Racial and ethnic identities are important because they map on to all kinds of outcomes that we associate with inequality. And in relation to immigration, the fundamental basis of the American dream is that you’re able to look back on the generation that came before you, and in particular an immigrant generation, and say that you have risen above the station in life that they came to the United States with.
In my research, I wanted to understand what it was like to be a later generation descendant of early Mexican immigrants, given that there are so many Mexican immigrants in the United States today. Immigration from Mexico has been virtually uninterrupted for the last 100 years. European immigration took place during a fairly compact period of time, mostly between 1880 and 1920.
What that meant is that all of the U.S. born generations that came of age after that period were living in an American society that was more characterized by U.S. born co-ethnics, and less characterized by immigrant co-ethnics.
By the time the descendants of those early European immigrants reached the third and fourth generation, ethnic identity was something of a leisure pastime to them. It was something that they invoked what sociologists say symbolically. So people might drink green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day. They might eat ravioli during Christmas. But other than that, their ethnic identity doesn’t really shape how people see them, and it doesn’t really shape how they see the world.
Mexican immigration, as you can see, was fairly prominent during that first part of the 20th century. But Mexican immigration kept going, with the exception of the 1930s, during which there was a Great Depression, the number of Mexican immigrants in each successive decade grew. So this is what I mean by immigrant replenishment, the ongoing nature of Mexican immigration as compared to the declining nature of European immigration.
There was a significant change in the immigration laws in 1965, part of which opened up immigration to other countries, but actually closed off the legal pathways for Mexican immigrants to come here. So after 1970, you see a tremendous increase in the Mexican immigrant population, and not just in the Mexican immigrant population, but an unauthorized Mexican immigrant population.
The word Mexican becomes synonymous with illegal. So, Mexican ethnic, Mexican racial identity, gets characterize not just as a foreign identity, but as an illegal foreign identity. What people might be surprised to know is that the Mexican origin population is incredibly diverse with respect to generation since immigration.
Three in 10 individuals of Mexican descent is what I would call later-generation Mexican Americans. I went to a small town in southwestern Kansas called Garden City. There was a heavy influx of Mexican immigrants in the first third of the 20thcentury and a very long period during which there was virtually no Mexican immigrant settlement. Then, in the last 20 years of the 20th century, there was another big settlement of Mexican immigrants who came mostly to work in the beef-packing plants that had been set up there.
I went to a second place called Santa Maria, California. It’s on the central coast of California. It’s an agricultural community. And unlike Garden City, Mexican immigration had been very constant because it’s always been an agricultural community, so Mexican immigrants have always come to work in the fields there and I went to these two places, and I interviewed individuals of Mexican descent whose families came to the United States prior to 1940.
Now, in these two towns that I studied, virtually everyone is either Mexican or white. And so, the distinction between people of Mexican descent and non-Hispanic whites is evident when Mexican American shears nativism that is perpetrated by individuals whom they work with, individuals they encounter in their daily life, politicians, and the media.
And the people whom interview feel the sting that comes with that nativism and internalizes it. They internalize it partly because they draw parallels. They see similarities between their family’s own immigrant experiences, even if it was 80 years ago, and the immigrant experience today. I call these boundaries that emerge between people of Mexican descent and non-Mexicans “inter-group boundaries”.
Now, there’s another kind of boundary that emerges, and I call those boundaries “intra-group boundaries”. These are boundaries or distinctions that knife through the Mexican origin population and draw distinctions between U.S. born people of Mexican descent, and more recent Mexican immigrants.
And these boundaries become obvious to the people I interviewed when they are accused of not possessing the right cultural repertoire when they’re not able to speak Spanish because they don’t enjoy particular kinds of music, because they have friends who are not Mexican. They’re often accused of being fake Mexicans.
So going forward, we’re likely to see a Mexican origin population that is incredibly diverse internally. We already see a significant portion of the population that is showing classic signs of assimilation, high levels of socioeconomic achievement, living in ethnically mixed neighborhoods, intermarrying. But on the other end of the spectrum, you see a population that is suffering from the ill effects of poverty, that is suffering from the ill effects of going to underfunded, under-resourced, schools.
We also know from the research that being unauthorized makes people less likely to learn English. It’s associated with earning less money. It’s associated with living in more segregated neighborhoods and that’s true not just for the individuals who are unauthorized themselves, but also for their U.S. born citizen children.