This post over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog raised many questions for me, questions I alternately feel obliged to consider and frankly a bit uncomfortable thinking about. I have little doubt that the flap over Sotomayor’s comments regarding her ethnicity was created by her political opponents, a desperate argument leveled at her in an attempt to scare white voters. But, the conversations I have read have morphed into something that may just be too important to overlook….when is assimilation complete? What is expected, and is it reasonable?
I’m just as sick as anyone over the “victimization” mindset so prevalent these days. We are all victims at one time or another, and i would argue that most of the time we are blissfully unaware that we are so. Thats a subject best covered another day. I do, however, feel that there are some dangerous trade-offs made in the assimilation process, OTOH, the process itself is fluid and will likely look different as the country’s demography changes. I know more than a little about being thought of as “less than.” I’ve talked about that here at The Chronicles from time to time. But, my experience was nothing when compared to what my parents endured. There were times when any public display of your Hispanic roots could get you beaten or killed on the streets of Los Angeles, and not by rival gangs, but by police officers or soldiers.
So, does assimilation, as the end, justify the means? If I become more like you, but do so under duress, have you really integrated me, or, are you likely to cause me to quietly cling to the very things that make me different?
I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was young, and being accepted by my peers was everything, I often tried to make a distinction between being Mexican and being Spanish. In my mind, being from Spain was somehow better than being from Mexico. Maybe I thought having Spanish roots would make me just seem “exotic” (and maybe a little European) whereas having ties to Mexico would make me less acceptable to people. I even remember passing for Italian on a number of occasions, and did little to sway that belief. I’m pretty sure that, subconsciously, at least, I was ashamed of being the little Mexican boy down the street. To be fair to myself, though, I can’t tell you how many times that is how I heard myself referred to by neighbors and my friend’s parents.
The thing is, except for my brown skin and dark hair and eyes, I didn’t really look Mexican. I almost never wore a sombrero, or khakis, and I didn’t grow a mustache until i was in my 30s. I didn’t sound Mexican either. I don’t have a trace of an accent, except to say that I unconsciously mimic the accents around me. On the phone, I can pass for a Southerner, born and bred. I have to think that because we were the first Mexicans to move into an all white (but ethnically diverse) neighborhood, we just stood out. I don’t remember having this conversation with my older siblings, but, if i had to guess, I’d say that their experience was probably even more intense than mine.
Fast forward 40 years, and here I am, raising a family in a small Southern town that at one time was a Klan stronghold. We arrive just as the immigration debate starts to get heated. I experience things that I thought I left behind decades ago. Whispers behind me. Clumsy attempts to determine our ethnicity, which, because I’m 12, I intensify by claiming to be Swedish, just to see the confused looks on people’s faces. (It should be noted that I got this idea from my brother, who, out of sheer boredom i think, used to answer the phone at work with a heavy accent, then greet those same customers in person with his normal speaking voice) These days, its just how I mock the ignorance.
Then, not long ago, my daughter experienced a bit of racism firsthand. Her reaction really surprised me. Where I sought to deflect and diffuse as a youngster, she engaged. Where I might have attempted to distance myself from my heritage, she embraced hers. I found that courageous. My daughter is now aware that she is different from most of her classmates. I can’t help but feel a little bit sad by that. Had you asked me prior to that incident, if my kids were fully assimilated, I would have answered in the affirmative.
I didn’t start this post thinking i was going to break any new ground, or offer anything that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. I’m just trying to get my head around the fact that since i had it better than my parents, I expected my children to have it even better than me, and that may not be the case.