Saturday, 13 October 2012

US 2012: The Latin American Dream

by Charlotte Davis

Latino students on graduation day
Case study: Aurora, Illinois - American heartland and ostensibly quintessentially American. However, in the last decade a shift has occurred. The Latino population has risen to almost 41% of the total; it is centred in the Eastside of Aurora, where the proportion of Latinos is almost 80%. They have come in search of the American Dream: ownership of property and a chance to make something from nothing. This is just one town in a nationwide trend.

Aurora can be seen as an immigration success story. While other city suburbs are full of shut-up shops, the Eastside is vibrant and buzzing with new business. These Latinos are showcasing entrepreneurial spirit and a keen work ethic. Clara Dias set up her own hairdressing business there 30 years ago. Originally from Mexico City, she came for a better life – education, freedom, opportunities and success. She claims that it is undeniable that the Latino influence in Aurora has countered economic downturn in the area.

Aurora’s mayor cites a long history of immigration in the local area, but says that during the last couple of decades there has been a massive increase in levels of immigration and it's ‘good to have them’. The last three US soldiers from Aurora who have died fighting for their country were Latino, just one example of how the Latinos are no longer seen as an underclass, but as valued citizens.

The US has always been a melting pot and during the last 20 years the multiculturalism of towns has grown fast. But are these Hispanics getting a fair crack at American Dream when they are still faced with a conservative anti-immigrant backlash?

Many see the language barrier as the main problem preventing full integration of immigrants into society. Clara admits that all of her employees are Latinos and they all speak Spanish at work (‘my language’). In many parishes, due to the influx of a Hispanic congregation, services are given in Spanish by white pastors. In Eastside Aurora, the parish is 80% Hispanic, so that a bilingual parish has to be catered for. Should this be a worry? Or is this a natural progression? Surely community leaders should try to bridge divides within societies, while Christianity is about opening doors.

Citizenship tests are offered to encourage some immigrants to take up US citizenship. Surprisingly, despite having lived in the US for years, many are reluctant to take the test – some because of the fees and many because of the language barrier (the test must be done in English). In the past, reluctance to take up US citizenship was also influenced by an idealistic wish to return to one's country of origin, but now the laws are changing so that Hispanics are increasingly aware that they need the protection of US citizenship against deportation.

Latina business owner
Some white residents claim argue that schools on Aurora's Eastside are becoming increasingly Hispanic with teachers, particularly for younger age groups, needing to be bilingual. Others assert that, once graduated from high school, young Hispanics take their American education and return to Mexico thus never paying taxes to the state. Equally the parents of these pupils, though hard workers, are accused of retuning to their home countries in the winter, avoiding paying as much into the American economy. There is suspicion, furthermore, that many Hispanic workers simply don’t pay income tax on money earned as they are usually paid in cash. Many white Americans fear that Hispanics will become a drain on America’s resources with stereotypes shaped by those struggling. The potential for friction between white and Latino communities is made clear in Miami, where some shops display signs in windows saying ‘English spoken here’ and where the fifth biggest television network in America broadcasts only in Spanish.  
The idea of belonging is a sensitive one amongst immigrants. Some US citizens of Latino heritage, who came over perhaps as small children or who were themselves born in the USA, still call themselves Mexican-Americans. Maria says that, even after 39 years, America isn’t her home. ‘I love the Americans’ she says, ‘how they value education, punctuality, cleanliness. I respect them.’ But she doesn't feel one of them.

The US has used cheap migrant employment for decades; an estimated 20% of the total Latino population in the USA is there illegally, an underclass living in constant fear of deportation. In one (admittedly unofficial) poll, it is claimed that almost 80% of Latinos personally know or know of someone who has been deported. Children who don’t officially exist on paper arguably face the biggest problem; they have no right to remain in the USA, where they have lived most or all of their lives, and can be deported to a country they barely know or have maybe never lived in.

A young supporter of The Dream Act
Congress continues to block President Obama’s Dream Act, although he has managed to go some way to help provide temporary work permits for the under-35-year-olds referred to as "Dreamers". However, their status remains in a confusing state of limbo; they have grown up knowing nothing but American culture, however they lack legal documentation allowing them to live in the United States, which means that they can’t be a normal member of society – can’t drive, get a job, travel. In a country their parents came to for freedom, they are ironically limited. Meanwhile, right-wing Republican politicians continue to push for tighter restrictions. If Obama loses the election, amnesty will be lost, while, in some states, police will probably receive increased powers to check the immigrant status of everyone they stop. Thus an oppressive suspicion hangs over the Hispanic population, hardly making them feel welcome. Surely Americans should be valuing the Hispanic work force, with its exemplary work ethic, as a currently untapped resource!

Latino voters will be crucial in this year’s election, yet Hispanics are still a long way behind white and black voters in turnout. Perhaps this is partly because of the idea of having one foot ‘back home’, resistant to becoming full American citizens. Yet, Hispanics are increasingly part of the nation’s fabric and, by participating politically, they will be seen to be more integrated.  However, many excuse their reluctance to register, despite being increasingly highly educated and provided with more political representation, by citing their love of their own countries and cultures of origin as holding them back from feeling at home. When interviewed, one man jokes, ‘We are having an influence on the working of America – now more tortillas are sold than bagels, more salsa than ketchup’. Very funny, but maybe they should be more worried. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised to back a programme of self-deportation rather than coming to agreements about the legalising of the status of Dreamers.

Clearly, integration is a problem even in a nation of immigrants. Some believe it is arrogant on the part of some Latinos not to learn English and that lack of cultural integration between cultures is due largely to the lack of effort on the part of the Latinos themselves. The attitude that Spanish is ‘my language’ has created a backlash against the immigrants most noticeable in the Republican bid to have Congress declare English as the official language of the United States. However, it is time that America stopped being in denial about this massive cultural shift and that both sides realise a mutual effort has to be made for integration of this new wave of Hispanic-American citizens. There is little doubt that America is being Latinised; the question is: on whose terms?

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