Mexican Immigrants Prove Slow to Fit In

Why Mexicans assimilate at rates lower than newcomers from other parts of the world.

Immigration chart

Perhaps most telling: Of the approximately 1,500 surveyed in two distinct immigrant communities—Los Angeles and San Antonio—most identified as "Mexican" or "Mexican-American" even into the fourth generation. It's that kind of cultural signifier that has so many white Americans concerned that this is a group not interested in becoming American.

Ortiz says her interviews demonstrated that that was not the case. She argues that the above factors, especially segregated neighborhoods, "all probably lead to a stronger sense of identification of being Mexican or Mexican-American," she says. "The fact that they are maintaining a sense of Mexicanness is to some extent a reaction to how American society doesn't fully accept Mexican-origin folks." The continued ethnic identification is similar to that of other groups that have felt oppression from the majority, African-Americans and American Indians among them. Rubén Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Irvine, notes that "the people who have been most ostracized, stigmatized, and racialized...assert that now with pride, and they dig in their heels, and they become that which they had been labeled pejoratively."

Rumbaut, a leading researcher in immigrant studies, argues that assimilation is like a tango. Each party has to avoid stepping on the other's toes. "Assimilation, unlike acculturation...includes how they are welcomed or not by native groups," he says. In one study that included members of 77 nationalities, Rumbaut asked participants if they agreed that the United States was the best country in the world. Those most likely to agree were Vietnamese and Cubans or those who had benefited from refugee assistance. The least likely were Haitians, Jamaicans, and others with black skin "who bore the brunt of racial discrimination in their adoptive society," Rumbaut says. "The moral of the story is you reap what you sow. I see assimilation as a relationship and not some robotlike process of adaptation to a new environment that takes place only on the part of the assimilated."

The fact is that despite all this, Mexican immigrants and their children are advancing. That's because just about every immigrant, no matter what the country of origin, is here to work. "Couch potatoes don't emigrate," Rumbaut says. Indeed, Mexican immigrants start with nearly nothing "but actually climb more than Asians do," Myers points out. "The Mexican immigrants are the poorest of immigrants, by and large, but the majority become homeowners in the United States." That includes the folks here illegally. Myers calls that a far better measure of assimilation than self-identifiers such as "Mexican" or Mexican-American." He likens that to New Yorkers in Los Angeles rooting for the Yankees. "They wave the Mexican flags...but these are the same people who will enlist in the U.S. Army and be proud about it. Their identity is a composite of their heritage and current loyalty."

Rumbaut points out further, if less positive, proof of assimilation. Over time, Mexican immigrants and their children are more likely to become obese and get divorced. The incarceration levels of subsequent generations also spike. "That is a part of feeling more comfortable. Now you don't have to act like a guest," he says. "There are a lot of ways that becoming American is negative."