Maria Jacinto, with her husband, Aristeo, and one of their five children, speaks only Spanish. "When my skin turns white and my hair turns blonde, then I'll be an American," she says.
(By William Branigin
– The Washington Post)
Third in a series of occasional articles
By William Branigin Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 1998; Page A1
OMAHA – Night is falling on South Omaha, and Maria Jacinto is patting tortillas for the evening meal in the kitchen of the small house she shares with her husband and five children. Like many others in her neighborhood, where most of the residents are Mexican immigrants, the Jacinto household mixes the old country with the new.
As Jacinto, who speaks only Spanish, stresses a need to maintain the family's Mexican heritage, her eldest son, a bilingual 11-year-old who wears a San Francisco 49ers jacket and has a paper route, comes in and joins his brothers and sisters in the living room to watch "The Simpsons."
Jacinto became a U.S. citizen last April, but she does not feel like an American. In fact, she seems resistant to the idea of assimilating into U.S. society.
"I think I'm still a Mexican," she says. "When my skin turns white and my hair turns blonde, then I'll be an American."
In many ways, the experiences of the Jacinto family are typical of the gradual process of assimilation that has pulled generations of immigrants into the American mainstream. That process is nothing new to Omaha, which drew waves of Czech, German and Irish immigrants early this century.
But in the current immigration wave, something markedly different is happening here in the middle of the great American "melting pot."
Not only are the demographics of the United States changing in profound and unprecedented ways, but so too are the very notions of assimilation and the melting pot that have been articles of faith in the American self-image for generations. E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One) remains the national motto, but there no longer seems to be a consensus about what that should mean.
There is a sense that, especially as immigrant populations reach a critical mass in many communities, it is no longer the melting pot that is transforming them, but they who are transforming American society.
American culture remains a powerful force – for better or worse – that influences people both here and around the world in countless ways. But several factors have combined in recent years to allow immigrants to resist, if they choose, the Americanization that had once been considered irresistible.
In fact, the very concept of assimilation is being called into question as never before. Some sociologists argue that the melting pot often means little more than "Anglo conformity" and that assimilation is not always a positive experience – for either society or the immigrants themselves. And with today's emphasis on diversity and ethnicity, it has become easier than ever for immigrants to avoid the melting pot entirely. Even the metaphor itself is changing, having fallen out of fashion completely with many immigration advocacy and ethnic groups. They prefer such terms as the "salad bowl" and the "mosaic," metaphors that convey more of a sense of separateness in describing this nation of immigrants.
"It's difficult to adapt to the culture here," said Maria Jacinto, 32, who moved to the United States 10 years ago with her husband, Aristeo Jacinto, 36. "In the Hispanic tradition, the family comes first, not money. It's important for our children not to be influenced too much by the gueros," she said, using a term that means "blondies" but that she employs generally in reference to Americans. "I don't want my children to be influenced by immoral things."
Among socially conservative families such as the Jacintos, who initially moved to California from their village in Mexico's Guanajuato state, then migrated here in 1988 to find jobs in the meatpacking industry, bad influences are a constant concern. They see their children assimilating, but often to the worst aspects of American culture.
Her concerns reflect some of the complexities and ambivalence that mark the assimilation process these days. Immigrants such as the Jacintos are here to stay but remain wary of their adoptive country. According to sociologists, they are right to be concerned.
"If assimilation is a learning process, it involves learning good things and bad things," said Ruben G. Rumbaut, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. "It doesn't always lead to something better."
At work, not only in Omaha but in immigrant communities across the country, is a process often referred to as "segmented" assimilation, in which immigrants follow different paths to incorporation in U.S. society. These range from the classic American ideal of blending into the vast middle class, to a "downward assimilation" into an adversarial underclass, to a buffered integration into "immigrant enclaves." Sometimes, members of the same family end up taking sharply divergent paths, especially children and their parents.
The ambivalence of assimilation can cut both ways. Many native-born Americans also seem to harbor mixed feelings about the process. As a nation, the United States increasingly promotes diversity, but there are underlying concerns that the more emphasis there is on the factors that set people apart, the more likely that society will end up divided.
With Hispanics, especially Mexicans, accounting for an increasing proportion of U.S. population growth, it is this group, more than any other, that is redefining the melting pot.
Hispanics now have overtaken blacks as the largest minority group in Nebraska and will become the biggest minority in the country within the next seven years, according to Census Bureau projections. The nation's 29 million Hispanics, the great majority of them from Mexico, have thus become the main focus for questions about how the United States today is assimilating immigrants, or how it is being transformed.
In many places, new Hispanic immigrants have tended to cluster in "niche" occupations, live in segregated neighborhoods and worship in separate churches. In this behavior they are much like previous groups of immigrants. But their heavy concentrations in certain parts of the country, their relatively close proximity to their native lands and their sheer numbers give this wave of immigrants an unprecedented potential to change the way the melting pot traditionally has worked.
Never before have so many immigrants come from a single country – Mexico – or from a single linguistic source-Spanish-speaking Latin America. Since 1970, more than half of the estimated 20 million foreign-born people who have settled in the United States, legally and illegally, have been Spanish speakers.
Besides sheer numbers, several factors combine to make this influx unprecedented in the history of American immigration. This is the first time that such large numbers of people are immigrating from a contiguous country. And since most have flowed into relatively few states, congregating heavily in the American Southwest, Mexican Americans have the capacity to develop much greater cohesion than previous immigrant groups. Today Hispanics, mostly of Mexican origin, make up 31 percent of the population of California and 28 percent of the population of Texas.
In effect, that allows Mexican Americans to "perpetuate themselves as a separate community and even strengthen their sense of separateness if they chose to, or felt compelled to," said David M. Kennedy, a professor of American history at Stanford University.
To be sure, assimilation today often follows the same pattern that it has for generations. The children of immigrants, especially those who were born in the United States or come here at a young age, tend to learn English quickly and adopt American habits. Often they end up serving as translators for their parents. Schools exert an important assimilating influence, as does America's consumer society.
But there are important differences in the way immigrants adapt these days, and the influences on them can be double-edged. Gaps in income, education and poverty levels between new immigrants and the native-born are widening, and many of the newcomers are becoming stuck in dead-end jobs with little upward mobility.
Hilda Bueno leaves the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center in South Central Los Angeles with her son Jose Manuel Cuevas, 2.
(By Todd Bigelow for The Washington Post)
Second in a series of occasional articles
By Michael A. Fletcher Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 1998; Page A1
LOS ANGELES – Two pictures hanging in the lobby of Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center offer silent testimony to a view shared by many blacks here that the hospital was built by and for African Americans.
King hospital rose from the ashes of the 1965 riots, a belated answer to the long-ignored complaint that the county's white-run health system neglected the black community. Before the facility opened in 1972, there was no public hospital in predominantly black South Central Los Angeles.
But the regal visages of the slain civil rights leader and black county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke now overlook a new, often disconcerting reality: Most of the patients and visitors in the hospital are Latino, not black. Many are holding conversations in Spanish. And increasingly, they are pressing the hospital to hire doctors and other top staff members who look and talk like them – a demand Latino leaders say is met largely with indifference, if not indignation, from the hospital's black managers and its political patrons.
"At King, you now have a black island in a brown sea," said Rees Lloyd, a lawyer for an Indian American doctor who alleges he was continuously passed over for promotions because he is not black. "A lot of people are uncomfortable with that."
The change rumbling through King hospital is just a fraction of the fallout from a seismic shift in the racial makeup of Los Angeles County. In 1960, four out of five people in the county were white. But a wave of immigration has transformed the jurisdiction into one where no ethnic or racial group holds the majority. The county's population of 9.5 million is now 41 percent Hispanic, 37 percent white, 11 percent Asian and 10 percent black. The Latino and Asian populations each have more than doubled in the past 20 years, dramatically altering the dynamics of race here.
Just over a decade ago, the broad swath of the county popularly known as South Central was synonymous with black Los Angeles. But now middle-class African Americans are leaving, often dispersing to communities that once were all white. Asian Americans, who once congregated in enclaves near downtown, are moving into suburban communities that ring L.A. Meanwhile, many non-Hispanic whites are often relocating to even more distant suburbs or leaving California altogether.
What is happening here represents the leading edge of racial and ethnic changes affecting communities across America. Demographers predict that by the middle of the next century the nation as a whole will look much like Los Angeles does now: a rich tapestry of people whose sheer diversity makes once familiar notions of racial interaction obsolete.
"Politicians like to say that diversity is our greatest strength," said Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. "That is b.s. Diversity simply is. The core question is how do we extract its assets while minimizing its liabilities?"
To be sure, the new immigrants have renewed old neighborhoods, created new businesses and enriched the culture of Los Angeles. But the exploding diversity also has changed the nature of racial conflict and drawn new groups into battles that once were waged almost exclusively between blacks and whites. Here, black and Latino civil servants square off over public jobs. Blacks activists and Asian store owners fight over control of local businesses. And Latino and Asian gangs battle for control of their turf.
This new reality fuels the racial isolation evident in many walks of life here. Researchers have found deep racial divisions in the Los Angeles job market – partly the result of discrimination but reinforced because people typically find jobs through personal connections that most often do not cross racial or ethnic lines. Many of the furniture factories in South Central have only Latino workers. The toy factories near downtown employ mainly Chinese. Many of the small grocery stores are owned and run by Koreans. And African Americans disproportionately work in government jobs, where they are desperately trying to hold their place in the face of fierce competition from Latinos who want in.
Biggest Bigots: Often, It's Minorities
As Los Angeles is learning, minorities are often quick to embrace negative racial stereotypes of one another. A poll by the National Conference, a nonprofit organization that promotes racial dialogue, found that minorities tend to share bitter feelings toward whites, whom they call bigoted and bossy. But the national survey found that minorities often harbored even harsher views of one another.
Nearly half of Latinos and 40 percent of African Americans agree that Asian Americans are "unscrupulous, crafty and devious in business." Only one in four whites agrees with that statement. More than two out of three Asian Americans and half of African Americans and whites believe Latinos tend to "have bigger families than they are able to support." Meanwhile, Latinos are almost three times as likely as whites to believe that blacks "aren't capable of getting ahead" even if given the opportunity, the poll found.
Those attitudes contribute to the friction that often marks racial interaction in Los Angeles. Rather than prompting people to come together, the more common reality of the new diversity is people living separate lives in often vibrant but segregated communities. In Los Angeles, there are suburban developments, such as Monterey Park, that are almost exclusively Chinese. There is a Little Saigon and enclaves of Samoans and Hmong and Russians and Iranians.
And when people from diverse backgrounds find themselves thrust together in the same neighborhoods, the same jobs or the same schools, the result can often be conflict.
Nowhere is that more vivid than in the county's South Central corridor, where the number of Latinos is overwhelming the African American population. Much as blacks demanded a fairer share of the power and resources from whites a generation ago, Latinos are now demanding that blacks and others share jobs, special school programs and political control. And like whites before them, many African Americans feel threatened by those demands.
"Latinos have their own. Blacks have their own," said Royce Esters, former president of the NAACP branch that includes Compton, a city in the South Central corridor. "It's a power play. Blacks feel like they have marched and marched and the Latinos have not marched. As a result, blacks are afraid of another race coming in and taking something they have worked so hard to get."
For much of its history, Compton was a virtually all-white suburb of Los Angeles, where segregation was enforced with racist attacks and laws that barred African Americans from buying homes. A 1948 Supreme Court decision lifted the legal barriers, but the acceptance of African Americans was slow and difficult. The first blacks who dared venture to Compton were greeted with white hostility: Paint was smeared on their homes, flower gardens were uprooted, crosses were burned on their lawns.
But blacks persevered and by the 1960s had established a racial majority. When they finally wrested political control of Compton from whites in the 1960s, that ascendancy became a source of racial pride, with residents boasting that Compton was the largest black-run city west of the Mississippi.
Blacks Face a New Challenge
Now, three decades later, an extraordinary wave of immigration has pushed Latinos into the majority in Compton, except in the corridors of power. Blacks still control the mayor's office, the city council, all but one school board seat and four out of five municipal jobs in Compton. Just as a generation ago blacks questioned that kind of white domination, blacks find themselves being challenged by Latino demands for power.
The long-simmering tension boiled over in 1994 when a black Compton police officer was caught on videotape beating Latino teenager Felipe Soltero. The incident angered Latinos in Compton much the same way as the bludgeoning of black motorist Rodney G. King by white police officers incensed African Americans. The incident pushed the city toward the edge of rioting, and resulted in a civil suit against the officer. The officer was found to have violated Soltero's rights but the youth was awarded only $1 in damages by a federal judge after a racially mixed jury refused to award anything.
"It was kind of like the first Rodney King trial," said Danilo Becerra, Soltero's lawyer. "I've never seen a more blatant example of injustice."
Latino leaders in Compton call the outcome of that case one small manifestation of the disparities that routinely go unaddressed by the city's black leadership. Nearly two-thirds of the city's 29,000 public school students are Latino but less than 10 percent of its teaching staff is. There are separate chamber of commerces, one for Latinos and one for blacks. But only the group with black members receives city funds. "As far as I can tell, everything in this city is directed to the blacks," said John Ortega, a longtime Compton resident. "Not so long ago, [school officials] even took a load of students to Africa. ... I sure don't see them going to Mexico."
In few places has the tension between blacks and Latinos emerged more vividly than in the pitched racial battle occurring at King hospital, a linchpin in the nation's second largest public health care system.
From the beginning, King was more than a medical center for many blacks in South Central, who felt their forebears had fought – and died – to see it built.
Another in a series of occasional articles By William Booth Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 1998; Page A01
The pickup trucks roll into the graveled yard, and the bosses crank down their windows to place their orders, to tell the foreman of this dusty open-air labor market what jobs they need to fill.
Some 200 laborers herded behind a chain-link fence, all immigrants, listen intently. This day, the bosses driving the trucks are hiring roofing crews to spread boiling tar under a merciless sun. They need house painters, drywall hangers, cement spreaders, bricklayers and ditch diggers. They want men to ream clogged septic tanks, to haul away asbestos, to crawl under houses and kill rats.
These newcomers in the day-laborer pen, from Mexico and El Salvador and Guatemala, represent a tide of humanity that is having a profound effect on the economy of the United States. Immigrants today do some of the dirtiest, most difficult and dangerous work in America, the work that native-born Americans – of any ethnicity or race – often will no longer do, or no longer do for the wages offered.
"How much?" asks the foreman, Abdonel Cespedes, who supervises the day-labor yard for an immigrant organization.
"Five bucks," say the bosses. Cespedes will tell them $6.50 is the going rate for an hour's honest labor. Many of the men buying workers will repeat themselves, as if Cespedes did not understand their English. Five bucks. Then they wait to see what happens.
The immigrants understand the law of supply and demand, and they do the math. Is it better to jump into the truck now, for less money, but a guarantee of five $10 bills at the end of the day? Or wait, for a better offer, one that may not come?
In gateway cities such as Houston, immigrants provide a source of cheap labor that has changed the way many Americans live – not only those who benefit from the work that immigrants provide but also those who compete against them. Just as microwave ovens or cellular phones have changed daily life, so now does immigrant labor provide service and ease, maids and cooks, cleaners and care-givers, painters and babysitters – for American businesses and often directly to the middle classes.
As the country experiences one of the most massive immigrations in modern history, much of the public debate has focused on whether the arrival of 1 million newcomers a year, legal and illegal, is a good or a bad thing – whether the cost of educating immigrant children or feeding their poor is worth the benefit that comes from allowing them in. Whether, in the most simplistic terms, immigrants are a net gain or net drain, not only to the economy but to American culture and lifestyle.
But just looking at the bottom line is not enough. A day in the life of Houston, or New York, or the District of Columbia would not be the same without immigrants, who toil not only on the bottom rungs of the economy, but also on the top.
This is about the jobs they do, about four immigrants in particular, and the rippling effects of their work – as a day laborer, a high-rise window washer, a manicurist and a physician.
The success of these and most immigrants in the United States is harnessed to many factors. Their legal status, their education and how much money they had in their pockets when they arrived plays an unmistakable role in the choices they make and the lives they lead.
But taken together, the stories of these four immigrants, from Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam and India, reveal much about the role of immigrants in the modern American economy. They show how newcomers have taken over whole sectors of the labor force; how they compete with native-born Americans; how they have created new services and wealth; and how they are recasting the American dream, not only for themselves, but for everyone else as well.