Oklahoma: Proximity of Mexico may keep state immigrants from fully assimilating

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed May 28 13:32:16 UTC 2008

Proximity of Mexico may keep state immigrants from fully assimilating

By Devona Walker
Staff Writer

The Chavez brothers prefer hip-hop to ranchero music, pizza to chile
rellenos and basketball to soccer. For them, Mexico is an assortment
of black-and-white photographs sitting on the mantel, some stories
told to them by their parents and a few, brief visits during their
childhood. "My dad, he understands some English. If you talk to him,
he will try to talk back," said Francisco Chavez, 15, a sophomore at
Northwest Classen High School. "But it sounds all whacked, more like
'Spanglish' than anything else." Their father, a construction worker,
speaks enough English to get by in the workplace. Their mother, who
stays at home, speaks none at all. Around the dinner table, their
native tongue dominates and their Mexican heritage is the prevailing
culture. Out in the world, the opposite is true.

A study sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a public policy research
group, released May 13, suggests today's immigrants have done a better
job of assimilating than immigrants of previous generations, but
progress has been obscured by their numbers. Among immigrant groups,
Mexicans have had the most difficulty when it comes to economic and
civic assimilation, the study shows. Many are able to keep speaking
Spanish The U.S. immigrant population has nearly tripled since the
1970s, and has doubled since 1990. In Oklahoma, immigrants account for
nearly 30 percent of the state's population growth since 2000,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Mexican and Guatemalan
immigrants assimilate slower in terms of economics and civics because
of the proximity of their native countries, the dominance of the
Spanish language and U.S. immigration policy, he said.

"It's sort of unprecedented in American history to have immigrants so
dominated by one language. So it becomes less necessary for immigrants
to assimilate," said Jacob Vigdor, Duke University professor and the
report's author. "It does run a risk of forming a distinct sector in
society, and I think that's what some people are worried about."

Politics may help explain adaptability
When Vinh Nguyen left Vietnam, he had no choice. He had been a
lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army. When Saigon fell to
the North Vietnamese April 30, 1975, he knew if he didn't escape, he
would be killed.
The new communist government already had confiscated his house, his
car and his land.

"I left that morning. I left my country by boat," Nguyen said. "I left
with one shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of shoes and not one

He and his wife and four children crowded onto a boat with 30 others,
assuming they would never see their homeland again.

A man on the boat had a radio. After about 18 hours of sailing, they
heard the voice of an American rescue vessel en route to rescuing a
boat full of refugees.

"When we heard this, we were all screaming with joy," Nguyen said.
"Since then, I think of myself as an American."

Today, Nguyen, of Oklahoma City, wears two flag pins on his lapel. One
is the American flag and the other is commonly referred to as the
Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom flag. It has a yellow field with three
horizontal red stripes, symbolizing the unifying blood running through
north, central and south Vietnam.

Vietnamese and Cubans have been quickest to assimilate. Vigdor said
this is explained by the politics of their native countries.

"The set of individuals choosing to flee a communist nation likely
include a high proportion of entrepreneurs or skilled workers," Vigdor
said. "These people were drawn from the economic elite of their home
country, and they face very strong incentives to make their way here
because they can't go back."

Nguyen arrived at age 34. He went to college and ultimately received a
master's degree. In 1999, he returned to Vietnam for the first time to
attend his mother's funeral.

"I miss it, but I don't want to go back, not until there are no more
communists," Nguyen said.

Some regret the loss of their culture
Nguyen raised his children speaking only English in the home. They
have virtually lost their understanding of Vietnamese.
"It's my fault that they cannot speak Vietnamese now. But I wanted
them to be American. I wanted them to feel like they belonged here,"
Nguyen said. "Now, sometimes, I regret making them lose that part of
their culture."

The mainstream perspective of assimilation, Vigdor argues, is often

"A lot of people are caught up on the cultural issues. What they
appear to be advocating is that somehow using our language will make
you a more active citizen," Vigdor said.

Canadians and Europeans have little difficulty adapting to our
language and culture, the study shows, but they usually come for
economic reasons, rarely naturalize and eventually return to their
home countries. Immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and
even Mexico are often more committed.

"They are in it for the long haul," Vigdor said.

Around the dinner table, the Chavez brothers often are called to
interpret more than language. They also decipher culture, music,
fashion and even humor. Their parents have been here more than 20
years. But those years have been insulated. Their beliefs in the
simplicity of work and family were fully formed before they came.
Their understanding of the world around them remains strained, perhaps
stifled by translation.

"Sometimes, they just don't get it," Luis Chavez said.

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