March 19, 2004

Latinos, Cowboys, and Samuel P. Huntington: A Community Responds to ‘The Hispanic Challenge’

By Mary Jo McConahay
Pacific News Service

SAN FRANCISCO - Is America losing its traditional values and character in the face of a tidal wave of Latino immigrants? Some Latinos say they don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the eruption of debate over Samuel P. Huntington’s new argument, which is the talk of campuses, chat rooms and business offices.

“What is the icon of the American to the outside world?” asks UCLA’s David Hayes-Bautista, with irony in his voice. “It’s the cowboy, the Texan,” a personality created from “the meeting and merger of Anglo-Saxon Protestant with Mexicans.

“We’ve mixed in the past, and I don’t see a problem with the future,” says Hayes-Bautista, director the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA’s David Geffen Medical School. He has tracked the community for 35 years.

But Latinos are feeling they need to respond to Huntington. The eminent Harvard scholar is arguing that Latinos reject the American “creed” — values that have always defined the United States and built the American dream. The issue is hitting the fan at a moment when President Bush is having trouble moving forward on a January initiative to grant virtual amnesty to some 8 to 12 million undocumented workers, mostly Mexicans. And it comes at a time when organizers of a controversial new California proposition that would deny public services — including health care — to undocumented immigrants say they have over half the signatures they need to put the initiative on the ballot. Huntington’s essay is certain to feed debate.

Latin American immigrants are so numerous, and insistent on speaking Spanish, Huntington says, that they threaten to divide the United States into two peoples. In an essay called “The Hispanic Challenge,” from a forthcoming book, which appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Huntington writes that even U.S.-born Latinos live in enclaves like Miami and in the Southwest, and don’t disperse like non-Hispanic immigrants historically have done. Non-Spanish speakers, Huntington says, become second-class citizens there.

Some Latinos say they’ve dismissed similar arguments in the past as the rantings of white supremacists or immigration isolationists. But now, because of Huntington’s stature and experience in the national security community, and because his arguments are presented as academic research and discourse, for many these are fighting words.

“We can hide hate toward groups in different ways,” says Texas-born Antonio Vargas, who directs the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “This is a new nation every 20 years.”

Yet Huntington has the ear of think tanks and policy makers. He was the founding chair of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. The Olin Foundation also bankrolls such conservative bulwarks as the Heritage Foundation and Stanford’s Hoover Institute. He has a popular readership, too. It was Huntington who predicted a “clash of civilizations” in a 1990s book that leaped to the New York Times best-seller list after Sept. 11, 2001. It argued future conflict would not be between national states, but along “cultural fault lines” separating civilizations, such as Western civilization and Islam.

Among the seven or eight world civilizations Huntington identifies is “Latin American,” which doesn’t mesh, he writes, with American civilization in the United States.

“He’s wrong,” says Hayes-Bautista, who points to his own surveys for the United Way and other agencies. They showed more than 90 percent of both U.S.-born Latinos and naturalized citizens answered a clear “yes” when asked, “Are you proud of being American?” His paternity studies show Latinos are also assimilating in one of the most unquestionable ways: mothers under age 25 — Latino, non-Hispanic white, Asian, African American — are giving birth to children fathered by men who are not of the same race or ethnicity at far higher rates than older mothers have done. In the Los Angeles area, most of those young fathers are Latinos.

“Latino green-card Marines” — immigrants who have not been granted citizenship yet — “are dying in Iraq, and I’ve never heard a Latino parent say, ‘I do not want my child to learn English,’” Hayes-Bautista says.

For Vargas, local and state elections give the lie to Huntington’s assertion that Latinos don’t assimilate. There are some 4,800 elected Latino officials in the United States, chosen in the past from Latino-dominant areas. Increasingly, Vargas says, Latino officials are “crossing over” — being elected to represent areas that are not necessarily Latino.

Many U.S.-born Hispanics say Huntington errs gravely when he points to ways Latinos preserve their culture, calls it non-assimilation, and yet never refers to past race laws or embedded attitudes that prevented Latino kids and families from sharing fully in the American dream. As a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, for example, Hayes-Bautista could use the public swimming pool only on “colored” days. Vargas walked his first picket line at age 10, when his parents joined with others to demand their kids be given a school cafeteria like other youngsters enjoyed.

Rights attorney Katharine Culliton of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., says roadblocks such as separate schools for previous generations of Latinos acted as a barrier to assimilation, a barrier that some other immigrant groups never encountered. Now those laws are gone, and the numbers and geographical spread of the new immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos can be felt as a threat to non-Latinos. Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the country’s largest minority.

While many Latinos question Huntington’s data and even more strongly his conclusions, others simply want to pull the gloves off entirely. Los Angeles business consultant and commentator Roberto Lovato says he is fed up “being on the defensive.”

“This reflects a new stage of the culture wars,” Lovato says. “I welcome the division this discussion will generate. Besides arguing for more assimilation, others will become more militant toward calling this white fear, seeing it for what it is: fear of the inevitable changes in the world.”

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