sometimes taking two or three jobs to survive. It affects the stability in the home life," says Father Otmar Botia, assistant pastor of St. Therese The Little Flower Catholic Church in Reno. "Parents must choose between survival and making time for a family life." Father Botia, both as a spiritual leader and as a recent immigrant himself, knows the uncertainties as well as the possibilities awaiting the Hispanic community in Nevada.
Rapidly becoming the United States largest ethnic group, by the year 2050 demographers project that Latinos will be approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population, with a two-to-one ratio over black Americans.
After a tidal wave of immigration between 1890 and 1910 there was a steep decline until 1970 when it again increased. Of the 4.5 million recent immigrants to the U.S. about 43 percent are Latinos, and today approximately 29 million Hispanics live in the U.S. These demographic statistics have immense significance. Manny Ortiz, a Puerto Rican professor at Westminister Theological Seminary, says, "Demograph-ics means money, scholarships and other resources." To Latino activists and some politicians these are important considerations and reflect the choice of direction the entire Hispanic community has before it.They Work Hard for the Money Like other community leaders, Renos Father Botia says, "What Latinos need most is a chance. They come to this country unprepared with little education, but they work hard and may need help at some point in their struggle to be assimilated. Help should come in the form of understanding by the larger society. It should revolve around communication between cultures."
Father Botia maintains that Latinos have much to offer American culture in the form of strong values and hard work.
Work hard they do. Eighty percent of all Hispanic men in the United States have jobsthe highest proportion of any measured group. A Las Vegas builder confides that he prefers to hire Hispanics because they come prepared, work hard and ask for the next thing to do. They are extremely loyal, show up on time and dont complain, he emphasizes, adding that several of his workers have gone on to start subcontracting businesses of their own.
While Nevada Hispanics work hard, many are in food service and domestic work. Individually they make only 57 percent of the national average income. But because most households have more than one bread winner the average household income is 73 percent of the national average. A high percentage of these households are young men married with children. About 37 percent of Hispanic households consist of two parents raising children, in comparison with 25 percent among non-Hispanic Americans. The Hispanic divorce rate also is significantly lower than that found in the culture at large.
Father Botia believes it is these strong families which build the strong work ethic. "These are conservative people who want to better themselves and their childrenjust as all the other immigrant groups have done in the past."The Business of America ike other immigrant groups before it, the Hispanic community finds its success stories are growing. In 1992 there were 863,000 Hispanic-owned businesses.
The number in 1998 will be over one million.
Between the years 1987 and 1992 receipts from Spanish-owned businesses doubled from $32 billion to $76 billion. Today Hispanic-owned businesses generate more than $200 billion in annual revenues.
Reporter Roberto Suro, son of a Puerto Rican father and an Ecuadoran mother, says in his book Strangers Among Us, "The real economic growth is taking place in the private sector. The danger is that the taxes necessary for even small public sector growth will stifle the private sector." Suro describes in detail how high taxes and a regulatory quagmire in New York failed to generate new jobs, thus hurting Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Lower taxes in California and Texas served Latinos better, says Suro.
Nationally, Hispanic business ownership extends to many areas, including manufacturing and information technology. It has surpassed that of blacks, a racial group of similar size, and has done so without much reliance on government assistance.
Here in Nevada Hispanic-owned businesses are just beginning to expand. The problems of language and access to capital are barriers, but recently Wells Fargo Bank instituted a loan program targeting the Hispanic population in the state, offering loans to worthy small- business ventures. In addition BankAmerica has set aside $140 billion nationally for community lending over the next 10 years. In the past Latinos have been turned down at a high rate, and these new private business programs are geared towards addressing that. If, as Calvin Coolidge once said, "The business of America is business," Latinos are working hard to become very American.A Question of Values While prosperity is as important to Hispanics as they are to most Americans, questions loom large in the realm of valuessocial, educational and cultural. Strong family ties speak well for Hispanics, but Father Botia expresses concern that Latinos may be affected by American culture more adversely than positively. He sees problems in Nevada related to gangs, many of which have come to the state from Los Angeles. A second generation of Latinos may not have the religious and social conservatism of previous generations.
Father Botia acknowledges that education is a problem for new immigrants who come to the U.S. poorly educated, which makes it difficult for them to compete.
Most studies, however, indicate that Hispanic parents want their children to become good students who speak English and are able to find good jobs and participate as citizens. According to The Hispanic Dropout Project, a 1995 report funded by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly one in five U.S. Hispanics between 16 and 24 left school with neither a high school diploma nor its equivalent. The proportion of Hispanics without a high school diploma is around 30 percent, 2.5 times that of blacks and 3.5 times that of white non-Hispanics. The report blames crumbling and overcrowded schools, inadequate teacher training, lowered expectations and bureaucracies that discourage parental involvement. But other experts like Keith Baker and Christine Rossell, who did a study for the federal Department of Education, blame failed bilingual education which they say sidetracks and discourages Hispanic pupils.
By way of contrast, the second-largest group of recent immigrants are Russians, whose children are put into regular education programs with some extra tutelage and very little special language consideration. According to statistics gathered from several pilot projects, the children of Russian immigrants are accomplishing scholastic goals often times at a significantly higher level than native-born American students.
Almanac of American Politics editor Michael Barone says Hispanics have been injured by public schools held hostage by the teacher unions, professors of education and government bureaucrats. His research shows that bilingual education holds children in the program for years. Furthermore he believes bilingual education isnt the only problem. Latino children need basic learning, he says, not whole language, new math and other non-essentials which the public schools have been offering for the last 20 years. He indicates that things are improving and one-fifth of Hispanic children are in charter schools.Bilingual Boondoggle ilingual education began over 30 years ago as an idealistic attempt to help Hispanics fit into the American mainstream. The rationale behind it was that it would be easier for recent Hispanic immigrants to learn English if it was filtered through Spanish first. Unfortunately, that effort seems to have hindered the mainstreaming of Hispanic children. Yet liberal dogmatists cling to bilingual education and wave the banner of diversity to justify its continued use as an educational tool.
In comments in the Reno Gazette-Journal justifying bilingual education, UNR professor Emma Sepulveda argued that the practice is crucial to the success of Hispanic students.
"In keeping with the American way," she wrote, "they [Hispanic parents] could sue if they get enough parents together; they could force the school to give their children the instruction they need, in the language they need [Spanish]. The other alternative will be one that we have already seen in Nevada schools immigrant students will simply drop out in frightening numbers." However, statistics from schools around the countryincluding Clark and Washoe countiesshow that Hispanic children are dropping out at an alarming rate even with bilingual education. Like many on the left who cling to the failed social and educational programs of the Great Society, Sepulveda says she believes the answer to the lack of results from bilingual education is to simply "fix it."
"This bilingual program became distorted into a unilingual program," observes Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report. "Instead of three years of transition from Spanish to English, children often have seven years in a more or less permanent linguistic ghetto." Why? Because the focus became less on learning English and more on retaining the native language for reasons of national pride and self esteem. "This agenda is a disservice to children and fragments our nation," says Zuckerman.
Newspaper and academic polls conducted in California, Texas and Florida report some 80 percent of Hispanic parents consider learning English more important than instruction in the native language or native culture. In the words of L.A. parent Margo Hernandez, , "Heritage can pass on within the familyas it has been done for centuries."
The reality is that after decades of bilingual education, Hispanic children are no further ahead in English language skills. So why keep an ineffective system? A 30 percent dropout rate of Hispanic students would indicate a serious flaw in the present formula. In addition, poll after poll indicates Hispanic parents would prefer their children to be taught in English only, but still the educational and political establishment fails to respond.
Glenn Garvin of Reason discovered that a prime reason for maintaining bilingual education is money. "The financial incentives are considerable," he says. "Money is scattered across thousands of budgets at all levels of government. In California it reaches $2 billion annually and can add $5,000 a year to the salary of a bilingual teacher."
Writer Peter Schrag identifies "a perverse incentive to stuff kids into bilingual education and keep them there. The state and federal money keeps rolling in for every student taking part in the program."Assimilate: To Be Absorbed or To Understand? The question most often asked by culture watchers is, "Will Latinos and Hispanics assimilate?" The answer to that question depends on whom you talk to.
"The majority want to assimilate," says former Nevada State Assemblyman Brian Sandoval. "There will always be some who will want to maintain a cultural independence. Assimilation is not a bad thing. Generations of immigrants have assimilated and still have [their] cultural identity."
Phillip Sanchez, former Ambassador to Honduras and Colombia, says, "Allegiance to the United States is growing among Hispanics who have been naturalized. There are now more than 5,000 Hispanics in elected or appointed positions in the government. While progress has been slow, there has been progress." Sanchez, after a career in local government, became the highest ranking Hispanic federal appointee as Director of the National OEO (War on Poverty). Currently, his newspapers, including Tiempos del Mundo and Noticias del Mundo, are published in every nation in the Western Hemisphere. Ambassador Sanchez maintains that the radicalism of the 1960s decried assimilation but that in recent years most responsible Hispanics have pushed for it. He believes that America will not have to endure a country within a country, and as has happened in the past, Hispanics will be absorbed and the rest of America will understand the good things offered by Hispanic and Latino culture.
When asked about anti-Hispanic feeling in the U.S., Ambassador Sanchez points out that all immigrant groups have had to endure a period when they were on trial in the predominant culture, but eventually all have evolved into what it is to be an American.
Barone sees some similarities between Latinos and the Italians of earlier waves of immigration. "Like the Italians," he says, "Latinos have a strong distaste for large institutions, a love of family, and a habit of hard work. Like Italians they have concentrated in a few metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami."
Nevada can expect to have a Hispanic population of 20 percentmainly concentrated in the Las Vegas areaby the year 2010. The population in Northern Nevada may be 12 to 15 percent Hispanic, according to projected state demographic statistics.
Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, is concerned that assimilation is no longer the norm. A recent political development in Mexico will now allow naturalized Mexican-Americans to keep their Mexican nationality. As many as seven million naturalized Americans could take advantage of the new law, perhaps doubling the number eligible to hold dual U.S. citizenship. For the first time millions of U.S. citizens could declare their allegiance to a neighboring country. She believes these changes in Mexican law will make it more difficult to assimilate Mexican-Hispanics into American culture.
Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials points to Hispanic demographics and says, "We will overwhelm." This does not indicate a desire to be assimilated.Paradox and Paradigm The question of assimilation seems to go hand in hand with the difficult question of illegal immigration. Between waves of immigration in the past there have been periods of time when immigrant groups have been able to learn and be absorbed into the American melting pot. For instance, after the large influx of newcomers between 1890 and 1910 there was an era when immigrants could be absorbed into the American system. During that time period established Americans could develop a familiarity and understanding of the new ethnic groups. This is not to say all was well between newcomers and old timers. Anti-foreign feeling was rampant in the 1920s. Being a foreigner in the United States sometimes meant taking abuse from natives.
In the present day, illegal immigration seems to be the focal point of anti-foreign feeling. States such as California, Texas and Florida found themselves inundated by new immigrantsboth legal and illegal. A backlash developed towards immigration in all its forms, resulting in efforts like Proposition 187 in California.
Some activists believe the question of assimilation has no relevanceand that illegal immigration does not indicate a problem. Carlos McCarthy of the Las Vegas paper El Mundo asserts illegal immigration is no problem, saying that the United States stole territory from Mexico. Since the old Mexican territory is "our country," he asks, how can Mexicans be illegal? His attitude is reflected elsewhere in the Hispanic community. During the Hispanic March in Washington in 1996, activists shouted, "This is my country, this is my struggle. Our culture, our pride, will never be denied. We are a people without borders."
With illegal immigration continuing apace there has been little time for the process of assimilation to work its magic. Fear often seems to be the prime directive. Illegal immigrants are fearful of being discovered and legal residents of the U.S. fear what will happen if a sizeable minority decides it doesnt want to be assimilated.The Greatest Immigration
Story of All Time? eter Skerry, an analyst of Hispanic and American politics, calls Hispanics "the ambivalent minority." He says, "They seem torn between presenting themselves as a put-upon racial group, following the African-American pattern, or the impulse to be part of the greatest immigration story of all times."
Following the civil rights movement, many black civil rights leaders promoted the idea of black victimization, depending for their own power on maintaining a position as champion of the "victim." Surely that has contributed to the significant percentage of black Americans has been lost to drugs, impoverishment, and educational, social and spiritual decay in recent decades. Government statistics show over 65 percent of live births among black women are illegitimate, while a high proportion of young black men languish in prison or have little education or marketable skills. Much of black popular culture is lost to the most outrageous and demeaning forms. Obviously, the price of "victim-ism" has been high.
Part and parcel of the black-as-victim process was the addition of government social programs which were supposed to help the poor and dispossessed. When the War on Poverty began in the 1960s, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York warned America that the ill-conceived programs would lead to a nightmare of social decay and destruction in the black community. History has proven him correct.
Some Latino activists want to take a page from those black American leaders and their white allies who seem to always find answers to communal and individual problems in government programs and preferences. By choosing the road of victimizationwhich provides rationalizations for preferences and special treatment for past injusticesLatino activists and leaders may cripple the very people they seek to lead.Dos Caminos There are always choices in life. There is always more than one road to travel. Will Hispanics choose the road to assimilation, self sufficiency, understanding and pride in individual accomplishment and join the ranks of other assimilated ethnic groups? Or will they take the path of victimization and permanent status as an underclass, thus allowing themselves to be at the mercy of opportunistic politicians and self-promoting leaders?
Latino participation in the American adventure adds richness, color and gusto. Their unique contributions and strengths may serve to reinvigorate us as a people. If they choose to become part of the American mix everyone will benefit. As other immigrant groups have discovered, Latinos will find that the answer to economic, social, political and spiritual problems lies within themselves. u
*Latinos: Individuals from one of the 17 Latin America nations. Hispanics refers to all Spanish-speaking individuals.[back]
Diane Alden is a Nevada Journal contributing editor.