A nation divided by language?


Debate: Without better assimilation, a Harvard professor fears, waves of Mexican immigrants could split the United States.

July 06, 2004|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SAN ELIZARIO, Texas - Should the worst fears of a Harvard professor come true, this desert crossroads could be the sentimental capital of a separatist movement aiming to detach the Southwest from the United States.

In a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Samuel P. Huntington took a worried look at the waves of Mexicans who have been crossing the Rio Grande - whose banks mark the outskirts of this dusty border town of 4,385, about 20 miles south of El Paso.

He fears that the increasing numbers of Spanish speakers in a band of states running from California through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas could bring our nation the unhappy experience of linguistically split societies, such as Canada and the former Yugoslavia.

"Continuation of this large immigration [without improved assimilation] could divide the United States into a country of two languages and two cultures," wrote Huntington, a political scientist who heads the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.

His article has been praised and condemned by media pundits and talk show hosts, coming as it does on the heels of President Bush's proposal for temporary work permits allowing Mexicans to legally cross the border to jobs in the United States.

Here, too, Huntington's ideas find both derision and support.

"I think the professor needs to come beyond his own four walls," said Clarissa Garza, a high school student. "He'd see we're proving him wrong."

"Playing the devil's advocate, I could agree with the professor," said Ben Sanchez, a retired accountant and docent at the local museum. "The newcomers are different from us."

San Elizario is a fascinating laboratory for examining Huntington's thesis, because both sides in the debate - those sympathetic to newcomers and those suspicious of recent immigrants - are Hispanic. Nearly everyone here is of Mexican descent. The only difference is when their ancestors arrived.

Because of its origins and proximity to Mexico, San Elizario has always been a landing place for Spanish-speaking newcomers. It can also be a place of crushing poverty.

According to Antonio Araujo, who heads a local community group, Organizacion Progresiva de San Elizario, some families get by on $10,000 a year. An annual income of $40,000 puts a family well into the local middle class.

Around the placita, or town center, a few historic buildings have been restored, among them the lovely Chapel of San Elizario, a whitewashed adobe church. But the rest of the town looks like a bleak set for the movie The Last Picture Show. Storefronts are empty. The few businesses are marked by hand-lettered, often faded signs.

There are solid-looking homes here, even a few substantial ones. But much of the populace lives in ramshackle neighborhoods, or colonias, that lack sewer lines or sanitary drinking water. Aged trailers stand next to half-finished homes, some little better than shacks.

San Elizario's newcomers are part of a process Huntington calls "the Hispanization of the Southwest." In the 1990s, while 2,249,000 Mexicans legally immigrated to the United States, many others simply crossed the Rio Grande, so that Hispanics now outnumber black Americans. Two-thirds of the Mexican newcomers live in the Southwest. Nearly half the population of Los Angeles is Hispanic.

This current wave of immigration, Huntington argues, is qualitatively different from earlier ones. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European immigrants often lived in large enclaves, such as Chicago's Polonia or New York's Little Italy. But those were city neighborhoods adjoined by other ethnic communities. The offspring of those earlier immigrants dropped their ancestral languages and assimilated into the English-speaking mainstream.

In Huntington's view, the settlement pattern and cultural loyalties of today's Mexican immigrants are more ominous. In a previous book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he saw American values under threat from abroad. Now, he sees a kind of cultural fifth column undermining the nation from within.

"Demographically, socially and culturally, the [reconquest] of the southwestern United States by Mexican immigrants is well under way," wrote Huntington. "Hispanic leaders are actively seeking to transform the United States into a bilingual society."

Huntington, whose views will be expanded in a forthcoming book, declined to be interviewed for this article. His thesis has stirred up a firestorm of academic controversy.

"I was shocked by its crudity," said Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, who has studied Mexican-American immigration. "It's an affront to scholarship."

"Samuel Huntington is raising a legitimate question - it's just that he's wrong," said Cornell University professor Victor Nee, co-author of Remaking the American Mainstream, a well-received study of immigration and assimilation.

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