When I first came to this country in the 70s, assimilation meant acting like the natives, eating hot dog, becoming baseball fan, watching fireworks on the Fourth of July and celebrating Halloween and Christmas. The magazine racks then were adored by blue-eyed blondes. Who can forget Cheryl Tiegs, Lauren Hutton, Patti Hansen and Brooke Shields? Dressing up on Sundays meant going to the church and people made sure to perform at least one good deed of the day.
Having an American-sounding name was also a badge of assimilation that conferred genuine economic and social benefits. Devendra became Dev and Kanan became Connie. It was that simple. People thought that with less-foreign-sounding names they were more likely to be unemployed than their counterparts whose names sounded more foreign.
That reminds me of an interesting anecdote:
My first boss in the U.S. was a British immigrant named Glen. He spoke in not so savoir faire Brummies’ accent instead of cockney. The truth was that our co-workers didn’t understand either of us. I became so infamous for my unusual accent that whenever I sneezed, Gloria who sat next to my desk would shout, “Anil is sneezing with accent again,” instead of saying “God bless you“
Ultimately, Glen gave me a warning, that if I didn’t improve my accent within a month, he’d have me fired. Fortunately (and unfortunately for him), Glen was fired by the plant manager before the former could fire me. We were both victims of nonconformance or a lack of assimilation. However I lucked out.
Well, that was then. Assimilation today is different from the Age of Mass Migration in the early 20th century till the 70s. In the 70s immigration rules became highly regulated, favoring those with money, education, and skills and drawing migrants primarily from Asia. They were more skilled and educated than their compatriots who stayed in their countries of origin. This, of course, was contrary to the immigrants who came in the first wave (1920s) who were less skilled than those who stayed behind.
Today most of the immigrants come from both Asia and Central America. The Hispanic population has increased from 9 million in 1970 to 54 million now whereas the Caucasian share of the population has decreased from more than 80% in the 70s to below 70% now. The Central American immigrants are fast changing the demography of the Southern and Southern west states, especially those of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Today’s immigrants are more fearful of words like assimilation and melting pot. Many of them reject the very idea of assimilation which, in their views, is denying one culture for the other. The fact remains that this fear was also prevalent in previous batches of immigrants. Despite that, immigrants have always made a distinctive contribution to the economy, innovation and culture.
However, the above tells the story of the first generation immigrants only. The second and the third generation immigrants still become wholly American by learning the language, embracing the folkways and traditions and becoming deeply patriotic. I have personally talked to many second generation Hispanic Americans. They prefer to speak in English and they identify themselves as Americans only.
In my view, the American melting pot is still alive and well. One in five newlyweds is marrying someone of another race (Pew Report). As stated above, they identify themselves as Americans. The fear that today’s immigrants cannot assimilate is misplaced. Of course, we won’t see many blue eyed blondes on magazine covers. Many of them won’t go to the Church on Sundays. I hope they’d still do the good deed of the day without giving any name to it. They are the new generation of Americans who come in all colors and traits. They may not look homogeneous as before, but they are distinctly Americans.