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February 5, 2023

Professor’s research finds Hispanics don’t assimilate easily

Abraham Gonzalez came from Mexico at age 17 to pick crops in
Idaho. He became a U.S. citizen 12 years ago
– but only to avoid paying renewal fees on his green card.
Patrick McGee – McClatchy Newspapers

Abraham Gonzalez came from Mexico at age 17 to pick crops in Idaho. He became a U.S. citizen 12 years ago – but only to avoid paying renewal fees on his green card.

He has never registered to vote. Members of his family who are eligible to become citizens or to vote have not done so.

The Fort Worth family illustrates many Hispanic immigrants’ experience in the United States: focused on work but not involved in other aspects of American life.

While some who study immigration say that Hispanics are integrating into U.S. society, a number of others agree that today’s Hispanic immigrants are not assimilating as quickly as previous immigrants.

By 2050, the number of Hispanics in America will be triple what it was in 2005, jumping from 14 percent to 29 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center of Washington, D.C., which studies the growth of America’s Latino population.

The large influx allows Hispanics to hold onto their culture and language longer than the last great wave of immigrants did a century ago, experts say.

Current immigrants confront challenges different from those of the early 20th century, when immigrants assimilated into a largely low-skilled society. They compete in a more educated work force and in a climate of low wage growth for workers on the bottom rungs.

Further hindering assimilation, many Latin Americans are from cultures where the lack of trust in people outside the family keeps them from participation in society.

The result is a bitter debate at every level of American society – from cities like Farmers Branch, which is trying to ban illegal immigrants from renting apartments in the city, to state and U.S. capitals, where lawmakers fight over whether to help illegal immigrants fit in or to force them out.

American history is full of immigrant groups taking a turn as personae non gratae. Benjamin Franklin hated German immigrants. America’s first significant restrictions on immigration targeted once-detested Asians with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Irish immigrants seeking work were met with signs telling them they need not apply.

But Hispanics have been slower to assimilate than past immigrant groups, says Jake Vigdor, and the numbers show it. The associate professor of public policy and economics at Duke University in North Carolina measured indicators such as the ability to speak English, educational attainment, military enlistment and rates of becoming citizens.

An assimilation index he put together found Mexico far behind other countries that also send lots of immigrants to the United States. Mexico scored 13 on the index. Canada had the highest score, 53. Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines scored more than 40.

“That is troubling,” Vigdor said. “What really distinguishes Mexican immigrants from other immigrants both past and present is that they don’t make a lot of progress over time.”

Lawrence Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said Hispanics are too resistant to assimilation.

“Latin American culture has a number of attitudes that help explain why it has been so slow to develop democracy, social justice and prosperity,” Harrison said.

Harrison, who is fluent in Spanish from decades of work as a U.S. government aid worker in five Latin American countries, said that Hispanic immigrants are hardworking but that they lack the entrepreneurial, small-business-founding tendencies that turn other immigrant groups into success stories.

Stanford University historian David Kennedy said the idea that the newest immigrant group doesn’t have the right background to fit in has been heard many times before.

“Many other groups have been perceived in their historical moment as so culturally distant from the norm that they were not thought to be assimilating. In fact, all of them assimilated,” Kennedy said.

The Gonzalez family is an example of both immigrant progress and slowness to participate in American life. Abraham and his wife, Isabel, have seven children, some legal permanent residents, some U.S. citizens by birth.

Abraham, an electrician and head of the household, became a citizen in 1996.

Life with the proper paperwork became easier, but his lifestyle changed little. He continued going to work early every day and to church every Sunday but took little interest in what else America had to offer.

Abraham’s 28-year-old daughter, Yldefonsa Flores, said voting does not interest her father.

“He feels like it doesn’t matter: Whatever you vote, your vote doesn’t count,” she said.

His 15-year-old daughter, Monica, said her parents “don’t even know the difference between” the two presidential candidates.

Missing church is unthinkable, but the family participates in few community activities, no civic groups and, for all its children, few school programs. So deep is the family’s piety that when one daughter graduated as valedictorian of her high school class in 2000, she passed up college scholarships and became a nun.

While the family’s participation is nearly non-existent in areas outside church, it is robust in the work force. Everybody of age works, except for Abraham’s wife, Isabel, who gets up at 4 a.m. to make and pack her husband’s lunch and spends the day watching her grandchildren while their parents work.

This huge commitment to work is what Abraham’s 20-year-old daughter, Isabel, continually brings up when she expresses annoyance with anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic voices.

“Yeah, we might not have an education, but we’re working,” she said. “Is there something wrong for us to come and work?”

Although she was born and raised in the U.S., Isabel said she identifies more with Mexican culture.

“I come from here, but this is a big country, and they have traditions over there that my parents told me on their knee” as she was growing up, she said.

Whether that sentiment or other factors are hampering Hispanic progress, just about everyone agrees that there are causes for concern.

The Gonzalezes, like many immigrants, offer an example of economic advancement when their lot in life is compared not with others but with where they came from.

Abraham and his wife grew up in poor Mexican villages without electricity or running water. Abraham was a migrant farmworker in his first years in the U.S. But things have improved greatly. The couple have owned their own home for 18 years. One daughter took some college classes, and another is taking community college classes.

A study released by the Pew Hispanic Center last year found that three-quarters of Hispanic immigrants do not speak English well. But the second generation is bilingual and the third generation barely speaks Spanish, the study found.

That parallels the Gonzalez family. Abraham does not speak English well. His wife does not speak it at all. His children speak it perfectly.

Abraham said he has trouble understanding his youngest child, 5-year-old Jesus, because he is so attuned to the English-speaking world at school and on television.

“The smallest doesn’t speak Spanish very well,” Abraham said. “He understands me, but I don’t understand him.”

The children watch mostly English television shows, but they speak Spanish with their parents and often help them translate.

Isabel, the daughter who said she identifies with Mexican culture, said people are sometimes rude to her and her family for speaking Spanish in public.

A gas station attendant asked her mother for her identification when there was a problem with the pump, and a customer yanked a clothing item out of her hand when she spoke Spanish to someone else.

“When I am at work and I speak Spanish, some people look at me like, ‘Why are you speaking Spanish?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I can speak both languages, and it’s a free country, you know,'” Isabel said.

She talked appreciatively of her parents’ efforts to tell the children about life in Mexico and to preserve Mexican traditions such as quinceaneras, special birthday parties for 15-year-old girls.

Some see these as ties that hamper assimilation, but Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said there’s no rule that says people can’t honor their home traditions and embrace their new country.

“To imply that you can’t teach multiculturalism and love of America is rubbish,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any accident that we’re a nation of immigrants and we’re also the world’s foremost superpower.”


America’s largest minority group and fastest-growing ethnic group lags behind others in aspects of American life.

College enrollment

– Forty-five percent of young Hispanics were enrolled in college in 2006, compared with 49 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Anglos.

Teenage births

– Hispanics ages 15 to 19 had the highest birthrate of any group in 2005. There were nearly 105 such births per 1,000 for Hispanics, 61 for blacks and 26 for Anglos.

Becoming citizens

– In 2005, only 10 percent to 30 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants became U.S. citizens, compared with 50 to 65 percent of European immigrants and 65 to 70 percent of Asian immigrants. Mexican immigrant applications for citizenship jumped nearly 50 percent last year, partly because of Hispanic organizations’ push for citizenship and a rush of people trying to apply before higher fees took effect.

Civic involvement

– Less than a third of Hispanics volunteered for neighborhood or civic groups, compared with 38 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Anglos.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Census, U.S. Defense Department, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics, Pew Center on the States, Afterschool Alliance, Barna Research Group

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