When does an American become an American?
Why should the Palestine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and , by herding together, establish their language and manners, to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them . . .? Benjamin Franklin, 1751, quoted in Stephen Steinberg's "The Ethnic Myth"Skip to next paragraph
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Sitting at his dining room table in the middle-class, largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Monterey Park near Los Angeles, Jose Lopez shrugs.
"This is my country. It suited me; it gives me an opportunity."
He came here as a 17-year-old Mexican to learn English. He always thought he would go back. Seventeen years later, and six years after becoming a United States citizen, Jose Lopez teaches Spanish at a local high school, coaches the soccer team, has a wife and four children, a master's degree in psychology and is considering moving toward a PhD. He's made an American life for himself.
And still it's hard for Mr. Lopez to accept the loss of his Mexican nationality. "I still feel Mexican," he says. "You can't leave your roots."
In a bare-walled second-floor office in Los Angeles, attorney and director Denis Campbell of the One-Stop Immigration Service notes that Mexicans come here illegally for strictly economic reasons and often hold fast to the idea that one day they will go back to Mexico.
"As a practical matter, I have the feeling that many of them don't," he says.
Germans in Pennsylvania are no longer the salient part of the issue. But the issue is still with us, tangled up with immigration law reform. It's an emotional issue that politicians and others say could be abused by a smooth-talking demagogue. The issue is biculturalism. How much do people in America have to have in common to be Americans?
In a nation that, accurately or not, has prided itself on its diversity, some public figures are beginning to ask how much diversity is too much or the wrong kind.
At the center of the debate is immigration from Mexico. In the next 100 years, 85 percent of those who migrate to this country will be Spanish-speaking, according to Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming. Mexicans dominate. This is not diversity, Senator Simpson and others would contend, but what threatens to be a major, separate culture, with its own language and values, within the US.
It's a moot point with historians over how much Americans have ever really had in common with each other, but more public people recently have been asking how much we need to have in common.
On this front, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California has proposed a constitutional amendment to make English the nation's official language. His office gets more mail on the proposal than it has on any other -- by last count, about 150 to 1 in favor.
Senator Simpson, who is chairman of a Senate subcommittee on immigration and was a member of former President Jimmy Carter's Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, stresses that people who come to the US should be willing to share in the public culture of the country -- including the language, English. "Biculturalism," he says, "never solved the problems of any country."
Journalist Eric Sevareid, who moderated a panel at a recent immigration conference held by the City Club in San Diego, remarked that while he once believed that cultural diversity was the strength of this country, he no longer does. Cultural diversity now means "a weakening, a fragmenting of the nation" at a time when it needs unity.
Commentators such as historical novelist James Michener and futurist Alvin Toffler have brought up the possibility of a Quebec-style separatist movement growing out of a bicultural, bilingual Southwest.