Get to Know the Hispanics Around You Foreign Languages Department
Salem State University

Some myths and realities about Hispanic immigrants

Hispanics are coming to the U.S. in record numbers, causing rapid changes in the ethnic and cultural composition of this country. When such rapid changes have happened in the past in the U.S. the result has been a "nativist backlash". In other words, the 'natives'--that is, those who were there before the new immigrants--feel threatened by the influx of immigrants who arrive faster than they think can be assimilated. People are afraid of losing their jobs and they are afraid of change and perhaps also of becoming a minority in 'their own' country. Often these fears have been purposefully promoted by those who would benefit from antagonism between natives and newcomers.

In U.S. history there have been many nativist backlashes against immigrants during economic downturns, such as those against the Scotch-Irish immigrants in 1729, against the Catholic Irish and Germans in the 1840's, and against southern and eastern Europeans in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Every one of these times there has been a few among the "native" Americans who were motivated by racist ideas and who considered the immigrants to be inferior, unworthy and a danger to the nation, as well as many others who just wished they would just go away. Nativist backlashes typically result in restrictive immigration laws, pro-English language, and other pro-assimilation legislation, as well as various discriminatory laws. Restrictive legislation often coincides with cycles in the economy in which the immigrants are not needed as much as when they were first received with more-or-less open arms.

The "Latinization" of U.S. culture

The arrival of great numbers of Hispanics has resulted in concern (rarely rejoicing) about the "Latinization" of U.S. culture, as well as in legislation aimed primarily at Hispanics and at stemming the flow of immigration. Some see this "Latinization" as a threat to our way of life, and not as an enrichment of our national culture, or as a means of getting closer to our neighbors in a process of mutual enrichment parallel to the Americanization of their cultures that has been going on for many decades.

In addition to possibly racial prejudice, the negative predisposition of some "native" Americans to the "Latinization" of the U.S. seems to be based at least in part on a number of myths and misconceptions, such as that Hispanics take jobs away from current citizens, that they are a drain on government services, that they are about to radically change the nature and culture of the nation, or that they are not willing to learn English and assimilate, and that they would actually like to Latinize this country and force everybody to learn Spanish.

These fears are quite unfounded. It is a fact, for instance, that all immigrant groups put more resources into the public coffers than they take out (if we consider local, state and federal levels together). Also, the jobs immigrants tend to do are those 'natives' do not want and they tend to do them for significantly less pay, deflating the price for those products and services for everybody else.

The myth that Hispanic immigrants insist on maintaining their language and using it in public places, much to the annoyance of English monolingual Americans and that they do not want to learn English is also quite widespread. One often hears it said that in a matter of years everybody in the U.S. will have to learn Spanish to survive.

Debunking the myths

These fears are also unfounded. Despite the fact that Spanish immigrants nowadays have more oportunities for maintaining their language than other immigrant groups in the past--due to the continued supply of freshly arrived speakers, plus Spanish-language media and the possibility of periodically returning to their homelands for visits--there seem to be other factors which cause them to forget it at an even faster rate than earlier immigrants.

It is a fact that second generation Hispanics are more fluent in--and more willing to speak--English than Spanish, assuming they know or use Spanish much at all. It is common for children of Hispanic immigrants to speak only English by the time they're teenagers, even to their parents. Parents may not like it but they often accept it out of a universally felt conviction that speaking English is absolutely necessary to succeed in this country.

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that six in 10 U.S.-born Latinos predominantly speak English and that only one third are bilingual. Even Hispanics who speak Spanish, often have severe limitations expressing themselves in Spanish, which leads to insecurity in using the language outside safe havens, such as the home, and not using it, which in turn leads to greater loss.

The fact that Hispanics have their own Spanish language cable TV channels would seems to show that they are indeed different from previous immigrants. Members of other ethnic groups may resent this fact, too. But Spanish-language television gets at most five percent of the total audience, and thus a minority of Hispanics, at a time when the percentage of foreign-born Hispanics is at its very highest. It would seem that second generation Hispanics do not rely on Spanish language media to any great extent, if at all.

Bilingual education has been a particular thorn on the side of many in this country, as the overwhelming support for a referendum to severely curtail it in the state of Massachusetts in 2002 shows (similar referenda have also passed in California and Arizona). This seems to be due in great part to the misconception that bilingual education is meant to help minorities maintain their language (through the use of "our taxes"!). But, actually, this has never been the case. The only purpose of (transitional) bilingual programs has always been to facilitate immigrant children's transition into school and the complete switch to English only (as fast as possible).

Maintenance-type bilingual programs have rarely been supported by any government and the only reason transitional bilingual programs have been supported is that they work. Some students may be able to immerse themselves in English classrooms from the first day after they arrive to this country, or even after a year, and succeed in school. Many others, however, are not so lucky and need more time to adjust. Thus unnecessary hardships and crippling handicaps are introduced by the prohibition to fund transitional bilingual programs, notwithstanding the fact that some Hispanics have supported such laws out of eagerness to show their support for English and allegiance to their new country.

The fact that there are federally mandated programs to help Hispanics (along with African-Americans and Native Americans), of the type characterized as reverse discrimination and set-asides is another source of resentment for some 'natives'. These programs were set up after the Civil Rights movement in the sixties to reverse discriminatory practices and attitudes of the past, going back to the creation of the United States, for those groups who have not achieved a level of economic, social, and political well-being comparable to that of other, more prototypical immigrants.

No one doubts that the time will come when these programs will have to be revisited. Everyone hopes that the day will come when these programs will no longer be needed and when assistance will be made on the basis of need rather than heritage. Even now, adjustments are probably needed, for example regarding Hispanics who do not show any signs of having suffered discrimination or privation greater than that suffered by, say, Russian immigrants, as is the case for 'white' immigrants from Spain and Argentina, for example. Also, society needs to recognize that some non-Hispanic Third World migrants--non-protected minorities--also suffer from discrimination and inequality of opportunities.

Conclusion

Only a climate of full acceptance and equal opportunities will result in a satisfactory outcome for all Americans, one in which Hispanics will fully assimilate and blend in, as the Italians and the Irish did in the past, and contribute to society in every respect. For society at large to learn the realities of Hispanics is an obvious first step and the purpose of this article.

As long as Hispanics--or any other immigrant group or minority for that matter--feels that it belongs, that it is accepted, that it is not excluded, and that its contributions are wanted and appreciated, they will be able to live in harmony in this country. Let us hope for a future which is led by such an attitude and such a vision, for the well-being of Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike, for Hispanics are obviously here to stay.

 

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