In the annex of Juan Pablo Duarte elementary school in New York’s Washington Heights, around the corner from the Mi Pais supermarket and Macarena clothing store, 19 parents perch on child-size chairs to begin unlocking the mysteries of a foreign language. Timidly, they lift their voices in unison and chant, “The weather today is sunny and cool.”
It takes patience and commitment, struggling three mornings a week to master the names of the days, the seasons of the year. But these grown-up students sense the importance of their English lessons–and know they are lucky to have won a spot in class. At any time, as many as 200 of their neighbors are waiting to get in.
This crowded portal to a new language attests to a sometimes subtle truth about the vast numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants who have settled in this upper end of Manhattan and in cities across the country. Rather than constituting a separate society, Latinos who have made homes in the United States are remaking themselves, undergoing a process of assimilation that will change them to the core and redraw the face of America.
The millions of people streaming north from Latin America during the past three decades form the largest immigrant bloc since the Irish fled the potato famine of the mid-19th century. Their numbers, common language and ease in maintaining ties to nearby home countries have raised concerns over whether Hispanic immigrants and their offspring will merge into U.S. society as the Europeans of the last great migration did. In recent years, the perceptions of some that Latinos are sidestepping the American mainstream have created pockets of resistance–a backlash against bilingual education, or a reluctance to offer public services in Spanish.
But one of the most comprehensive national polls ever conducted of Hispanics provides convincing evidence that the country is retaining its fabled ability to bend people of foreign cultures to American ways. Nearly 9 in 10 Latinos who are new to the United States believe it is important to change so they can fit into the larger society, the survey found.
And among the American-born children of Latino immigrants–the second generation–only 1 in 10 relies mainly on Spanish, according to the poll, conducted by The Washington Post in collaboration with researchers at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
As it takes hold, the process of creating la nueva vida–Spanish for “the new life”–is not only affecting language, but is also fundamentally reshaping Latinos’ worldview, altering their beliefs about social issues, morality and family. Hispanic immigrants arrive, for instance, with idealistic expectations of American institutions that gradually come to mirror the more cynical views toward the nation’s basic institutions that most Americans hold today. Even among Latinos who have prospered here economically, the transformation can be glimpsed in their eroded confidence in the government, the media and their children’s future.
In a similar way, Hispanics’ views about gender roles shift as old-style, Latin American “machismo” fades away. The percentage of foreign-born Latinos who believe that husbands should have the final say over family decisions is nearly twice as high as that among the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Based on interviews with 2,417 Latinos, as well as more than 2,000 non-Hispanic white and black Americans included for comparison, the survey provides a nuanced portrait of the way Latinos–both immigrant and native-born–are defining a place for themselves in American society.
The survey also helps to explain why it often appears to outsiders that Hispanics are avoiding the melting pot. Indeed, since nearly half the 32 million Hispanics living in the United States today were born outside its borders, many are near the beginning of a gradual process of shedding their original identities.
And even as typically American attitudes become their own, Latinos hold on to something of their past. Nearly 9 in 10 say it is important to maintain their native culture. That sense of ethnic identity is so indelible that, even among the middle-class grandchildren of immigrants, fully half say they have little in common with Anglos.
While they regard themselves as distinct from Anglos–and from African Americans, for that matter–the survey also suggests that Hispanics feel little solidarity with people from other Latin countries. Latinos do not see themselves as a monolithic ethnic group, and even though the survey found that their social and political beliefs vary somewhat according to national origins, it also makes clear that Latinos’ attitudes are influenced far more by how far along they are in the process of assimilation.
The survey provides a detailed look into the ways Latinos change as they move through that process–and suggests the factors that influence their pace.
While the poll offers only a snapshot in time, and does not trace individuals over the years, its results nonetheless illuminate how the process of assimilation works and the many factors that shape the evolving attitudes of Hispanics over decades and generations.
Its findings suggest that the fluid and dynamic process of securing a place in America can be thought of as having roughly three phases. At the start are many recently arrived immigrants who came to the United States as adults, such as the parents wrestling with a new vocabulary at Juan Pablo Duarte elementary.
The second phase involves people who are “bicultural,” embracing both English and Spanish and drawing pieces of their identity from old and new ways. Those in the third stage, the most assimilated, were born in this country or came here at a young enough age that many of their attitudes and beliefs mirror those of the society surrounding them, although they reach back at times to embrace vestiges of their cultural heritage.
That is not to say assimilation follows a single track. It is leading some Latinos into poverty and an eroded work ethic, while bringing others the bounty of the American dream. Nor is the process of change entirely a one-way street. As Hispanics adopt American ways, their own traditions exert a growing influence on American culture, from tastes in food and popular music to the economy and politics.
How quickly people drop such traditional ideas, or pick up mainstream American values, varies enormously. Assimilation can take place in less than a generation–or it can have occurred barely at all even after decades or generations in this country. Often, the traditional and the new intermingle, as can be seen in people such as Lula Chavez, a 16-year-old growing up in Flora, Ind., who speaks fluent English but only broken Spanish and avoids the tortillas and Latin music adored by her mother from Mexico and her father from El Salvador. Though she is barely friends with the four other Hispanic students at her school, she has become a devoted reader of a new magazine in English that offers makeup tips and Latina role models aimed at Hispanic teens. “It makes me feel like I’m not the only one,” Chavez says of Latingirl magazine.
Drawing from the survey and from conversations with dozens of scholars, community leaders and Latinos from all walks of life, this story traces the stages along the subtle, uneven process of getting from one world to another.
To understand what it is like to be new in America, consider the group portrait of foreign-born Latinos who, according to the survey, account for 9 in 10 Hispanics at the onset of assimilation: Three-fifths have not graduated from high school. Two-fifths earn less than $ 20,000 a year. The majority have no credit cards, and a third have no driver’s license.
They see their adoptive home in a faintly hostile hue. Most believe that discrimination against Latinos is a big problem.
At first glance, these people in the first stage of assimilation might seem resistant to American ways. But from the vantage point of people such as Martina Flores, the reality is more intricate. A resident of Chicago’s western suburbs, Flores is striving both to preserve her own values and to find a toehold in an alien culture.
Like many Latinos born outside the United States, Flores, who left her small town in the Mexican state of Zacatecas as a teenager, is disdainful of American morality. Now 35, she laments that her five children have been “exposed to so much here that I never dreamed of as a child and that shocks me still as an adult.”
She is forever striking compromises with her children to keep them from slipping entirely into a world that is not hers. She permits pizza one night if they will eat enchiladas the next. Her son can wear the baggy pants fashionable among his friends if he pairs them with a neatly pressed shirt.
But Flores is also keenly aware that, in one important way, she must follow her children into their world–by learning English. So every weekday, after ushering her brood off to school, she settles into an English class at a nearby YWCA.
She and her immigrant classmates do not expect–and do not want–English to lead them too far from their origins. But by deciding to learn English at all, these adults provide a powerful sign that, even among the most isolated newcomers, assimilation is underway.
It is a journey that can take time to begin–and to yield substantial results. Some 70 percent of foreign-born Latinos polled speak mainly Spanish at home, and many in this first generation never become fluent in English. But the shift to a new language is unmistakable nonetheless. Fewer than 1 in 5 Hispanics born in another country say they are completely unable to read a newspaper or book in English, and most say they can speak at least some English.
The tilt away from native language is visible in the withering of some institutions that have catered to the Spanish-speaking community. In Southern California, even as the Hispanic population balloons, the audience for Spanish-language movie theaters is drying up. During the past five years, Metropolitan Theatres Corp.–which since the 1960s has devoted some of its screens to films that are dubbed, subtitled or made in Mexico–has had to cut the number of movie houses for Spanish-speaking audiences from 20 to nine.
The more English these Latino newcomers learn, the more rapidly their worldview begins to change, not just the language they communicate in, but the ideas they believe in and the values they hold. Learning English opens the door to everything from broader acquaintances across cultures to more diverse workplaces to television shows that expose newcomers to different habits, values and beliefs.
Hispanics who are still moored in their native Spanish, by contrast, have more traditional values. They’re more likely than English-speaking Hispanics or whites to be intolerant of abortion and homosexuality, for example. Only one-quarter of Latinos who rely on their native language, the survey shows, say abortion should be legal, compared with more than half of those who mainly use English.
Such conservative moral beliefs may be related to the somewhat stronger role that religion–most often, Roman Catholicism–assumes for Hispanics who remain grounded in Spanish. Seventy percent of these Spanish-speakers, but only 55 percent of those who rely on English, say religion is important in their lives. As Latinos become more comfortable with English, their view toward family also shifts. Nearly 95 percent of Hispanics who rely on Spanish, for example, believe that children should live with their parents until they get married, compared with less than 40 percent of those who mainly use English.
This emphasis on family produces contradictory effects on the process of assimilation. On the one hand, relatives enable immigrants who arrive with few job skills to secure a footing in the U.S. economy. On the other hand, intense family ties can slow down assimilation by maintaining allegiances to the people and place they left behind.
At Juan Pablo Duarte elementary in Washington Heights, it was so common for Dominican parents to pull children out of class for a month or more–to fly back to the Caribbean for weddings or Christmases or funerals–that the principal broadcast a new rule: Children who missed more than 10 days at the overcrowded school would not be guaranteed a seat when they returned. “This is a hard issue,” says Daniel Zimak, the interim principal. “They are connected where they came from.”
By the time they arrive at the second stage along the path to assimilation, Latinos are equally at home in Spanish or English. Yet they are not merely dangling at the midpoint of two worlds.
Many Latinos in this stage live comfortably in a bilingual, bicultural world constructed from parts of Hispanic and Anglo cultures. For these Americans, this phase is more of a destination than a rest stop on the road to full assimilation. Others are part of a bridge generation that is in motion–still possessing the drive that marks the immigrant’s initial journey, but by now absorbing certain values and skills that make it easier to maneuver in their adoptive home.
This bicultural stage is shared by many Hispanics in the United States–slightly more than 1 in 4 Latinos surveyed. And it is these people who demonstrate most vividly just how varied assimilation can be.
Bicultural Latinos include many U.S.-born children of Hispanic immigrants. But they are joined by some first-generation Latinos who got a college education in this country or married non-Latinos or simply have lived here for a long time.
However, the group that adopts new habits and ideas the fastest, the survey suggests, are people who moved here as children. By the time they reach their late teens and twenties, the survey shows, three-quarters of this “generation and a half”–as social scientists sometimes call immigrants who arrived as young children–are equally comfortable with English or Spanish. In contrast, 70 percent of those who arrived as teenagers still depend mainly on Spanish.
The educational gap is equally wide. Nearly half the young adults who were child immigrants–but only 4 percent who came as teenagers–have taken any college classes.
How quickly Latinos become “bicultural”–and how long they remain in this stage–is significant, because it helps to determine how well they fare in this country. In this phase, recent research suggests, Hispanics and other immigrants tend to make their biggest educational and economic strides.
For example, it stands to reason that Hispanic children who are fluent in English and Spanish do better in school than those who speak only Spanish. But remarkably, they often get better grades than Hispanic classmates who speak no Spanish. According to one large study in San Diego and Miami, bilingual students tend to spend more time on homework and less time watching TV than Latino youngsters who speak only English.
This group often ends up harboring ideas about social issues such as homosexuality that leave them smack in the middle–not as conservative as Latino newcomers, but not as Americanized as their Anglo neighbors or more assimilated Hispanics. Their views about gender roles shift, too.
Marisa Zambrano knows she doesn’t see eye to eye with her mother about being a wife. At 35, she lives with her husband and two young daughters in Joliet, Ill., speaking with a flat, midwestern accent that betrays no hint that she moved from Guatemala with her parents as a little girl.
Her mother put up with a lot from her father before he finally asked for a divorce, she says. “There was abuse and stuff. In Guatemala, that’s acceptable. ‘Oh, your husband hit you? You should just forgive him and try to make it better.’ I would have said, ‘I’m out of here.’ ”
But she appreciates other lessons she learned from her mother about female roles–lessons that she knows are out of step with attitudes of many U.S. women. “Some of the traditional roles of the men being the leaders in the home and the women being the nurturer, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as long as your husband is doing his part,” she says.
Even as they slide toward typically American points of view, however, Hispanics in the second stage tend to hold fast to at least one traditional Latin belief: A strong attachment to family. Bilingual Latinos–whether born in a foreign country or on U.S. soil–believe nearly as firmly as Spanish-speakers that relatives are more important than friends.
Most Americans a few years out of high school would shudder at the idea of living out their adult lives under the same roof as their parents. But 22-year-old Yansi Flores will never forget the exhilaration she felt signing a mortgage with her parents.
She remembers the chaos the day in October 1998 that the two-story house in Woodbridge became theirs. Flores, who moved from El Salvador to Northern Virginia when she was 4, raced to the settlement office, still splattered with ketchup from her manager’s job at a McDonald’s.
Chaotic as the day was, it was deeply satisfying because Flores knew it meant her family would stay together. In addition to her parents, she shares the five-bedroom, $ 136,000 house with her husband, her toddler and infant daughters, two brothers, and three cousins who arrived recently from El Salvador. “It’s better for us to be united this way,” Flores says.
Even under the same roof, Flores, like many Latinos of her transitional stage, sometimes senses that her ideas are distant from those of her mother, who strikes her as fearful and overprotective. Next year, Flores wants to enroll her 3-year-old daughter, Nancy, in a preschool ballet class. Her mother says young children belong at home.
Her parents “think in such old ways . . . I have to put my feet in their shoes to understand them,” Flores says. Flores doesn’t think of herself as either American or Salvadoran. “I don’t put myself in a category because . . . I’ll be confused myself,” she says. “I call myself ‘me.’ ”
While the millions of Hispanic newcomers have prompted fresh questions about whether the melting pot remains intact, the answer actually lies elsewhere: in the small core of fully assimilated Latinos, most of whose families have lived in this country for generations.
Small as it is–only 1 in 4 Latinos surveyed says English is their language of choice–this group offers the most potent evidence that assimilation continues to exert its force.
About half of English-fluent immigrants have become U.S. citizens, the survey found, and less than one-fourth of all the highly assimilated have chosen to live in neighborhoods that are densely populated with other Hispanics.
Between the first stage of assimilation and the third, the percentage of Latinos who have less than a high school education, the survey shows, plummets from 67 percent to 16 percent. And often, their incomes climb in tandem.
While nearly two-thirds of Latino immigrants have incomes of less than $ 30,000 a year, the survey found, only about one-third of the most assimilated Hispanics have incomes that low–making them not as financially successful as Anglos but somewhat better off than African Americans.
While the signs of assimilation are unmistakable, many Latinos are settling into well-worn grooves of the lower classes. The poverty rate for Hispanics stands above 25 percent, twice the national rate.
Yet regardless of their relative economic success, most of those who speak English at home embrace a worldview strikingly similar to that of other Americans. Often, these views represent a dramatic break with the values of their immigrant ancestors.
One of the most striking transformations is the loss of “fatalism,” the attitude, common among the rural poor of Mexico and certain other Latin countries, that a person’s destiny rests in the hands of God or unseen forces of fate.
When they are immigrants, the survey shows, about half of all Latinos believe it is pointless to plan for the future because they cannot control it. But by the time they have fully adapted to American ways, fewer than 1 in 5 holds that belief–about the same as the proportion of African Americans and whites.
As Hispanics adopt American values, however, they do not abandon their heritage. Fully 98 percent of third-generation Latinos, the survey shows, believe it is important to maintain their distinct culture–a larger proportion, in other words, than do those who are foreign-born or part of the second generation.
Her Latino origins are precious to Brooke Mann Esparza, 24, a proofreader at an alternative newspaper who lives in a central San Diego neighborhood with a thriving gay community, an arts scene and trendy restaurants.
Though her mother moved to California from Mexico as a child, Esparza felt like a misfit when, as an English major at the University of California at San Diego, she briefly joined a student organization that aggressively promotes Chicano identity.
She broke up with her Mexican American boyfriend because she felt he wanted her to be too traditional. Like one-third of college-educated Latinos, she intermarried, ending up with a rock guitarist named Ian Woodward, who is “kind of like Scotch-Irish-British.”
Despite the distance she has traveled from her family’s past, Esparza finds ways to stay connected. Growing up, she was struck by a photograph on her grandmother’s living room table, a black-and-white portrait of her aunt as a teenager in Mexico City.
The girl in the picture wore a polka-dot dress with ruffles at the sleeves and the hem, Rita Hayworth hair and an expression “looking off into the distance like she was in some kind of sublime world.” She was dressed for a flamenco lesson, and her image motivated Esparza to become a serious flamenco dancer herself. “The culture aspect,” she says, “is a big reason why I stay with it.”
The attachment to Latin culture is stoked by more than fragments of memories passed on by parents and grandparents. As new immigrants arrive, they act as reminders of old-world tastes and sensibilities, even as they begin their own slow journey of adaptation to a foreign place. These layers of assimilation touch inside the Church of the Holy Spirit in Schaumburg, Ill., a primarily white and middle-class suburb just beyond the runways of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Now that Latino immigrants have moved into the area, the Rev. Bill Tkachuk celebrates an extra Mass in Spanish on Sundays and tries to interweave the customs of his new parishioners with those of the Anglos who have always populated the church.
Last fall, he combined All Souls’ Day, a mournful commemoration, with Dia de los Muertos, a raucous celebration with strands of Catholic and ancient Aztec belief.
On a late October evening, some of the new Mexican arrivals bowed their heads and somberly lit candles for the All Souls’ rite, while some of the Anglos followed the Mexican practice of inscribing ancestors’ names on the ghoulish skulls typical of Day of the Dead folk art.
In the spare, whitewashed sanctuary, Luis Trevino was contemplating his own transition from the teenaged Mexican immigrant he once had been.
At 57, he is a deacon of the church and the owner of a successful printing company whose employees include a fresh generation of Mexicans. But on this night, he was adorning an ofrenda, an offering to the dead, with his grandmother’s image.
“I have always tried to hold on to the values . . . my grandmother taught me,” said Trevino.
“Now that is easier because of all the Mexicans coming here. They remind us, they always remind us, of who we are.”
Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
ABOUT THE LATINOS SURVEY
The Washington Post/Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University national Latinos survey was conducted by telephone last summer between June 30 and Aug. 30. During that period, 2,417 Latino adults were interviewed in their choice of English or Spanish, along with 2,197 non-Latino adults.
Respondents were selected at random. Individuals were identified as “Latino” if they answered “yes” to the question “Are you, yourself of Hispanic or Latin origin or descent, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or some other Latin background?” The national survey included representative samples of Latinos in California (301 Latino respondents), Texas (301), Florida (451), New York (353) and Illinois (303). The survey also included an oversample of Latinos living in the Washington region (603). The remainder of the Latinos interviewed came from across the continental United States.
The research was also designed to capture the diversity of national backgrounds among Latino Americans. The final results include interviews with 818 Mexicans, 318 Puerto Ricans, 312 Cubans, and 593 Central or South Americans.
The final results were weighted to the national Latino population, so that states and nationalities are represented in their actual proportions (as estimated by the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey). The margin of error for overall results based on Latinos or non-Latinos is plus or minus 2 percentage points, and larger for subgroups. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll. Interviewing was conducted by ICR of Media, Pa., under the supervision of project manager Melissa Herrmann.
THE SURVEY TEAM
This survey is the sixth in a series of projects that The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University are conducting on contemporary issues.
Representatives of the three sponsors worked closely to develop the survey questionnaire and analyze the results on which this series is based. The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, with Harvard University, are publishing independent summaries of the findings; each organization bears the sole responsibility for the work that appears under its name. The Kaiser Family Foundation and The Post paid for the surveys and related expenses. The survey data will be sent to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, where copies of the survey questionnaires and data will be available.
The project team included Richard Morin, Post director of polling, and Claudia Deane, assistant director of polling; Drew E. Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Mollyann Brodie, vice president and director of public opinion and media research at Kaiser, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on health care and other public policy issues; and Robert J. Blendon, a scholar at Harvard’s School of Public Health and Kennedy School of Government, and John Benson, deputy director for public opinion and health/social policy at the School of Public Health.
A team of outside academic experts also contributed to the project design, including Jorge Chapa, University of Texas at Austin; John Garcia, University of Arizona; Lisandro Perez, Florida International University; Belinda Reyes, Public Policy Institute of California; Clara Rodriguez, Fordham University; and Silvio Torres-Saillant, City College of New York.
THE POST/KAISER/HARVARD LATINOS SURVEY; LATINOS IN AMERICA: ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Spanish dominates in the homes of first-generation Latinos in the United States , but is only a small presence in the homes of the grandchildren of immigrants. Yet even newcomers report having considerable exposure to English-language media.
Q: What language do you usually speak at home?
Only Spanish/More Spanish: 73%
Both equally: 20%
Only English/More English: 6%
Only Spanish/More Spanish: 17%
Both equally: 43%
Only English/More English: 40%
Only Spanish/More Spanish: 1%
Both equally: 21%
Only English/More English: 78%
Q: In what language are the TV programs you usually watch?
Only Spanish/More Spanish: 31%
Both equally: 42%
Only English/More English: 27%
Only Spanish/More Spanish: 5%
Both equally: 26%
Only English/More English: 68%
Only Spanish/More Spanish: 1%
Both equally: 11%
Only English/More English: 88%
Q: Would you say you can read a newspaper or book in English?
Very well/Pretty well: 27%
Just a little/Not at all: 63%
Very well/Pretty well: 90%
Just a little/Not at all: 10%
Very well/Pretty well: 91%
Just a little/Not at all: 9%
LOOSER FAMILY TIES, LESS OPTIMISM
In general, Latinos with deeper roots in American society are less optimistic about the future and more cynical about the nation’s central institutions. They also have vastly different opinions than the newly arrived on family cohesiveness, the power of the individual, and hot-button social issues such as abortion and the death penalty.
CHANGING FAMILY DYNAMICS
Q: It is better for children to live in their parents’ home until they get married.
Percentage who agree:
Latinos by generation
Q: Some equality in marriage is a good thing, but in general the husband should have the final say in family matters.
Percentage who agree:
Latinos by generation
Q: Elderly parents should live with their adult children.
Percentage who agree:
Latinos by generation
Percentage who think it should be legal in all or most cases
Latinos by generation
Q: The death penalty
Percentage who favor
Latinos by generation
Q: It doesn’t do any good to plan for the future because you don’t have control over it.
Percentage who agree
Latinos by generation
DECREASING OPTIMISM, INCREASING CYNICISM
Q: Do you feel confident that life for your children will be better than it has been for you, or don’t you feel this way?
Percentage who think life will be better for children
Latinos by generation
Q: How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?
Percentage who say always or most of the time
Latinos by generation
NOTE: The margin of error for the groups shown ranges from plus or minus 2 percentage points to plus or minus 7 percentage points.
EAGERNESS TO BLEND, BUT STILL MAINTAIN TRADITIONS
Q: How important is it for Latinos to change so that they blend into the larger society as in the idea of the melting pot?
Very/Somewhat important: 84%
Not too/Not at all important: 15%
Q: How important is it for Latinos to maintain their distinct cultures?
Very/Somewhat important: 89%
Not too/Not at all important: 10%
NOTE: Percent with no opinion not shown
Despite their desire to assimilate, few Latinos of any national background believe they share much in common with either whites or blacks.
Q: How much in common with Anglos?
A lot/A fair amount: 26%
Only a little/Nothing at all: 59%
Don’t know: 15%
Q: How much in common with blacks?
A lot/A fair amount: 25%
Only a little/Nothing at all: 59%
Don’t know: 16%
LATINOS IN THE UNITED STATES
Most Latinos in the United States trace their roots back to Mexico, though the number of Central and South Americans is growing:
Puerto Rican: 10%
Central/S. American: 14%
Other Spanish: 7%
WHERE LATINOS WERE BORN
Born in U.S.: 72%
Born in U.S.: 57%
*Puerto Ricans born on the island are counted as foreign-born
Projections of the national Latino population by 2050
2000: 32 million
2030: 68 million
2050: 98 million
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Russell Sage Foundation