By JONATHAN TILOVE
December 25, 1994
c. 1994. Newhouse News Serivce
It is a bracing, bright Saturday morning in City Heights, San Diego’s most crowded and crime-ridden neighborhood. Romdoul Kim, 16, hard off a school week of “all work and no fun,” is back in class, this time in a stucco home that serves as a Buddhist temple. She reads aloud from a primer of Cambodian fables, poems and instructions on planting rice and catching fish.
At break, Kim, who has been in the United States since she was four-years-old, complains, “I should be doing this or doing that, but I’m stuck here.” But, she acknowledges, “I don’t have time to mess around or get in trouble. I guess I’ll have my joy when I graduate from college.”
In stark and dismal contrast, only blocks away a waifish 21-year-old Cambodian refugee who goes by the American name Jessica sits on the floor of her shabby little apartment with her two small children whose fathers, both gang members, are respectively in jail and awaiting trial for murder.
A ninth-grade dropout, Jessica, in the United States a dozen years, subsists on welfare and the faint hope of getting her kids out of City Heights. If not, she says, her fate will be theirs. “They grow up and see with their eyes. They’re going to do the same thing.”
Throughout its history, this nation of immigrants has taken it as an article of faith that those who assimilated fastest did best. But for the children of poor, minority immigrants in the inner city, that classic model of assimilation has been turned upside down.
For people like Jessica, assimilation may be to the underclass.
By contrast, those like Ramdoul who remain closely connected to their native culture may find safe harbor from the destruction and despair that surround them, and may find themselves better able to hang onto the immigrant virtues that contribute to success.
It is the paradox of late 20th-century assimilation: For most children of immigrants, the very process of Americanization may mean the dulling, or even rejection, of those very values of hard work, determination, optimism about the future and faith in America that their parents and Americans hold so dear.
It is a paradox being explored by a small group of scholars but almost entirely missing from the increasingly polarized and angry debate on immigration. And it is a paradox that in its breadth and complexity ultimately demolishes the conventional wisdom and most cherished cliches of every outlook on immigration.
These scholars have found mounting evidence for three propositions:
The most recent pilgrims to this nation are those who bring to their lives the most Puritan values to be found in America today.
That said, the poorer children of America’s newest Puritans stand at risk of being transformed into America’s next underclass.
The best strategy for avoiding that outcome is for those children to cling to their culture and assimilate in a slower, more selective fashion.
Sociologists Alejandro Portes of Johns Hopkins University and Min Zhou of Louisiana State University are leading scholars of this new paradox. They say there are three reasons why today’s children of immigrants are more vulnerable to downward assimilation than the children of European immigrants in the past: their color, their location and a changed economy.
In 1940, more than 85 percent of the children of immigrants were non-Hispanic whites. By contrast, more than three-quarters of all immigrants since 1960 have been Asian (22 percent), black (8 percent) or Latino (47 percent, and about half of whom are considered non-white).
While Irish and Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were all viewed in their time as very different from the existing white mainstream, their subsequent generations were all, on the basis of physical appearance, more easily melted into that white mainstream. That alone made them less vulnerable to lasting discrimination than today’s Asians, Africans and many Latinos.
At the same time, today’s minority immigrants are even more intensely concentrated in a handful of metropolitan areas, where they live side-by-side with the poorest native-born minorities, who are experiencing a degree of family breakdown and social disintegration unlike anything those previous waves of immigrants encountered.
It is a juxtaposition that makes it easy for the rest of America to lump immigrants and the native poor together and treat them in a similar dismissive, antagonistic or fearful fashion.
It can also lead the children of minority immigrants to adopt as their own what Portes and Zhou describe as the “adversarial stance to the white mainstream (that) is common among inner city minority youth.” Whether or not it is an accurate assessment of their own situation or prospects, they may come to view themselves as a victimized minority for whom such recourses as working hard at school and staying out of trouble are not only uncool but futile and indeed shameful acts of racial or ethnic treason in a vain effort to “be white.”
Most significantly, this generation of poor immigrant children are growing up in what Portes and Zhou call an “hourglass economy” in which there is a narrowing middle between the menial jobs immigrants commonly accept on the bottom, and the professional and technical careers requiring college degrees on the top.
Earlier generations of immigrants and their children could work their way up through a succession of blue-collar jobs that required little more than a willingness to work. But in today’s increasingly post-industrial economy, a poor youngster who does not make the leap to college may never make it out of the ghetto.
This narrowing of the middle brings a harrowing new aspect to the historic “race” between the galloping expectations that the children of immigrants experience as a consequence of growing up in America, and the actual economic and social success they and their parents can achieve.
Immigrants may be famous for taking jobs native-born Americans will not. But their children won’t, and the more Americanized they become, the more restive they are that their parents bus tables or change hotel beds.
“They don’t see success in their family,” says San Diego High School Principal Robert Amparan. “They’re still living in Barrio Logan, their father is still working as a gardener, still driving a pickup truck to haul around the lawnmower.”
The degree to which the children of today’s immigrants fail to meet their Americanized aspirations, Portes says, is the degree to which America will witness the creation of a “rainbow underclass” with “gangs of many colors.”
In the last five years, membership in San Diego’s Southeast Asian gangs has quintupled. Among all the ethnic groups, Southeast Asians now have the highest rate of gang-related homicide in the city.
The father of Jessica’s daughter is a member of OKB, or Oriental Killer Boys, a gang made up of young Laotian refugees. Her son’s father is a member of OBS – Oriental Boy Soldiers – a Cambodian gang.
The Asian gangs imitate the black and Latino gangs. Some local Crips even mentored Cambodian boys in gang formation.
“The neighborhood you live in can have very fateful consequences,” says Kenji Ima, a sociologist at San Diego State University who has studied the soaring rate of delinquency among Asian refugee children.
In the poor Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan, a soft-spoken college freshman, Jesus Calleros, 20, explained how he stayed out of trouble. “I used to stay home all the time,” says Calleros, who moved to San Diego from Mexico five years ago.
But Calleros grew up with the greater discipline and respect for authority characteristic of Mexico, and a deep sense of obligation to the parents who brought him to America as “a place for their children to study.”
The question is, how does one pass on those qualities to a next generation born in the United States?
“It’s impossible,” says Calleros. “We’d have to take them for 10 years back to Mexico.”
Anthropologist Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, who teaches at Harvard University, recently completed a study of Mexican-American students outside San Diego in which he recorded how immigrant optimism and confidence was displaced by self-doubt and disaffection as second-generation youngsters assimilated into a new minority status.
“The question we systematically ask is, ‘Is immigration good for the country?’ The question we should ask is, ‘Is the country good for immigrants?’ says Suarez-Orozco.
Michigan State University sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has sought to answer that second question. His conclusion: “Assimilation can be hazardous to your health.” Literally. On a variety of measures of physical and mental health, Rumbaut says, immigrants score higher than second-generation and other native-born Americans.
For example, Rumbaut co-authored a San Diego study, released this fall, which found that even though U.S.-born women were better-educated and had higher incomes, it was the immigrant women who had healthier babies. Why? Because the American-born women were more likely to smoke, drink and do drugs, to eat fatty foods, to have been abused and to have a stressful relationship with the father of their baby and their own family.
Earlier this year, Rumbaut and Portes released a study of the children of immigrants in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and San Diego that found that the more recent arrivals spent more time on homework and had higher grade point averages than those born in the United States.
M.G. Matute-Bianchi, an education professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, in her study of Mexican-American students at a central California high school, also found the U.S.-born students were more likely to drop out than the Mexican-born.
The best students were those who had been in the United States long enough to be fluent in English but still had strong ties to Mexico and spoke Spanish at home. By contrast, the native-born Chicanos, more sensitive to discrimination and more discouraged by their parents’ and grandparents’ menial jobs, regarded doing well in school as an act of ethnic betrayal.
Likewise, Rafaela Santa Cruz, a professor of education at San Diego State, found that second- and third-generation Chicanas did less well in the city schools than Mexican-born girls. “It’s dating, it’s pregnancy, it’s gangs, all the bad Americanization stuff,” says Santa Cruz.
Cathy Cortez, 18, says that was the way she was headed. At San Diego High, she says, Chicano toughs defined macho cool. Even the white boys would “slick their hair to look darker and speak with the same slang,” if poorly accented.
“In junior high and high school, the most important thing to you is your reputation,” says Cortez. “Nobody wants to be looked down upon. If you’re really good in school, if you didn’t go out, it’s ‘She’s no fun.’
Cortez was saved in her senior year by a select program that provides support for achievement and a greater sense of Mexican identity for Chicana girls. She graduated and is now a freshman at San Diego State.
Meanwhile, many of the girls she used to “ditch” school with are mothers and on welfare.
“None graduated from high school that I can think of,” she says. “None. I’m just so grateful for the choices I made at the end.”
To many immigrants, even what they view as the lax, shallow, kick-back culture of mainstream Americans is nothing to aspire to.
At the Cambodian weekend school in City Heights, Sinoun Chao, 13, future lawyer, and sister Sinath, 15, future scientist, say their 12-year-old sister, Linda, is more American than they are. “She was born here and tends to take things more lazily,” says Sinoun, whose father moved them out of City Heights to a whiter, quieter, more middle-class neighborhood. “She just thinks that’s the way it is,” says Sinath.
But for most of the students at the weekend school, the grim reality of City Heights is still theirs.
Looking at Vietnamese living under similar circumstances in one of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods, Min Zhou and an LSU colleague found that the children who were most immersed in their ethnic community did the best in school. “They look up because their parents tell them to look up,” says Zhou.
In City Heights, Sophea Ros, a 19-year-old college student who teaches the younger children, figures the weekend school works one way or another.
“What I am happy about is, if they come here to study or just to sit, whether they learn a little bit or a lot, at least we see them every Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 11 instead of hanging out on the street.”
This Saturday, Romdoul Kim sits at the head of her class, which is taught by Chhoeub Sre, a 30-year-old machinist. There is a lot of “stress,” she said, in all this pressure to stay Cambodian, to succeed, to stay on the straight and narrow. But, she said, “Before I’d do something or get in trouble, I’d think of my parents’ struggle to get here. They lost a lot.”
And, she surmised, working on her Cambodian may even help her better express her frustration to her parents. Right now, she said, “When I try to get my deep feelings into Cambodian words, I can’t do it.”