Think back to your childhood. Have you heard this song: “You simply melt right in/It doesn’t matter what your skin/where you’re from or your religion/You jump right in to the great American melting pot.” This song is from Schoolhouse Rock, the classic educational children’s TV show. What’s wrong with a catchy song celebrating American diversity? Nothing, except that the Great American Melting Pot is a lie, or at best, a myth.
The idea is that immigrants will coalesce, losing their “bad” characteristics to create a new, “good” American culture. They will create an American super-culture. Does this sound creepy to you, along the lines of eugenics and racial engineering?
Americans like the melting pot concept. The fantasy has been popular since the mid-19th century when waves of newcomers arrived seeking opportunity. Americans were understandably concerned. Could we accommodate these foreigners? Would diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, religious and language identities divide the country? Human nature, always averse to difference, protests. The melting pot idea reassured us that soon we would all be alike.
But it’s too simplistic. For immigrants to “melt,” they must dilute their own cultures and assume new ones. Immigrants in a strange, new land cling to the security of their origins and are reluctant to exchange their old culture for a foreign one. They avoid mingling with others who are different, often because of prejudice, misunderstandings and communication barriers.
Many view cities like Los Angeles as great examples of the diverse, multicultural melting pot. Those images inspire awe. But what about the cultural homogeneity and segregation in our city? Sure, people adapt. But only with reassurance about the preservation of their heritage. History teaches us that immigrants combine cultures rather than rejecting one and replacing it with another.
Take a look for yourself right in Oxy’s neighborhood. Stop in at El Chapin, the Guatemalan Market on York. Can you get a cannoli? A wonton? Or a pambosa from Mexico City? Forget it. This place is pure Guatemala; it hasn’t melted into anything. Try to get Mexican pan dulce at the Italian Bakery on Colorado Blvd. See if you can find anything more American than pancit or lumpia at the Filipino restaurants. Has the proximity of the Guatemalan, Italian and Filipino places to one another caused them to melt? Is there any evidence of an American super-culture?
Sure, there is some assimilation. Still, the fusion of cultures is far different from melting, a state where specific individual characteristics are lost and everything blends with everything else Here’s the most important thing. Why would cultural groups want to melt and jump into the Melting Pot? Why not resist the Americanization that society tries to sell as irresistible? Why sacrifice cultural heritage? As immigrant populations expand, why not strive to transform American society, rather than being transformed by it?
These questions are critical at this time in our country’s history when immigration is such a major issue. Although the exact number is unknown, the U.S. is home to between 12 and 20 million “undocumented” immigrants, accounting for about one in every 20 workers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. We have not curbed problems with our borders of national security. Even if we could identify and deport all undocumented workers, our economy would screech to a halt.
Immigration agents conduct raids and separate parents from children. They throw people in detention denying their rights to communicate with family or counsel.
Thousands are deported. More walls are being built between the U.S. and Mexico. Local communities enforce harsh, self-made policies. Deputized vigilantes sweep through neighborhoods spreading terror among Latinos.
The U.S. has historically welcomed immigrants in times of prosperity and blamed them when the economy fails. The new administration is unlikely to prioritize immigration reform. It’s likely that our leaders will ignore immigration as they obsess over the financial crisis.
I have no solutions. But we must ground our discussions in common sense and clear thinking. As long as we delude ourselves with fairytale-like images like the Great American Melting Pot, we can’t be realistic about the immigration crisis. We must realize that in teaching falsehoods and misconceptions, our society attempts to inspire patriotism, not to help us comprehend. We must see the world before our eyes in all its complexity, a world where we can trade fantasies like the Great American Melting Pot for clear-eyed reform.
Daina Beth Solomon is an undeclared first-year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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