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"

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.

The whole subject is fraught with fine lines. To begin with, many Chicanos aren't immigrants at all. They descend from the Mexicans who lived in California, New Mexico. Arizona, West Texas, and southern Colorado when these areas belonged to Mexico. And few question the right of Chicanos to a strong ethnic identity and free use of the Spanish language. The concern, rather, grows around the idea of an alternative culture that could compete with, and even displace, the dominant Anglo culture.

A 1978 sampling of people who had been permanent US resident aliens in 1971 showed that only 5 percent of the Mexicans had become US citizens, compared with 24.6 percent among South Americans and 80.3 percent among Asians, says Senator Simpson, quoting Select Commission data.

Hispanics, he sums up, "must be in it with us."

The backdrop to this debate is a weakened confidence among Americans at large about their own national identity, in the drive to educate aliens into Americans. Where once Americans stoked the fire under the melting pot through public schools and a labor-hungry economy, the 1960s and 1970s brought a new concern for preserving ethnic cultures.

Actually, American history is one of accepting a very limited diversity -- the quaint, nonthreatening diversity of enclaves of ethnic minorities -- comments Nathan Glazer, Harvard sociology and education professor and author of "Beyond the Melting Pot." But the numbers and concentration of the present immigration make it look like a substantive change in the American ethnic makeup.

Perhaps the real fear is that new immigrants aren't assimilating into the American political culture: becoming citizens, voting, understanding and holding certain basic democratic values.

Franz Schurmann, a professor of history and sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that the Hispanic community is "not just another ethnic block, but a whole different spirit, and one that basically doesn't have a democratic tradition."

Chicanos have been slower than other immigrant groups to melt in the American pot. Even after two or three generations in the US, their wages have remained lower than others and they have learned less English. Why remains the central mystery of their history. None of the common explanations -- racism, agrarian background, the constant influx of new immigrants into the barrio, continuing close ties to Mexico, the economic system of the Southwest, or the language barrier -- are considered by researchers to hold up under analysis and comparison with other groups.

There are other mysteries, Jose Lopez, with all the trappings of Mid-America, protests at being dubbed part of the middle class. Chicanos generally, according to Teresa Sullivan of the University of Texas at Austin, see themselves as lower- or working-class people. Anglos with the same income level and type of work more often see themselves as middle class. Part of this reluctance could be due to solidarity with the larger Chicano community, and part could be a sense of not entirely belonging to the American mainstream.

How much the Chicano community is Americanized depends heavily on how many Chicanos make their way, like Mr. Lopez, into middle-class, middle-income jobs. But, as with Mr. Lopez, this is not the whole story. Even once Chicanos make their way into the middle class, they remain strongly Chicano.

The relationship between Mexican-Americans and native-born Americans is still taking shape. Until the late 1960s, observes Jorge Castro of the Program in US-Mexico Studies at the University of California at San Diego, middle-class Chicanos melted into Anglo society as much as possible. Now they have a stronger sense of themselves. This is wrought by the coincidence of three things. Castro says:

* A 20-year trend away from complete assimilation into the American mainstream and toward maintaining an ethnic identity.

* Growth in the numbers of Mexican-Americans lured to the US by jobs who strengthen the culture.

* Mexican oil, which raises the economic and foreign policy stock of the mother country of which Chicanos have sometimes been ashamed.

The Chicano relation to Mexico is ambiguous too, though. Most identify with the country, not the government. Harley Browning of the University of Texas notes that in a course he teaches on modern Mexico, he expected an avid, roots-searching interest among Chicanos. But most say their roots are within 150 miles of the border and don't extend to central Mexico. Their traditions grew out of the border region rather than from mainstream Mexico or America.

The nearness of Mexico is a major influence on Chicano culture -- moving and visiting back and forth, long-distance phone calls, children spending the summer in Mexico -- and may slow the integration of Chicanos into American life.

Northern Mexicans don't have an entrepreneurial tradition like some Cubans and many Asian ethnic groups. The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico and the land-owning system there have been historically paternalistic. Neither promoted participation or democracy, Roberto Anson says

Mr. Anson, who under President Carter was the administration's highest ranking Hispanic, views the Mexican tradition as one where common people don't have any hope of changing the condition. Coming to the US, legally or not, is a step counter to that tradition. But, Anson says, "society is expecting a sort of instant-pudding change of values."

New arrivals from Mexico, Castro agrees, often don't see connection between political participation and their own welfare. But this can be as much a function of social class as of tradition. Mexican political culture also can stress loyalty to political personalities rather than to ideas, but this, Castro says, is changing for the better.

Confidence figures in here. "You have to feel good about yourself to assimilate," states Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau of the Ford Foundation, who has worked to organize the Puerto Rican community in New York.

The first chance a young Chicano has at mainstream America is school. Most, for whatever reason, fail. The drop-out rate for Chicanos is 60 percent. Some dropouts talk of sitting in classes as young children, not knowing English well enough to understand, and the teacher not knowing Spanish.

Confidence, and scholarly competence, is undermined in another way too.

Jose remembers this from Garfield high school: There he and 15 or 20 of other recent immigrants -- mocked as "Tijuaneros" by other Chicanos -- were counseled out of a biology course and into mechanical shop so the school wouldn't have to open another class. Lopez knew the biology teacher, though, who let him into his course. Three weeks later, the counselor informed him he was in the wrong class. The teacher protested that Lopez was doing "A" level work. The issue went before the principal where the counselor erupted into ethnic slurs. At that point Lopez promised this counselor that he would return and take his job. Several years later, out of college, he did his in-service training in counseling at that high school, just as his old counselor left.

How the chief institutions of Mexican life -- the Catholic Church, the family , and the community -- hold up in an American setting is not yet clear.

The church connection appears to be a loose one so far. Jose Lopez says he hasn't been to a Catholic church in 15 years, and many of his educated friends are changing religions. Church actually plays a weaker role in assimilating Mexicans to America than it has for other immigrant groups. One reason is the lack of Mexican priests. Most barrio clergy are Irish-American or Spanish.

The close Mexican family tradition is still generally strong, although some see the American influence watering down the family role. Chicano social life, Teresa Sullivan notes, is still centered around kinship.

The future of the barrio as an ethnic enclave depends partly on how much capital is drawn into it to provide jobs there, as well as what outside opportunities develop. Teresa Sullivan points out. While Monterey Park, where the Lopez family lives, is largely Spanish-speaking, the Lopezes don't know their neighbors or feel the kind of community sense that binds less affluent, more heavily Chicano neighborhoods.

The Chicano population may not grow as fast as many think. So far, according to Harley Browning, the flow of Mexicans into this country has changed with the business cycle. So if jobs run out, the influx will stop at its natural level. Denis Campbell agrees, noting that most Mexicans in the US "would prefer to be there than here."

This view must be wieghed against the sheer size of the unemployed work force in a country whose population has grown by two-thirds since World War II.

Either way, few doubt that English will be toppled as the language of opportunity and power in the Southwest. What Hispanics like Anson (who is of Costa Rican extraction) and Castro (who is Chicano) hope for is a truly bilingual society where everyone speaks English, but Spanish is a widespread and accepted option in everyday life.

A cultural alternative. Anson says, is not a cost but a valuable and marketable resource -- in international trade, in foreign relations and security , and in taking advantage of the country's own human resources.

American business, he points out, has always been hampered internationally by monoculturalism.The growing importance of Latin America makes a Hispanic biculturalism even more of an asset.

But he also speaks on a more pressing level. Forty percent of the Hispanic population in the US is under 20 years old. These people can either be a tremendous asset in helping support an aging American population that will weigh more and more heavily on the social security system or, without jobs and skills, they can themselves be a burden on society. These people, Anson notes, are already here and we need to tap them.

So the payoff of bilingual education, he says, is not just to bilinguals, but to the society that can benefit from it.

Chicano culture has already changed the face of some American cities in the past decade. In East Los Angeles or San Antonio, it's not a major disadvantage in the job market to speak only Spanish.

"Biculturalism," Jorge Castro says, "will simply happen." The government can't possibly legislate culture. So while most Chicanos don't want either a separate culture or complete assimilation into Anglo culture, if bilingualism is not an option, then Chicanos will feel pushed into choosing one extreme or the other.

Here in California, says UC Berkeley's Franz Schurmann, there is a good chance to work out the problems of two cultures smoothly. "It's easier to be tolerant and wise when you're richer."

A historical national debate over biculturalism will arise when and if Congress has to decide to admit Puerto Rico as a bilingual state, Castro points out. The issue won't just be language, he adds. "The debate will be on the nature of citizenship, of the union."

Ethnic separatism would arise only if the Chicano middle class is not integrated into the political system, Castro says. And this isn't likely, he adds, because it is already integrating. The growing importance of the Southwest in presidential races, especially California and Texas, makes the Chicanos an irresistible political power.

If Hispanics were thoroughly integrated into the culture and economy of the US, would Spanish eventually fade out? No, says Jose Lopez. Too many Mexicans and Latin Americans will continue to pour in.

The important thing for reconciling cultures, Castro says, is the approach. He dosn't think either Hayakawa's or Simpson's approach is constructive. "You don't get the confidence of people who feel threatened -- and minorities feel threatened -- by attacking them."

"The biggest fear that Mexican-Americans have," he says, "is that they won't be accepted as Americans -- that their right to be Americans will be taken away."

Castro, who grew up in Los Angeles, wishes that that most American of Americans, Ronald Reagan, would tell the American people, "The American dream must be redefined. We dream in many cultures. We dream in many different languages. But we're all Americans.'"

"If Ronald Reagan said that," Castro says, "I think people would accept it."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.