Myth of the Melting Pot

America's Racial and Ethnic Divides

Page Two

'We Were Pretty Much Invisible'

mural in Omaha
A mural behind Omaha's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Previous waves of immigrants also arrived unskilled and poorly educated. What has changed, however, is the nature of the U.S. economy, which increasingly requires education and skills to assure an upward path.

Although the children of these low-income, poorly educated immigrants may grow up fluent in English, acquire more education than their parents and assimilate in other ways, research shows that "they will lag well behind other students, particularly in college attendance," said Georges Vernez, director of the Center for Research on Immigration Policy at the RAND Corp.

"Today, for instance, native-born Hispanic youths are 30 percent less likely to go on to college after high school and three times less likely to graduate from college than non-Hispanic white students," he told a House hearing last month.

Nationally, Hispanic youths are the most likely to abandon the classroom. Their dropout rate of 29.4 percent is more than double the rate for black Americans and four times higher than the rate for non-Hispanic whites.

Yet the statistics also show that the dropout rate for second-generation Hispanic students is higher than that for first generation youths, suggesting that assimilation does not always work as intended.

Sociologist Rumbaut said his research has shown that the most disciplined, hardest-working and respectful students "tend to be the most recently arrived." They are the ones "who have not been here long enough to be Americanized into bad habits, into a Beavis and Butthead perspective of the world."

Since the children of immigrants tend to adapt much faster than their parents, the result is often tension and divisions within families. Immigrants who arrive as adults to escape poverty tend to view their lives here as an improvement over what they left behind, but their children often compare their circumstances to those of other Americans and find themselves lacking. Some gravitate toward a growing gang culture that offers them an identity and an outlet for their alienation, according to researchers.

In Omaha, police, teachers and social workers attribute rising youth gang activity in part to an influx of Hispanic families from California. Ironically, many left California precisely to escape a violent gang subculture there but ended up spreading the infection.

"A number of families who moved from L.A. brought children who were already involved with gangs," said the Rev. Damian Zuerlein, the parish priest of the nearby Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, which caters to the community's growing Mexican population.

Omaha now has an estimated 1,800 "hard-core" gang members, police say. Two main competing Hispanic gangs are believed to have several hundred members each.

And, as it is across the nation, the high school dropout rate among Hispanics is a growing concern here. In the 1995-96 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available, 12 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of Omaha public secondary schools, double the rate for non-Hispanic whites. According to Mario Remijio, a teacher at South High School here, many Hispanic teenagers drop out to get jobs under pressure from their parents.

In many cases, argues University of Nebraska sociologist Lourdes Gouveia, the problem is not a lack of assimilation to American culture, but too much of it.

"An attachment to one's home country, culture and language can be very positive" for immigrant children in U.S. schools, contends Gouveia. These attachments "help maintain a sense of identity and self-respect when the family drops in status," as often happens when foreigners immigrate. As a result, the Venezuelan-born Gouveia said, citing studies by Rumbaut and others, students who are the least "assimilated" often do better in school than other immigrants and sometimes top even the native born.

On the other hand, some critics contend, the United States should not be abandoning a concept – the Melting Pot – that has served the country well for generations, helping to maintain unity through two world wars. They worry that the traditional U.S. commitment to assimilation is breaking down from an incessant advance of "multiculturalism."

"On the whole, there is an American national identity that immigrants ought to be encouraged to assimilate into," said John J. Miller, author of a new book on the issue.

For all the concerns, the recent wave of immigration has brought some notable benefits to Omaha. The city is now home to about 20,000 Latinos, the vast majority of them concentrated in South Omaha. By all accounts, the influx has revived that part of the city. New businesses owned by Hispanics and other immigrants have sprouted up, lending an air of vibrancy to South Omaha's main street.

"Ten years ago, this area was dying," said the Rev. Zuerlein. "Stores were closing, and people were moving out."

The wave of immigration also has stirred new ethnic consciousness among longtime Latino residents, notably the assimilated descendants of Mexicans who came to Nebraska in the early part of this century to work on the railroad and harvest beets.

"When I was a kid, the Hispanics here all just about knew each other," said Virgil Armendariz, a Mexican American businessman who grew up in Omaha. "Now there are hundreds of families. ... Until recently, we were pretty much invisible."

The influx has helped revive long-forgotten Mexican customs, he said, such as the special celebration of the quinceanera, or 15th birthday. "People who were born here are starting to learn more about their culture," Armendariz said.

Next door to the Jacintos, Matt and Sharon Swanson are one of the few native-born families left in the neighborhood. They agree that the immigrant influx has "revitalized" the nearby main drag but say that gang activities, including drive-by shootings and occasional murders, have become a big problem.

"I see a lack of respect for other people's property," said Mickey Dalton, 50, a friend of the Swansons who lives nearby. The neighborhood is destined to turn even more Hispanic, with little prospect for assimilation, he said.

"They're sticking to their own," Dalton said. "When the Czechs moved here, the big push was to learn English. You don't see that so much now. A lot of them don't want to learn English."

At the Guadalupe church recreation hall, several of the young Mexican immigrants who gather weekly say they want to learn the language but find it difficult because they came here in their teens or early twenties and immediately entered a Spanish-speaking milieu. Some say their biggest problems come from Mexican Americans, known as Chicanos, who mock their attempts to speak English.

"I want to join the U.S. Army or Air Force, but because of the language, I can't," said Jose Fernandez, a lean 22-year-old from Guadalajara who briefly attended high school here before dropping out.

"When I'm around Chicanos, I feel ashamed to speak English," said Margaro Ponce, 23, who came to Omaha two years ago to join relatives. "Instead of helping you, they make fun of you," he said in Spanish.

Guillermina Becerra, 22, arrived nearly seven years ago and spent three years at South High, where she took courses in English as a second language. But she made no American friends and never became fluent. "When I went to other classes, I never spoke with anyone," she said. "When I spoke English, I think some people were laughing."

Becerra has four brothers – one of them a U.S. citizen – and two sisters here but is not a legal resident herself. She first entered the country with her sister-in-law's green card. She plans to stay in the United States because of greater "opportunities" here and hopes eventually to legalize her status and become a citizen.

But even if she does, she says, "I think I will still feel like a Mexican."

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