How immigrants can assimilate into American culture without losing their own in the process, and why it’s crucial for us all that they do.
American culture always has been, and likely always will be nigh impossible to box up into a single neat category. It is by its nature diverse, complex, and even chaotic. This multi-faceted, even anarchic identity would at first glance seem to be a weakness. After all, what nation could ever hope to stand the test of time without unity? How could such a nation hope to stand as one when its goals, its culture, its very people are at their very core so divided?
Yet history has shown that this is not a weakness of American culture, but rather its single greatest strength. One need not look deep into American history to find that some of its finest champions, at times even acknowledged saviors of the Republic, were born foreigners. Names like Lafayette, Pulitzer, Tesla, Carnegie, Einstein, and Van Halen (yes, that Van Halen), fundamentally altered and rewove the tapestry of American culture into what it is today. The very disorder and disarray of America’s culture, its chaotic practice of accepting, absorbing, and blending together with other cultures, came with a promise. That promise still lays enshrined at the feet of our Statue of Liberty today, in a little piece of poetry, borrowed from the writer Emma Lazarus that reads,
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
Though far too often we fail to live up to this poem’s lofty cry, America is unique among nations for daring to even attempt it at such scale. Though there are certainly other notable examples of multicultural, diverse and successful nations in the world, the United States is by far the largest of such experiments ever to be attempted. Far from perfect, our republic has been built upon the strength of its diversity, and the ability derived thereof for it to adapt in novel ways to adversity and conflict, a fact we forget at our collective peril.
Assimilation: Not A Dirty Word, But A Two Way Street
It is nothing less than the secret to America’s growth, strength, and status.
The word “assimilation” has something of a dirty reputation these days, and not without good reason. It often evokes mental images of either some sort of science fiction techno fascists, hell bent on homogenizing all life in the Universe, or worse, it makes us think of thinly veiled attempts to spin genocidal conduct throughout history as anything but. Though it is true that many evildoers in the past (and perhaps in the distant future) have tainted this word by trying to use it as cover for their crimes, the word itself is not an evil one. In fact, this word is nothing less than the secret to America’s growth, strength, and status as the world’s premier multi-ethnic, multicultural nation.
The key to unlocking the good side of the word, “assimilation” is in understanding that it is not meant to be a one way street. When assimilation is forced onto one section of a nation’s people alone, usually a minority, it quickly devolves into cultural erasure, which hurts everyone, even the majority faction doing the erasing. But when assimilation is, instead, a bargain being taken up by all parties, then the great metaphorical melting pot can begin its noble work. Only when most, if not all, of the distinct cultures comprising a nation decide to embark on assimilation together, to give and take from each other in equal measure, only then will the blended culture that results be greater than the sum of its parts. Like so many other tools in our world, assimilation is a sword with two edges, and America, as a nation, has used both sides of this sword many times.
On one hand, our nation is the undisputed king of melting pots, claiming a long history of accepting, not just people from other cultures, but culture from other peoples and making ourselves better and stronger for it. Unfortunately, our nation has also spent a great deal of time and energy forcing the darker side of assimilation onto its minorities. From the Trail of Tears to modern systemic racism, our country is not without sin, and has used assimilation as a tool for oppression many times.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to walk the fine line between using assimilation for good, and using it for evil. With that in mind, we now move on to discussing the concrete ways in which our country and its immigrants can use assimilation to grow stronger together, without anyone being erased in the process.
E Pluribus Unum
Out of Many, One
E Pluribus Unum. This Latin phrase enjoys a special relationship with the United States, serving as our nation’s de facto motto for over a hundred and eighty years until 1956 when the US Congress voted to change it to, “In God We Trust.” E Pluribus Unum is a phrase that represents the core ideology of the United States in many ways.
The first of these can be plainly seen in the nation’s full name, “The United States of America.” At the time of our nation’s founding it was little more than a loose collection of distinct colonies, each deciding it was a safer bet to band together rather than to try to stand sovereign and alone.
The deeper connection between this Latin phrase and the United States comes from the people who have come to call this land home. Though this nation’s love for immigrants continuously waxes and wanes as the years pass, and far too often the extent of her love seems to depend upon where the immigrants in question originally hailed from, she acknowledged with the adoption of this phrase that she has always been a nation of immigrants and that she always will be.
In this way, it is crucial for immigrants seeking to reach and blend with mainstream US society, to first reach towards one another. Alone, they stand little chance of being noticed and eventually accepted, but when standing together as one, they can make themselves impossible to ignore.
Many immigrant communities have already nailed this step, simply by following their very nature. Expats of all nations have the tendency to seek out their fellow former countrymen and stick together in their new home. This can be seen quite obviously with almost every major US city having districts with nicknames like, “Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Havana, etc…”. But these bonds go much deeper than real estate, and just about every group of immigrants that has become integrated into mainstream US society have started by joining forces and supporting each other themselves.
The next step can be a little bit more difficult. This is the stage where these unified immigrant communities must reach out from their comfort zones and towards one another. Following along with the noise metaphor, more voices naturally creates a larger chorus which betters your odds of being heard. There are many things which can divide us, some are much harder to overcome than others, and some will never be overcome at all. But in seeking voices to add to our chorus, we should try to remember the power of numbers in today’s world, and keep in mind all that we have in common with one another, rather than that which separates us. By seeking to understand and support one another beyond the limits of individual communities, immigrants of many different pasts, but a shared dream for the future, can unite and call for it as one.
This is of course, a long road which is much harder to walk than to describe. But the idea embodied by the phrase, E Pluribus Unum, and the willingness to attempt reaching out to one another is something immigrant communities and America both need in order to thrive.
The Power Of Tex-Mex
Wherever you go, bring your culture with you.
Walking the fine line between a comfortable, mutual assimilation and being tossed over the line into cultural erasure, will of course require today’s immigrant communities to proudly bear their cultures on their sleeves as they move through the world. But blindly charging forth with unrelenting insistence upon pure, uncompromising, tradition can prove just as fatal to blossoming cultural marriages. Only by balancing a robust defense of culture with a healthy taste for growth and adaptation can a minority culture hope to stand beside and merge into society at large without becoming lost in the noise.
This is where the power of Tex-Mex comes into play. Though the term itself is relatively young, only really gaining popularity around the 1940’s, the merging of cuisines it describes has been going on since the times of the first Spanish missionaries. Over the centuries it has come to describe a general “Americanization” of traditional northern Mexican cuisine. Today, Tex-Mex style restaurants and food products represent a vast swathe of America’s food market, particularly in the American Southwest.
Though Tex-Mex is certainly a large departure from traditional Mexican cuisine, it does not try to replace that traditional cuisine either, instead the two can coexist, both of them broadcasting and normalizing Mexican culture and cuisine across the US. Adaptability and patient persistence put Tex-Mex on the map and brought it into the mainstream fold of American cuisine. It is these traits that today’s immigrant activists must try to harness when seeking to establish a fair exchange of culture between themselves and more mainstream US society.
Patience, Persistence, and Partnership
The journey towards recognition and acceptance is long and arduous but time is on your side.
Breaking societal distinctions and guiding two culture’s into a new co-existence is no easy thing. It is a goal that will require vast amounts of patience, persistence, open mindedness, cooperation, adaptability and an occasional tolerance of injustice to be seen through to the end. It is a hard road to walk, and too often, the consequences of failure are dire for the cultures that cannot guide their own assimilation.
But the dream of a mutually beneficial blending of cultures is one which can be achieved with tenacity and time. Customs and ideas of other cultures are this nation’s lifeblood, and diversity is the source of its greatest strength. America has always been a land of many coming together as one, and is not designed to exclude parts of itself for long. If this generation of immigrants gathers their voices as one and asserts their rightful place amongst the American cultural pantheon, then mainstream society will have no choice but to either get on board, or be left behind.