Final Essay

Michelle Chan
Professor Alvarez
Latino Literature
14 May 2012

The Hyphenated Experience and Self-Identity: A Study of Assimilation, Acculturation and Rejection of the American Mainstream and Motivating Factors Through Latino Literature and Critical Texts

Introduction: Issue of Identity Within Latino Communities
Latino migration to the United States has encouraged discussion and issues of identity within the Latin@ community. How do Latino Americans self-identify and what influences their decision? What is the experience of assimilation or non-assimilation like for these minority groups living in the United States? For some Latino Americans, oftentimes the issue of a hyphenated identity causes pain and confusion because of conflicting values and interests the two identities hold and their experiences may factor into their choice of identity. Some may feel closer to their American identity and others may reject it, but what motivating factors result in a tendency in either direction? In this article I aim to answer these questions and explore the hyphenated experience in the United States through the examination of texts by those of Latin American and Hispanic heritage and through a discussion of scholarly articles.

Discrimination and Negative Effects on Self-Identity and Assimilation

In Deborah J. Schildkraut’s article, “The Rise and Fall of Political Engagement among Latinos: The Role of Identity and Perceptions of Discrimination,” she notes that there is an “interactive nature of self-identification and perceptions of discrimination” (286). Essentially, discrimination and racism affect how hyphenated Americans choose to identify which in turn affects their political engagement. Schildkraut further argues:

The multinomial logit analysis (results not shown) indicates that while the perception of individual-level discrimination has no effect on self-identification, the perception of group-level discrimination does make people more likely to identify as Latino than as American.
(Schildkraut 294)

Group-level discrimination seems to have a more negative impact on a person’s choice of identity than individual-level discrimination. This may be because the victims may want to defend their ethnic origins and take pride in what is being shunned by the American mainstream. This claim by Schildkraut is similar to one that Tanya Golash-Boza makes in her article “Dropping the Hyphen? Becoming Latino(a)-American through Racialized Assimilation.” Golash-Boza writes:

The finding that respondents who have experienced discrimination are less likely to self-identify as American indicates that the decision of people born in the United States not to describe themselves as American is a decision made in light of experiences of exclusion here in the United States. I have argued that this exclusion is part of racism in U.S. society, and is due to the implicit whiteness in the label American. (Golash-Boza 51)

The discrimination that Golash-Boza writes of is the group-level discrimination as opposed to individual-level discrimination as Schildkraut points out in her article. The racism, discrimination, or “exclusion” as Golash-Boza calls it is what influences Americans born within the hyphen to identify more with their ethnic origins. Their experiences determine how they self-identify and Latino-Americans may equate their negative experiences with the American identity. By rejecting that identity, it may serve as a defense mechanism or a reaction against their abusers—much like the defense of one’s ethnic origin as noted earlier from Schildkraut’s excerpt. They reject the pain they endured as “the other” for if mainstream “American”-ness entails such racial prejudice then this identity becomes undesirable based on personal experience.

The Emotional Pain of Forming and Choosing Identities

In Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, Fulano—a character from one of the book’s stories, “Identity”—although not an immigrant, experiences struggles with his own lack of identity and importance in his life. Fulano’s predicament, though exaggerated for effect, could be taken as a symbol for what immigrants and American-born Latino citizens attempt to understand about themselves. Alfau was an immigrant from Spain and could have personally felt the same struggles as his own character Fulano:

And once more he saw Toledo covering its hills like a petrified forest of centuries. It was absurd. With all useful justification of its existence gone, the city sat there like a dead emperor upon his wrecked throne, yet greater in his downfall than in his glory. There lay the corpse of a city draped upon a forgotten hill, history written in every deep furrow of its broken countenance, its limbs hanging down the banks to be buried under the waters of a relentless river. (Alfau 515)

The city of Toledo serves as a metaphor for Fulano’s failings. Alfau describes the city with many human body part imagery such as “the dead emperor,” “corpse,” and “limbs.” These human parts serve to personify the city as a human dejected without an identity to keep its “existence” “justified.” This also describes Fulano, who resorts to actual suicide because he no longer has any real superficial identity after his experiment to find an internal identity. Much of Alfau’s diction suggest a hopelessness in those without identities (ie. the city Toledo, Fulano) through the words “petrified,” “gone,” “dead,” “wrecked,” “downfall,” “lay,” “draped,” “forgotten,” broken,” “hanging,” and “buried.” Many of these words, like “petrified,” “gone,” “lay,” “draped,” “hanging,” “buried,” suggest a motionlessness, a listlessness that consumes those without identities. The lack of action and motivation in the words suggests that those without identities will similarly lose willpower and initiative, preferring to “lay” “wrecked” and “dead.” The image of the city as a corpse foreshadows Fulano’s decision to jump after failing in his quest to find his identity. It seems that Alfau hints that an identity serves as a core motivator for life and living—which seems true with the human condition. Not having an identity causes an agonizing experience for those suffering. As an ironic note, the quote “greater in his downfall than in his glory” sums up Fulano’s quest. Fulano’s death, not his living, becomes the source of his recognition. While I don’t think Alfau advocates this method to obtain an identity, he uses Fulano’s example to show how agonizing the experience of not having an identity can be and how far one may go to establish one. Many immigrants and hyphenated Americans might face this same problem when trying to create an identity for themselves in a society full of expectations and stereotypes of how they should act or are based on skin-color or ethnicity. Fulano’s case exemplifies an exaggerated example of this loss of identity, but the feelings he goes through and the meaning of it rings true for many immigrants and hyphenated Americans dealing with their native or ethnic identity, having it challenged as an immigrant in a new country, encountering a new radically different culture, and the struggle to reconcile the conflicts that arise.

In Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’s “I Am Joaquin”, we see the anger and resentment the narrator holds towards “gringo society,” a reference to white U.S. society. In the poem, the narrator speaks of the pain in deciding between identities, the difference between death and survival:

And now!
I must choose
the paradox of
victory of the spirit,
despite physical hunger,
to exist in the grasp
of American social neurosis,
sterilization of the soul
and a full stomach. (Gonzales 788)

In this excerpt, the narrator claims that he “must” choose, that there is no allowance for the hyphen in this world he lives in, and the two options are “paradox[es].” It is a struggle between the “spirit” and “existence” within the American mainstream and to have “victory of the spirit” means one must starve as a result of keeping one’s own cultural identity, or one must undergo a “sterilization of the soul,” and cleansing, in order to survive and “exist” or have a livelihood (as suggested by “a full stomach”). The use of the word “sterilization” suggests that to have an ethnic identity outside of the “American” identity is unclean and to be American one must have no ethnic identity—one must be a blank slate. Both are unappealing choices because to keep one’s ethnic identity, one will be forced to sink in this society, but to stay afloat one must be a shell. Whereas Fulano in Alfau’s story reacts with hopelessness the narrator in “I Am Joaquin” is bitter and angry about being forced to decide essentially between identifying with an ethnic heritage and as a result being shunned by society, or falsely adopting the American culture and becoming spiritually empty, but given the means to survive. It seems from Gonzales’s poem, the narrator is one who has experienced this racial discrimination that both Schildkraut and Golash-Boza wrote of, but the narrator understands to choose either identity would mean death in its own way. It seems the narrator has more affinity with identifying with his or her ethnic background, but is forced to consider an American identity due to the threat of being shunned and marginalized by society.

A Latina writer, Nicholasa Mohr, was born and raised in Spanish Harlem in New York, a part of the Puerto Rican diaspora. She wrote of her experiences growing up and struggling to find her identity between the pull of her Puerto Rican heritage and her American nationality. She writes in her piece:

The only way to achieve acceptance and a chance to be in the mainstream of this society was to not only embrace the local American culture, but also to reject one’s own Hispanic culture. This attempt at assimilation, this frustrating struggle to fit in, was encouraged. […] All too often, the price of this success was paid by discarding our own history and never seeking the truth of our past. Anglo-American values demanded that we had to reject our parents’ language and change our way of thinking. Even our clothes and food were seen to be foreign. (Mohr 1073-4)

Her experience is similar to Joaquin’s in that they both faced similar difficulties and frustration at this transformation and assimilation process. It is often an alienating and painful one and we see these emotions in actions of having to “achieve acceptance,” “reject one’s own Hispanic culture,” in only an “attempt at assimilation,” which was a “frustrating struggle” endorsed and encouraged by school systems and the US mainstream. In order to be successful in achieving acceptance, one had to give up his or her rich ethnic history and reject half of their identity in the form of rejecting language, customs, traditions, food, and clothing. This method of assimilation was often difficult because that meant rejecting family in a sense. It meant rejecting everything they new and a part of how they identified themselves in order to prove they were worthy of their other identity. The standards set by this US mainstream is both high and alienating because this way is “the only way” and it required a rejection of almost all of the ethnic identity. Mohr also notes that there was encouragement to reject the ethnic identity, which was a message sent out by schools, social workers, and authority figures from outside of the Puerto Rican community. These outside forces are the same ones that are put in place to guide and nurture adolescents and are often perceived as figures of impartiality, making their biases and agendas all the more disturbing and undermining.

Culturalist and Structuralist Views On Immigrant Acculturation and Self-Identity And How Availability of Resources Affect Identity
In a study by Alejandro Portes and Alejandro Rivas, Portes and Rivas discussed the adaptation of migrant children and examined a variety of studies that fell under a culturalist or structuralist lens. Under a culturalist lens, researchers examine how well immigrants and their children are integrating into the U.S. mainstream culturally and linguistically. Under a structuralist lens, researchers examine how immigrants and their children are fitting into the “social hierarchy” and look at structural factors such as “occupational achievement, poverty, early childbearing, and incarceration” (Portes and Rivas 222). They looked at a variety of past studies that fell under the two lenses and how it applied to immigrant acculturation and self-identity. They noted that certain structural factors strongly affected the two actions:

Vast differences in the human capital origins of these populations and in the way they are received in the United States translate into significant disparities in the resources available to families and ethnic communities to raise a new generation in America. Naturally, the outcomes in acculturation and social and economic adaptation vary accordingly. (Portes and Rivas 221)

In this excerpt, Portes and Rivas suggest that “disparities in the resources available to families and ethnic communities” greatly influence acculturation and integration. What immigrant families have available to them help determine their success and their ability to be accepted into the US mainstream. Families with less resources will most likely be marginalized more, be more reliant on welfare systems that may negatively affect their ability to be upward mobile—which will also affect the children and how successful they are in their academic endeavors. Furthermore, the researchers note “the way they are received” in the U.S. affect immigrant acculturation. This puts some responsibility on the host country for whether or not immigrants in their country are receptive to adaptation. It may be that in some cases immigrants who wish to integrate into US mainstream are not allowed to because they are not given the chance to by mainstream society.
The film “Immersion” portrays a young child, Moises, from a Latino family who mainly speaks and communicates in Spanish—which poses a host of problems for him in school. He is extremely bright and hard working, but is unable to perform well in class and in tests because of the language barrier and California’s policy of not allowing bilingual education, which would allow Moises to learn and take classes in Spanish. We see in the film that his lack of English language ability marginalizes him and negatively affects him and his studies.

In the film, Moises is rarely exposed to the English language and as a result is lost in his classroom studies. We see that he is quiet in class and his teacher—while supportive—is unable to help him much because of the language barrier and because of the educational policies. His family and situation is an example of an immigrant family that experiences “disparities in the resources available” to them. He tries hard in his studies, but is unsuccessful because of his lack of understanding of English and although the end of the film is open-ended and not definitive of Moises’s success or failure in this educational system—we can infer that he is a struggling student and may not be able to take advantage of his educational opportunities in the future if his situation continues on in this way and if this system continues to put him at a disadvantage. If he is unable to take advantage of these educational resources, he may not be able to integrate successfully into the US mainstream, which will strongly affect how he identifies. We see this issue of disparity of resources in relation to self-identity in another excerpt from Portes and Rivas’s study:

“[…] immigrants and their children are isolated from the opportunities for mobility offered by the mainstream, not because they avoid assimilation, but because they belong to heavily disadvantaged ethnic and racial groups. In the generations-of-exclusion view, Hispanic immigrants and their descendants move into communities and segments of society that have been racialize–that is, identified in negative racial terms–and marginalized. (Portes and Rivas 223)

This statement further reinforces the idea that it is not immigrants and their reluctance to be a part of US mainstream, but rather the difficulty and obstacle of belonging to disadvantaged groups in American society. This is a reaction to the historical belief that immigrants themselves choose to not take part in their new country’s society and customs. The excerpt mentions a “generations-of-exclusion” theory that states that it generations of marginalization and difficulty in being accepted into US mainstream will result in later generations solely retaining their ethnic identities. There is a correlation between socioeconomic status and resources and its affect on immigrant ability to be upward mobile. Upward mobility is what further allows for acculturation and acceptance into the mainstream. The communities that this excerpt speaks of is the Hispanic communities and enclaves these immigrants move into when they being living here, but these communities often suffer socioeconomic issues that make it easy for it and everyone living in these communities to be marginalized and racialized. The paper goes on to analyze the different factors that go into the different ways immigrants and children of immigrants define themselves:

[…] repeated incidents of discrimination by the receiving society lower self-esteem and trigger a reactive ethnicity among migrant youths. That experience often leads them to adopt a nonhyphenated national label, such as “Mexican,” […] Indeed, if joining the mainstream means adopting a nonhyphenated American identity, only a minority of second-generation youths do so. Most adopt other labels, not randomly but along patterned lines. As noted, hyphenated American identities are more common among more educated immigrant families, which adopt a path of selective acculturation. (Portes and Rivas 229)

Once again, we see that discrimination affects how children of immigrants or immigrant youths define themselves. As a reaction, they reject any American identity as well as forgoing the hyphenated identity. Yet the study also suggests that not many second-generation (children of immigrants born in the United States) decided to adopt a nonhyphenated American identity—which suggest that the influences of their ethnic identity is still equally strong. Portes and Rivas continue on to say that educated immigrant families are able to take on a path of selective acculturation (deciding what or what not to adopt or give up) and as a result are comfortable in their hyphenated identities. Education becomes a strong factor in how immigrants and children of immigrants decide to identify, and as we saw before, that can be attributed to the correlation that the more education one receives the easier it is to be upwardly mobile and the more upwardly mobile one is the more resources one has to be included in the mainstream, to assimilate, or embrace other aspects of their identity.

Through the examination of studies on immigrant identity we see that there is a correlation between discrimination and self-identity and education (with relation to upward mobility and other socioeconomic factors) and self-identity. Those who face or are exposed to group-level discrimination tend to reject the American identity and adopt a solely ethnic one as a reaction to the discrimination they faced—called “reactive ethnicity” in Portes and Rivas’s study. Racism and intolerance are often the motivators for this kind of racialized discrimination, but there is also discrimination based on social status and economic status, which results in marginalization. Immigrants with less resources and education available to them often find themselves and their children on the lower end of the social and economic hierarchy, which is detrimental to their acceptance by the US mainstream and they are often marginalized and ignored. Immigrant youths or youths from immigrant families with higher education levels tend to be better able to incorporate their contrasting identities—but not without emotional turmoil and frustration. We see this emotional and personal aspect of the hyphenated identity or the identity of an immigrant youth in the excerpts by Latino writers. Mohr’s own account and Gonzalez’s poem both illustrate the pains of the immigrant and hyphenated experience—the polarizing pulls of each identity, and the difficulty of finding a resolution. Alfau’s creative piece does not speak of the same experience, but focuses on the emotional backlash of not having an identity and of the arduous search for one—which closely mirrors the predicament that many immigrants and children of immigrants of Latino heritage face.

Works Cited
Alfau, Felipe. “From Locos: A Comedy of Gesturesy.” 1936. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 505-515. Print.

Golash-Boza, Tanya. “Dropping the Hyphen? Becoming Latino(a)-American through Racialized Assimilation.” Social Forces 85.1 (2006): 27-55. JSTOR. Web. 10 May 2012.

Gonzales, Rodolfo, “Corky.” “I Am Joaquin.” 1967. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011. 788-799. Print.

Immersion. Dir. Richard Levien. YouTube. Media That Matters, 16 June 2009. Web. 23 May 2012. <=">.

Mohr, Nicholasa. “A Journey Toward A Common Ground: The Struggle and Identity of Hispanics in the U.S.A.” 1999. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011. 1073-1077. Print.

Portes, Alejandro, and Alejandro Rivas. “The Adaptation of Migrant Children.” The Future of Children 21.1 (2011): 219-46. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2012. .

Schildkraut, Deborah J. “The Rise and Fall of Political Engagement among Latinos: The Role of Identity and Perceptions of Discrimination.” Political Behavior 27.3 (2005): 285-312. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2012.

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