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Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity
By Tomás R. Jiménez
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Sitting just southwest of Manhattan less than a mile from the Statue of Liberty is the most renowned symbol of U.S. immigration: Ellis Island. During the period of heavy European migration, which lasted from roughly 1880 to 1920, twenty-four million migrants came to the United States from countries such as Ireland, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Russia, seeking religious and political freedom and economic opportunity. Half of them passed through Ellis Island before venturing on to other destinations in the industrializing United States. But a series of events conspired to all but end the great European migration. World War I, restrictive immigration laws passed in 1917, 1921, and 1924, the Great Depression, and World War II slowed European migration to less than a trickle. The rapid decline of migration from Europe meant that a large facility to process immigrants was no longer necessary, so Ellis Island closed in 1954.
During the ensuing decades, Ellis Island stood as an abandoned and decaying relic of U.S. immigration. Looters pilfered what remained in the crumbling buildings, and vandals defaced the property. Pollution and the harsh weather in the New York Harbor deteriorated the ornate exterior of the main building. As Ellis Island lay empty and forgotten, the children and grandchildren of those who passed through it came of age. Many moved out of the ethnically concentrated neighborhoods in which they had grown up, attended college, contributed to war efforts, joined the American middle class, and married individuals outside their ethnic group. As these processes unfolded, the fears about racial contamination that had been prominent in public debates just a few decades earlier and the inability of southern and eastern European immigrants to assimilate disappeared. By the 1980s the grandchildren of these European immigrants were adults, and their assimilation into American society appeared complete. Their ethnic ancestry was scarcely a determinant of their opportunities and life chances. Their ethnic identity entered a "twilight" (Alba 1985).
Today, boats filled with people still arrive at Ellis Island, but they are not brimming with poor, tired immigrants. Instead, they carry tourists who come to visit what is now a National Park Service Monument and an immigration museum. The buildings are no longer dilapidated: the brick and stone Beaux-Arts façades are immaculately clean, the tiled floors and ceiling shine, and a fresh coat of paint blankets the interior. Many visitors come to Ellis Island hoping to recapture part of their family's past in the research center, where computers provide access to a massive database listing the names of immigrant ancestors who where processed there. Some visitors are so inspired by their visit that they pay a fee to have their immigrant ancestors' names inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. As a visit to Ellis Island suggests, the immigrant experience is a distant influence for descendants of early European immigrants. The often difficult journey of their immigrant ancestors is now largely imagined through family trees or lives only in pictures and museums, like the one at Ellis Island. Indeed, Ellis Island represents an American dream fulfilled.
More than twenty-eight hundred miles southwest of Ellis Island is an equally notable immigrant gateway: the border crossing between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. Like Ellis Island, the San Diego–Tijuana crossing has a prominent place in the history of U.S. immigration. As some European immigrants poured into the United States through Ellis Island at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mexican migrants journeyed through Tijuana (and many other cities along the border). In 1910, there were roughly 222,000 Mexican-born individuals living in the United States. By 1930, the number of Mexican immigrants had swelled to 617,000, or 4.3 percent of the total foreign-born population (González Baker et al. 1998: 87). The passage of these early Mexican immigrants differed significantly from that of their European counterparts. Many traversed the land on foot or by train or in some cases arrived by river, but they did not cross an ocean. Early Mexican immigrants did not pass through processing facilities, and most were never required to show documentation when crossing into the United States or back into Mexico. Nonetheless, these Mexican immigrants, like their European contemporaries, immigrated in search of a better life.
What has become of the later-generation descendants of early Mexican immigrants? We know that some of the children and grandchildren of these immigrants moved out of ethnically concentrated neighborhoods, joined the military, intermarried, and experienced socioeconomic mobility, though to a more modest degree than descendants of European groups. We also know that American society discriminated against the descendants of these early Mexican immigrants because of their ethnic origin. And we know that many of these descendants voiced their grievances about this treatment during the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
What we do not know as well is how ethnic identity plays out in the lives of later-generation Mexican Americans. Has their ethnic identity entered a twilight? Is their ethnic origin an important part of their identity? This book explores these questions by examining what it means to be Mexican American—a descendant of the earliest Mexican immigrants —in the United States today.
Contrasting the contemporary scene at the San Diego–Tijuana border crossing to the one found at Ellis Island suggests an answer to these questions. A trip to the San Diego–Tijuana crossing reveals no museums, exhibits, ancestral research center, or monuments honoring the early Mexican immigrants. The San Diego–Tijuana crossing is the busiest border crossing in the world. Thousands of people—workers, tourists, migrants, and smugglers—cross each day. Hundreds of cars line the highway leading through the main passage point, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents inspect vehicles for contraband and unauthorized migrants. Heavy metal fences and Border Patrol agents guard the area surrounding the main border crossing thoroughfare, and stretching east and west, a tall (and in some places multilayered) fence separates the two countries. Along some portions of the border, large stadium lights illuminate patches of open space where migrants may attempt to cross. Border Patrol agents roam these areas in jeeps and all-terrain vehicles searching for drugs, unauthorized crossers, and those who smuggle either of these. In more remote areas of the border east of San Diego, white wooden crosses memorialize individuals who have died attempting the trip north. These remote areas are also where organized "civil defense corps," like the Minutemen, monitor the border. For descendants of early waves of Mexican immigrants, the scene at the San Diego–Tijuana border does not represent a nostalgic look into America's past. And to many in the United States, Mexican immigration is seen as a threat to the nation's future.
Mexican Americans, unlike their later-generation European counterparts, live in a society in which emigration from their ethnic homeland is prominent. Although many Mexican Americans are several generations removed from their immigrant origins, thousands of immigrants from Mexico—representing 31 percent of all foreign-born individuals in the United States today—continue to enter this country (Migration Policy Institute 2008). Equaling the force of this demographic dominance are fiery debates about the social, economic, and political changes to the United States resulting from the influx of Mexican newcomers. The intensity of these debates is a function of not just the large number of Mexican immigrants but also their characteristics: they are generally poor, have little formal education, and concentrate in low-wage, low-status jobs, and the majority—54 percent—are in this country without legal authorization (Passel 2006).
Drawing on interviews and participant observation with later-generation Mexican Americans in Garden City, Kansas, and Santa Maria, California, I show in this book that these Mexican immigrants significantly shape what it means to be a later-generation Mexican American. Although later-generation Mexican Americans display a remarkable degree of social and economic integration into U.S. society, ongoing Mexican immigration, or immigrant replenishment, sustains both the cultural content of ethnic identity and the ethnic boundaries that distinguish groups. Mexican Americans' everyday experiences reveal that their ethnic identity is connected to contemporary Mexican immigration in ways that make that identity simultaneously more beneficial and costly than it would be without the ongoing immigration. Immigrant replenishment provides the means by which Mexican Americans come to feel more positively attached to their ethnic roots. But it also provokes a predominating view of Mexicans as foreigners, making Mexican Americans seem like less a part of the U.S. mainstream than their social and economic integration and later-generation status might suggest. Mexican Americans are not systematically excluded from full participation in American society. But the large presence of Mexican immigrants prevents Mexican Americans from being fully regarded as part of the quilt of ethnic groups that make up the "nation of immigrants." In practice, the core of the nation is composed of descendants from immigration waves that ended long ago.
IMMIGRATION, ASSIMILATION, AND THE PLACE OF MEXICANS
Explaining the experiences of Mexican Americans has proven difficult for scholars. The uniqueness of the Mexican-origin population in the United States relative to virtually any other ethnic group explains much of the difficulty. Unlike true immigrant groups, the first Mexicans in the United States were a colonized people whose presence here was not of their choosing. In 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the U.S.-Mexican War. The treaty stipulated that Mexico cede much of what is today the American West and Southwest to the United States for eighteen million dollars. Under the treaty, the estimated fifty thousand Mexicans who lived in the southwestern territory became U.S. citizens. These individuals represent the first significant presence of the Mexican-origin population in the United States and, indeed, the first Mexican Americans.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also established a border stretching over two thousand miles along the southwestern portion of the United States, a second source of exceptionalism. The length of the border and the close geographical proximity of the United States to Mexico means that people of Mexican origin do not have to travel far to come to the United States, nor do Mexicans in the United States have far to go to visit their ethnic homeland. Many Mexicans traveled regularly between the two countries in the years after Guadalupe Hidalgo, and many continue to make frequent trips back and forth (Roberts, Frank, and Lozano-Ascencio 1999; Smith 2005a). Although some European migrants traveled back to their country of origin (Wyman 1993), distance, cost, and inconvenience of travel mitigated the ease of doing so.
It was not until the early part of the twentieth century—more than fifty years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed—that the first major wave of Mexican immigration began and has continued virtually uninterrupted to the present day. The number of Mexican immigrants entering the United States has increased in each succeeding decade, with the exception of the 1930s (for reasons I discuss in the next chapter), and the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the United States has increased precipitously in the most recent decades (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002; Passel 2006). No other group has a history of significant immigration that spans the periods of the great European migration, the post-1965 immigration, and the period in between, and Mexicans are certainly the only group whose presence in the United States stems from both colonization and immigration. Figure 1 vividly shows the historical distinctiveness of Mexican immigration relative to selected European-origin immigrant populations. What is especially noteworthy is that Mexican immigration continued after European immigration declined. After 1970, the foreign-born Mexican population spiked, while the number of foreign-born individuals from European countries continued to descend.
The exceptional nature of the Mexican-origin population also stems from the size and characteristics of its foreign-born population. No other group constitutes a greater share of immigrants in the United States today. According to estimates based on the 2006 American Community Survey, Mexican immigrants make up nearly 31 percent, or 11.5 million, of the total U.S. foreign-born population. The next largest foreign-born population comes from China and accounts for only 5.1 percent of all newcomers (Migration Policy Institute 2008). Furthermore, levels of unauthorized Mexican migration are high. Demographer Jeffrey Passel (2008) estimates that 59 percent of the total unauthorized U.S. population comes from Mexico, and more than half of all foreign-born Mexicans are in the United States without authorization.
The exceptional characteristics of the Mexican-origin population—a colonized group and an immigrant group; an old immigrant population and a new one; part of the established native-born population and the foreign-born population—make it difficult to explain the Mexican-American experience using existing theoretical perspectives. The more than eighty years of social science research on immigration, race, and ethnicity offer important but unstable analytical platforms for understanding the Mexican-American experience. Theories of assimilation have either completely missed people of Mexican origin or been applied too narrowly to a particular segment of this population. Interpretations emphasizing racialization resulting from colonization have too easily dismissed assimilation for ideological reasons, downplayed evidence of assimilation among Mexican Americans, and not considered how ongoing immigration affects the Mexican-origin experience. Newer theories of assimilation recognize Mexican-immigrant replenishment as significant, but the application of these theories in survey research conceives of assimilation as too static to fully appreciate how immigrant replenishment affects intergenerational change in ethnic identity. A fuller understanding of the Mexican-American experience emerges by attending to the implications of ongoing Mexican immigration for ethnic identity formation.
Classical Foundations: Built without Mexicans
The intellectual foundations of the study of immigration and ethnic change were built without considering the Mexican-origin experience; thus, discussions about how later-generation descendants of earlier immigrants experience American society rarely include Mexican Americans. Instead, in such discussions people of European origin most often come to mind. The weak attachment, if any, that later-generation descendants of European immigrants have to an ethnic identity is more or less taken for granted. These individuals commonly describe themselves as "European mutts"—people whose ancestors have intermarried to such an extent that they trace their ethnic roots to multiple strands (Lieberson and Waters 1988). People who descend from the great European migration scarcely experience discrimination based on their racial or ethnic identity, and their ancestry does not systematically determine the types of opportunities they enjoy (Alba 1990). Ethnicity holds a symbolic place in their identity, and ethnic attachments are characterized as "a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior" (Gans 1979: 9). Indeed, they can invoke any particular strand of their ethnic identity when they choose, should they feel a little more ethnic on any given day, or deemphasize their ethnic identity in order to feel part of a larger collective not defined in ethnic terms (Waters 1990).
Excerpted from Replenished Ethnicity by Tomás R. Jiménez. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
2. Mexican Americans: A History of Replenishment and Assimilation
3. Dimensions of Mexican-American Assimilation
4. Replenishing Mexican Ethnicity
5. The Ties That Bind and Divide: Ethnic Boundaries and Ethnic Identity
6. Assessing Mexican Immigration: The Mexican-American Perspective
7. Ethnic Drawbridges: Unity and Division with Mexican Immigrants
Appendix A: Methodological Issues
Appendix B: List of Respondents
Appendix C: Interview Questions
What People are Saying About This
"Convincing and well documented. . . . A significant addition to assimilation theory."Du Bois Review & Transition