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
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? Through the examination of texts by those of Latin American and Hispanic heritage and a discussion of scholarly articles, I aim to answer these questions and explore the hyphenated experience in the United States.
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.
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.
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 first generation 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:
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.
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.
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.
Comments are now closed.