The Other Side of Assimilation: How Immigrants Are Changing American Life

The Other Side of Assimilation: How Immigrants Are Changing American Life

by Tomas Jimenez

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The immigration patterns of the last three decades have profoundly changed nearly every aspect of life in the United States. What do those changes mean for the most established Americans—those whose families have been in the country for multiple generations?
The Other Side of Assimilation shows that assimilation is not a one-way street. Jiménez explains how established Americans undergo their own assimilation in response to profound immigration-driven ethnic, racial, political, economic, and cultural shifts. Drawing on interviews with a race and class spectrum of established Americans in three different Silicon Valley cities, The Other Side of Assimilation illuminates how established Americans make sense of their experiences in immigrant-rich environments, in work, school, public interactions, romantic life, and leisure activities. With lucid prose, Jiménez reveals how immigration not only changes the American cityscape but also reshapes the United States by altering the outlooks and identities of its most established citizens. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520968370
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/18/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Tomás R. Jiménez is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. He is the author of Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity.

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The (Not-So-Strange) Strangers in Their Midst

The established population's participation in relational assimilation begins with the contact they have with newcomers. To read about immigrants in history books, popular media, and in social science is also to read about an established population whose contact with newcomers highlights these newcomers' strangeness. Immigrants and their children are depicted as strangers in a strange land (Higham 1955): people who are "uprooted" (Handlin 1951) from the comfortable soil of their home country and "transplanted" (Bodnar 1985) to the unfamiliar land of the country that receives them. Portrayals of the post-1965 immigrants reinforce this narrative. Studies show first- and second-generation immigrants struggling to navigate between the distinctly immigrant households in which they grow up and a strange and often unwelcoming receiving society outside (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Waters 1999; Zhou and Bankston 1998).

There is more than a kernel of truth to this portrait of the immigrant experience. But there is also good reason to question whether it reflects the full complexity of that experience. From the perspective of the second generation in large metro areas, the immigrant experience may not be all that strange. Studies of the second generation in major immigrant gateways like New York (Kasinitz et al. 2008) and Los Angeles (Lee and Zhou 2015) find that many of the markers that used to highlight the "in-betweenness" of immigrant families are increasingly seen as normal. Multilingual households with spicy aromas emanating from the kitchen, the ability to move back and forth between cultures, and sadly, being unauthorized, are fairly typical experiences across contexts of heavy immigrant settlement like Silicon Valley, where first- and second-generation immigrants combined constitute a majority of the total population.

Established individuals in East Palo Alto, Cupertino, and Berryessa also regarded the immigrant experience as a familiar part of the contexts they navigated. The numerical dominance of the newcomer population made the immigrant experience a central part of these individuals' concept of regional identity. This regional self-concept arose from significant contact with newcomer individuals that made established respondents firsthand witnesses to — and, in some instances, participants in — the trials, tribulations, promises, and hopes of immigrant life. In general respondents had more frequent and meaningful contact, and thus greater familiarity, with immigrants whose class status was similar to their own. It is not that they had no cross-class contact. But that cross-class contact tended to be more sporadic and fleeting than intra-class contact. Nonetheless, within these confines the net result was an immigrant population and an immigrant experience that was more familiar than strange to everyone living in Silicon Valley, including the most generationally established.


Immigration does not just define the demographic landscape in which large numbers of newcomers settle; it also changes the regional self-understanding held by individuals already living in these contexts. The immigrant experience, both past and present, was part and parcel of the larger narrative that respondents told about what it means to live in Silicon Valley. If newcomer individuals feel a degree of comfort knowing that so many of their fellow metro dwellers share in their experience (Kasinitz et al. 2008), so too did established individuals in this study attach a sense of normalcy to living amid so many immigrant newcomers. To be sure, that sense did not perfectly overlap with the feelings of complete comfort that came with operating on an ethnic home turf. As I report in later chapters, immigration-driven diversity shaped the racial and ethnic identities of respondents in new and often uncomfortable ways. It produced perceptions of dislocation and community fragmentation among the people we interviewed; it inspired ambivalence among respondents; and it forced a rethinking of what it meant to be American. Still, immigration and the diversity that it brings sat at the center of how established individuals defined what it meant to live in Silicon Valley.

The extent to which immigration-driven diversity was enmeshed in interviewees' lives emerged prominently from their responses to the question that opened each interview: "How would you characterize the city in which you live to someone who has never been here before?" Respondents were quick to note their city's class profile, its major economic drivers, and its level of crime (low in Berryessa and Cupertino; high in East Palo Alto). Almost all of their descriptions also featured the immigration-driven ethnic and racial character of their community. In fact, only two of the individuals in the entire interview sample failed to mention some aspect of immigration-driven diversity when asked to describe the city in which they lived. Among Cupertino respondents, the depiction provided by Donna Williams, a white thirty-nine-year-old homemaker, was typical:

Well, it has a small town feel. The population of 65,000 people. It's got a high-tech business base and is known for its excellent public school system as well as K-14 for community college. It's a community that's changed quite a bunch in the past years. It's seen a major cultural shift in the population from the onset of Asian immigrants, both Chinese and East Indian, and we've seen how that's affected neighborhoods and communities and businesses in lots of different ways.

Diane Campbell, a white sixty-four-year-old grammar school teacher from Berryessa, noted in a rather upbeat assessment that the area had always had some diversity, but that immigration had increased that diversity in recent years.

I would describe it as a district of San Jose, which is a large city. And it's on the outskirts of it, which makes it a very favorable location, a good part of San Jose. It's not right in the middle of the downtown. It's towards the hills. It's a more peaceful, non-trafficky place to be. And it's certainly got a great mix of ethnicities. ... When I first moved here in 1973 it was not as mixed as it is now. And so, many groups have come in. Basically, there were a lot of Hispanic people here. But there were other ethnicities, too, Asians. And so by the time my children were growing up, I thought it was a really great place for them to grow up because they were not living in just a white, Caucasian area. But even at that time they had friends of different cultures. And so they grew up with that feeling that, hopefully, that different culture mixes is an advantage to be living among. It was a good place to be. As they grew up and the ethnicity became even more diverse with Vietnamese families living here who weren't really here before, and there were a lot of Chinese, and there's a certain amount of Japanese, and now Filipino, and it's a wonderful place to be. And they grew up knowing friends, having friends from all different cultures and never seeing a mix of cultures as being a barrier in any way, for them or for other people.

Among East Palo Alto respondents, "diverse" was a common descriptor of the city. But in contrast to Cupertino (where immigration brought diversity that had not existed previously) and Berryessa (where immigration built upon existing diversity), East Palo Alto interviewees noted a change in the kind of diversity that immigration brought about. They were quick to contextualize their descriptions of the city in terms of its self-conscious identity as the only historically black community in Silicon Valley. The fact that East Palo Alto once had a black majority was more than a demographic fact to respondents who lived there. East Palo Alto was a cultural home base for its black residents and for Silicon Valley's small African American population more generally, replete with black churches, schools, retail stores, barber shops, cultural centers, and public celebrations. East Palo Alto respondents' descriptions of the city — which also referenced its levels of crime and poverty — spoke to how different East Palo Alto was from Cupertino and Berryessa. In spite of these differences, references to immigration-driven change were just as prominent. Karen Jackson, a black fifty-three-year-old day care provider, explained the situation in East Palo Alto in much the same way as other respondents there:

At one time, I was told, it was predominantly black. Most people migrated over here because of the low cost of living. And a lot of those houses, new houses, are being bought by people other than blacks — Latinos and Tongans — because they're cheaper. I just think that people are just going out to all kind of places. They're just. ... It's just not like the old way, where it used to be you had your two races. It's just a melting pot everywhere you go, now. People are just migrating all over the place.

There was thus a high degree of recognition among interviewees from all three cities that immigration had played a major role in defining the character of their respective cities.

The neighborhoods in which respondents lived were microcosms of their respective cities, and respondents often used their neighborhoods as more tangible instances of the dynamics in their cities and the region. To illustrate the high degree of diversity in their particular neighborhoods, respondents in all three locales often provided a verbal mapping of their own street, pointing in the direction of specific houses and reporting the occupants' ethnic backgrounds. Ben Braur, a retired, seventy-seven-year-old white engineer in Cupertino, had lived in his home for more than three decades. He was thus well positioned to explain the demographics of his neighborhood, both past and present:

But just in our little circle: Caucasian woman married to an Asian kid, who we've watched group up since [he was young]; two Caucasians next door. Next door to them is a family that just came from India. Next door to them is a family that just came from Jordan. Next door to them is like [a] third owner, divorced many times but, she's Korean and has a — I think — seven or eight or more young Asians are there and then go away and then they come back. ... Next door to them is the American Samoan. Next door to them — they're from the Netherlands, but she was born in Beirut. Next door to them is Indiana. And that's just down that side [of the street]. My side is a gal and her mother. ... : Greece; born here but I think mother might have been from Greece. Then a Jewish family and then next door to me has been a rental. ... An Israeli family has been there the last ten years or more. And next door to me is Asian, both sets of parents came from Taiwan. Next door to them is Japanese ... You see how it goes?

Respondents in East Palo Alto and Berryessa went through a similar exercise during the interview. East Palo Alto respondents generally pointed out who was Mexican, and their length of residence, while Berryessa respondents rattled off descriptions of neighbors with Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican origins. When respondents and their newcomer neighbors had lived in the neighborhood for a long time, respondents knew their neighbors' specific origins rather than only surface descriptors, like their race. The more detailed nature of these descriptions speak to respondents' familiarity with long-standing neighbors, an important factor in perceptions of social insiders and outsiders (more on this in chapter 4).

These informal demographic renderings of the cities and neighborhoods amount to on-the-ground depictions of a trend unfolding across U.S. metropolitan areas. The rapid increase of Latino and Asian immigrant populations has given rise to "global neighborhoods" where whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians are all well represented (Logan and Zhang 2011). What is notable about these trends in residential integration is not the degree to which minorities have, over time, moved "up and out" of immigrant enclaves. Rather, it is the extent of integration experienced by both whites and blacks that stands out. According to sociologists John Logan and Charles Zhang's (2011) analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data from the twenty most multiethnic metro regions in the country, the share of blacks living in global neighborhoods grew from one in five in 1980 to nearly two in five in 2010; for whites, the share grew from one in five to more than two in five. While these figures do not indicate residents' generation-since-immigration status, it is safe to assume that whites and blacks living in these global neighborhoods are predominantly established individuals because the overwhelming majority of U.S. blacks and whites were born in the United States to U.S.-born parents. Whites are still the dominant population in most metropolitan regions, even in neighborhoods where there is a large share of nonwhites, while whites are a minority in Silicon Valley and in the three cities that we studied. Silicon Valley thus stands as an amplified version of the global regions and neighborhoods found elsewhere. Still, there can be little doubt that the growing diversity in Silicon Valley, like that in other metropolitan areas, is defined both by immigration and by ethnic and racial difference.

The fact that these trends are more prominent across large metro areas like Silicon Valley was not lost on the people we interviewed. They often drew on time spent in other parts of the country to emphasize the degree to which immigration-driven diversity is part of Silicon Valley's identity. Standing out prominently in their stories of visits to the South, Midwest, or Pacific Northwest was how few immigrants there were in these other places and the lack of diversity that resulted. Attending college, visiting family, or spending the early part of life living outside of the region threw the degree of diversity in Silicon Valley into vivid relief. Margarita Bartis, a white, forty-four-year-old dental hygienist whose son was dating a second-generation Asian American woman, compared living in Berryessa to the time she spent in Kansas:

And it's funny because my dad lives in Kansas now. So when I go visit my dad everybody's white. ... On my eye, it's very strange because I'm so used to the diversity here. And to go somewhere where everyone's white, it's very weird. Indians, we have here. We have a mix of people here. And it's very strange on the eye when you go somewhere and everybody's the same. It's very strange. ... And there's not as many Caucasians anymore. It's no big deal, but just visually, you notice the difference with your eye. ... I wouldn't move out of the area or go move to Kansas to be around white people. So I guess if I didn't like Asians, it would be bad. (laughs) But my son's girlfriend's Asian, so someday I may have little Asian grandchildren. (laughs)

Similarly, Melanie Davis, a black, unemployed twenty-nine-year-old in East Palo Alto, articulated the region's ethnic and racial mélange in relation to her experience visiting family in Jackson, Mississippi, where most of the individuals she encountered were black:

Yeah, I like to see white people and Mexicans and Polynesians. I like to see that. I like to go to McDonald's and see that mixture. In Jackson, everybody is black. Everything is black. I seen a couple white people but that was about it. It's majority black. And I love black and I am black, but to see that many black people take me off guard because I've never been to the South like that; never go into an all-black college. Nothing like that. So to go in the McDonald's, and everybody working is black. Go to the grocery store, everybody there and everywhere you go, to where I, to me, that was just ... I don't know — culture shock. ... That was just crazy, mind blowing. ... I mean here, it's all Hispanic, everywhere that you go. Every worker is Hispanic. But there, it was like, "Where is a Hispanic person? Let me see one!" It was Indian. Instead of the Hispanics it was the Indians, that's what took the place up. My mom was like, "Girl, you don't see them down here!" What?! But that's how it is out there. So I told her I'll visit but I think the Bay Area in California, and it's different to me. I think I'm just more Bay oriented. I never really left. So I've just stuck here. This is my big hole.

While African American respondents were not alone in expressing a preference for racially mixed areas, survey research suggests that they are more likely than whites to prefer living among people of different backgrounds (Charles 2006). Still, respondents from across the three cities we studied conveyed more than a hint of pride about living a place as diverse as Silicon Valley. In some ways, they portrayed the entire region as a "cosmopolitan canopy," the term that sociologist Elijah Anderson (2011) used to describe urban spaces where people from a range of racial backgrounds interact with one another with a high degree of civility. That regional character came to light when respondents like Melanie and others in all three study locales noted that less diverse regions of the country seemed "weird," "strange," or "boring," precisely because Silicon Valley's multiethnic scene had shaped their perception of the norm (see Voyer 2011).


Excerpted from "The Other Side of Assimilation"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Tomás R. Jiménez.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Table

1. The (Not-So-Strange) Strangers in Their Midst
2. Salsa and Ketchup—Cultural Exposure and Adoption
3. Spotlight on White, Fade to Black
4. Living with Difference and Similarity
5. Living Locally, Thinking Nationally

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