American Assimilation: Melting the Melting Pot
Culture, while being an integral part in an individual’s identity, can be lost inasmuch as an individual can likewise assimilate a foreign culture and can either absorb it entirely, thereby displacing one’s original culture, or absorb parts of it which then take part in the whole cultural make-up of the individual. Peter D. Salins, in his book Assimilation, American Style, argues in general that the American system did not force immigrants to the country from abandoning their own customs and from accepting entirely the American way of life. On the contrary, Salins argues that America was more than willing enough to accept immigrants so that more people will work for the country. And since the American culture is perceived as superior to the culture of the immigrants, the latter would eventually adapt to the American culture and blend with it seamlessly. On the other hand, Richard Rodriguez in his article “The Fear of Losing a Culture” argues that while America used to believe in Protestant individualism, the country has now believed in and enacted changes: while the country seeks to declare English as the official language, “Madonna starts recording in Spanish.” “America transforms into pleasure what it cannot avoid (Rodriguez)”—it cannot avoid the influx of immigrants, so the nation resorts to using that influx to their pleasure by hiring these immigrants into the local workforce.
More importantly, even if America does not force the immigrants to assimilate the American culture, the very tangible institutions of America—from popular American food chains to American branded clothes and other products—in a way enforces the American culture into the lives of the immigrants either consciously or otherwise. It is because the very presence of such institutions in the midst of the immigrants in America alters their immediate perception of their surroundings, pushing the immigrants to adapt to such foreign environment in the end.
Salins maintains that the success attained by America owes from the harmonious relations among the groups from diverse cultural backgrounds, with the people “believing that they are irrevocably part of the same national family (Salins, p. 17).” As America tolerated cultural diversity in huge amounts among its mass of immigrants, it expected a huge input in its labor force, thereby strengthening its supremacy especially during the latter parts of the twentieth century. Salins also reminds that “assimilation is not so much about cultural conformity” but rather “national unity” (Salins, p. 186), which easily brings to mind why the American style of assimilation did not entirely hinder the immigrants from flocking to the country.
While it may be true that America did not hinder the rise of immigration, it remains a fact that America has been more stringent than before in clamping down illegal immigration. That is, immigration is permissible so long as it is legal; illegal immigrants who cross the borders away from the watchful eyes of patrol borders are not given the equal treatment compared to those who legally migrate to the United States. However, such an observation does not necessarily mean that America has changed its attitude from pro-immigration to national seclusion. On the contrary, America has maintained its international status as one of the top destinations of immigrants while paying attention to those who are qualified to enter the country. In essence, America still remains a country under the principle of ‘assimilation’ through national unity only that the country has now become strictly selective on who will be allowed to enter and live in American soils because of migration laws.
Rodriguez offers the insight that “Latin America offers passion” and “has life” which America, “for all its quality of life, yearns to have (Rodriguez),” as if arguing implicitly that immigrants help fill a substantial void in America. That being said, it is not surprising if the American style of assimilation is to allow the immigrants to enter the country, especially since the nation had a positive and confident view of immigration. Yet Rodriguez points out that immigrants such as Latin Americans fear losing their culture, noting that “Hispanics want to belong to America without betraying the past (Rodriguez).” Thus, the predicament for immigrant Latin Americans, for instance, is to be a part of the American society without actually abandoning their own culture, which should be not a significant problem primarily because America, as Salins puts it, is a nation that is “much more flexible and accommodating (Salins, p. 44).” However, the fact that there are various institutions in America that are uniquely American sends the impression that retaining one’s original culture is a challenge.
For instance, McDonalds and KFC are just two of the dominant American fast food chains in the United States which can be found almost everywhere in the different states of the country. Their presence serves as a temptation for the immigrants to try out for themselves these institutions and, in the end, accept them as part of their ‘living conditions’ in America. What more with the hundreds, if not thousands, of these types of American institutions, from coffee shops to steak houses, car outlets to malls, that surround the immigrants in their daily existence? Apparently, it is quite difficult for immigrants to simply ignore these institutions and pretend as if they do not exist at all. Even if the rest of America says that they do not force the immigrants to accept the Americans’ “superior” culture, the various tangible institutions in America is yet another different matter. As Rodriguez points out, the lives of immigrants “are prescribed by the mall, by the 7-Eleven, by the Internal Revenue Service (Rodriguez).”
However, Rodriguez also provides the critical insight that immigrant Latin Americans “will change America even as we will be changed,” an addition to what can be said as a shift in the American attitude, that Americans now “devour what they might otherwise fear to become,” which is to become a nation of Latin Americans or even Asians (Rodriguez). It is important to note several examples that Rodriguez provided, such as Madonna recording in Spanish, and Americans standing patiently in line for La Bamba. One can even add that American clothing lines are already producing clothes and accessories that are patterned after Asian or Latin American outfits. These things stand in contrast to the observation of Salins about the old American style of assimilation, which is that it tolerates high immigration and allows these immigrants to accept American culture without forcing them to do so. The startling contrast is that, while immigrants may in fact assimilate American culture without being forced, American culture on the other hand is also assimilating a foreign culture into its system without deliberately or intentionally forcing the system to do so. Indeed, Rodriguez might have been right all along when he said that immigrants “will change America even as we will be changed Rodriguez).”
Some time in the future, assuming that Rodriguez is entirely correct with his prediction, America will not only become one of the melting pots, if not the biggest melting pot, of cultures. It will also become ‘melted’ in its own pot, so to speak. That is because, in a larger context, America is a meeting point of diverse cultures which influences in one way or another the collective American culture. Who knows, one day America might even become ‘a world within the world’ where people of varying physical appearances and ethical standards comprise the bulk of the United States where no majority of a single culture dominates.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Fear of Losing a Culture”. 1988. Time. August 10 2008. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,967892-1,00.html>.
Salins, Peter D. Assimilation, American Style. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997.