Latino Americans are Taking a Different Path
The question posed is one I’ve been wrestling with the better part of my life. I am the son and grandson of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, and I’ve inherited my elders’ ambition to “make it” it in America as well as their anxiety over whether they would ever really fit in.
That rite of ambivalence is at the heart of most of our immigrant narratives, but Latin Americans and their descendants experience it in a very particular way. We are, after all, within relatively easy reach of the Old Country. There is a hideous fence that slashes the desert along nearly half of the border the United States shares with Mexico, but that doesn’t keep families from crossing it — legally and not.
Ours is not the archetypal mid-20th-century path toward “assimilation.” We are virtuosos of the in-between: speaking Spanglish, eating French fries with salsa, turning jazz into Latin jazz. Walking the borderline, as it were. To an extent, we have been able to enter the American mainstream on our own terms through pop culture.
Still, our arrival on the mainstage has come in fits and starts. Certain regions of the country are finding themselves reverse-assimilated by Latino-ness — like my hometown of Los Angeles, with its Mexican-American political class and vast swaths of immigrant neighborhoods. In the Midwest and the South, where immigrants are an incipient but rapidly growing population, cultural difference has been exploited for short-term political gain by nativists.
The general election signaled that we had arrived, yet again, at the center of the national narrative with the news that the Latino vote is now 10 percent of the electorate, and these voters clearly provided President Obama much of the narrow edge that kept him in the White House. The moment the election was called, the commentariat welcomed us in from the margins. Of course, there were virtually no Latinos among the pundits. Once again, in-between: simultaneously in the center and on the margins.