JENKINS: History demonstrates assimilating effect of US culture

Rob Jenkins

Rob Jenkins

From all the angry rhetoric lately about illegal immigration, I gather a lot of Americans are afraid of losing our country to the invading hordes. Not me. I have unshakeable confidence in the power of American culture to corrupt practically anyone.

This cycle of assimilation has been going on for decades: A group of immigrants moves here from another country. Italy. Ireland. Guatemala. The Czech Republic. Minnesota. At first they form a fairly closed society, living together, speaking their own language, maintaining their cultural identity, refusing to root for the U.S. in the World Cup. (OK, not even 15th-generation Americans root for the U.S. in the World Cup.)

For these newcomers, life in America can be difficult, as they are shunned and discriminated against by people who have been here only two or three generations longer. Unable to communicate in English, perhaps lacking formal education, they find only menial, low-paying jobs. But they persist, because in most ways life here is still better than in the country they left, except that all the popular sports require using your hands.

And then, within this close-knit, insular community, something starts to happen among the second generation. They begin to learn English, speaking it openly with their friends at school. They become engrossed in American cartoons and sitcoms. As teenagers they discover malls, where they buy T-shirts with cool American sayings printed on them, such as “I’m with stupid” and “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me.”

In short, they become Americans, with all the freedoms and frustrations and social pathologies the rest of us enjoy. They get an education, make lives for themselves, raise families, become our neighbors, until the Rodriquezes and Habibs and Tortellinis down the street have no more connection to their Guatemalan or Jordanian or Sicilian ancestors than I have to my Welsh ones. Less, perhaps, because I still occasionally eat Welsh rare-bit.

And all of this occurs because that first generation, like the Puritans (speaking of first-generation Americans), was willing to undergo severe hardship: the scorn, the deprivation, the unfamiliar customs, the quasi-pornographic ads on late-night television.

I understand that today’s immigration issues are different in some respects, as millions enter this country illegally each year. Since 9/11, we can no longer safely assume that none of them means us harm. Clearly, there’s a need for better security at our borders. We can only hope our government takes time out soon from prosecuting Barry Bonds for steroid use to address the problem.

But in the meantime, let’s also not overreact to the immigrants in our midst. However they got here, they’re here now, and — let’s face it — they’re probably not going away. It’s not like they’re really going to take over the country or subvert our culture.

If history is any indication, it’s much more likely our culture will eventually subvert them.

Rob Jenkins is a local writer and college professor. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.