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Excerpted from: Kevin R. Johnson ,“Melting Pot” or “Ring of Fire” ?: Assimilation and the Mexican-American Experience, 85 California Law Review 1259 (October, 1997) (233 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KevinJohnsonIn the spring of 1996, I was sitting in a bar close to Pacific Coast Highway in Manhattan Beach, California, an upper middle-class, White suburb of Los Angeles. Funeral services for my father's uncle, my great-uncle (known as “Brown-eyes” or “Brownie” to distinguish him from his blue-eyed twin), had just ended. I had an hour to burn with my father and step-brother while I waited for my return flight to Sacramento. Thoughts about my uncle streamed through my mind. He thoroughly enjoyed life. He was always upbeat. But he worried. A life of economic insecurity for him and his family no doubt contributed to the worries. Over the coming days, I wondered how it must have been when he became the first Anglo in his family to marry a Mexican-American woman, Rosie. They had grown up together in a working-class neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles where Mexican-Americans and Anglos lived side-by-side. They spent fifty years there before moving to the desert to retire.

While my mind wandered, a tall fellow sitting on the barstool next to us talked. He rambled to anyone who would listen about a recent trip to Texas. Fashioning himself as somewhat of a jokester, he told a series of increasingly bad jokes. Then came what, in retrospect, was inevitable. For whatever reason, I tuned in to one particular joke, which went something like this: “How do you make sure nobody steals the stereo speakers in your car?” Without waiting for a response, he eagerly offered the punch line: “You put a sign on them saying ‘no habla español.” Nobody laughed. I wondered why I had to hear this junk. Why couldn't I grieve over a beer and not have to deal with some buffoon making jokes that instantly cut to the core of my identity? I was too tired from the travails of the funeral day--with grieving family, sad combined with happy remembrances, and thoughts of my own mortality--to care, much less lash back at the happy-go-lucky Texan. Shaking my head, I stared blankly at my beer. “Can I have another?,” I asked the bartender as I emptied my glass.

The Texan got me thinking. On the flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento, I wondered what it would be like for my identity to be “transparent,” a non-issue in my daily life, like it is for many, if not most, whites. His joke also made me think of the many Spanish-speakers who I knew and my inability to identify any who stole stereo speakers. This story shows how a few words may hurt and marginalize. It also, I thought, demonstrates the limits of assimilation for Latinos, even those who are half White and look the part.

In light of the duality of my identity, it is entirely appropriate to begin this article about Latino identity with lyrics to a song popularized by a country and western singer. I was born in 1958 at the tail end of the so-called Baby Boom. I identify as a Latino, specifically a Mexican-American or Chicano. My mother, a first- or second-generation Mexican-American (her maiden name was Angela, or as she prefers to be called Angie, Gallardo), was born a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Brawley, a small farm town in the Imperial Valley of California. My father (Kenneth Johnson) is an Anglo who grew up in what was then a mixed Mexican/Anglo working-class neighborhood near Chavez Ravine, today the site where the Los Angeles Dodgers play baseball.

To analyze some difficult but crucially important issues for Latinos in the United States today, I plan to borrow from my mother's experiences. Though aware of the alleged deficiencies of the use of autobiography in legal scholarship, I write this hoping to bring to the fore the stories of some Latinos who have been invisible or ignored, and to offer more general insights based on those experiences. My firm conviction is “that Mexican Americans need to tell their side of the story . . . .” I am part of that story.

Specifically, this Article explores the assimilation of Latinos into dominant society, with a focus on the experience of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. In recent years, Latino intellectuals frequently in the media spotlight, such as Linda Chavez and Richard Rodriguez, have unabashedly embraced assimilation for Latinos. In her book, Chavez explores a “new theory” of assimilation that argues that Latinos, like previous waves of White “ethnic” immigrants, should, and in fact are, assimilating. The validity of this hypothesis is far from self-evident. Separate and unequal Latino enclaves in many cities suggest that assimilation is far from complete. Economic disparities exist and show no signs of dissipating. The anti-immigrant backlash, which is in no small part an attack on all persons--citizens as well as immigrants--of Mexican ancestry in the United States, including persons who can trace their ancestry in this country for centuries, is testament to the limits of Latino assimilation.

On a human level, the experiences of my grandmother and mother, two of the most ardent Mexican-American assimilationists that one could ever want to meet, demonstrate the problems faced by Latinas seeking to assimilate. They never succeeded and suffered immensely for their efforts. Nor, however it may appear to the world, am I, a Harvard-educated law professor, fully assimilated into the mainstream.

Latino assimilation implicates issues central to race, ethnicity, and nationhood. A growing body of academic literature analyzes generally the voluntary adoption of a racial identity. My experiences exemplify how, because race is a social construction, people--at least some--decide to be Latino. For the most part, I was never forced to present myself as Mexican-American. Although it may be difficult for some Latinos to “pass” as White due to phenotype, surname, language skills, or accent, I could, if I chose. I might have ignored my background and hoped that nobody would remember, find out, or care, although to do so, I would have had to deny a family history that grew increasingly central to my identity over my lifetime. Exemplifying the volitional nature of racial identity, my brother, with sandy blond hair and blue eyes, exercised his right to choose in a different way. He never identified as Mexican-American.

Because the community is extremely diverse, the ability to choose an identity and assimilate differs among Latinos. My family history exemplifies Latino heterogeneity. While many might hail multiculturalism and revel in the mix of different cultures in the United States, I am multicultural. I share dark brown hair and brown eyes with my mother but also bear the last name Johnson and the height of my father's side of the family. My brother's blond hair and blue eyes more closely resemble my father's family, though he is short in stature like my mother's side. My mother speaks some Spanish but never taught the language to her sons.

My wife, Virginia Salazar, is from a traditional Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, east of East Los Angeles, with dark brown hair and brown eyes and a light complexion. Those in her mother's family generally have fair complexions and light brown hair; those in her father's family generally have dark skin and dark brown hair bordering on Black. Although both her parents speak Spanish, she was not taught the language at home. To our surprise, our first two children, Teresa and Tomás, have blond hair and blue eyes and fair complexions. They at times have been referred to as “güeros,” (Spanish slang for “White ones”). Such references hint at the value of Whiteness in U.S. society. Our third child, Maria Elena, looks more like us, with olive colored skin, dark brown hair, and brown eyes. Some have referred to her as our “Mexican” baby or “la morena” (the dark one).

The phenotypic diversity among a family of five Mexican-Americans under one roof should make it clear that the Mexican-American community is far from one-dimensional. If Mexican-Americans are a diverse group, Latinos are even more so. Mixtures of race, national origin, immigration status, class, culture, education, political outlook, and many other characteristics abound.

One aspect of Latino diversity is the existence of persons of mixed Latino/Anglo backgrounds. While poignant books by Greg Williams, Judy Scales-Trent, and others have documented the experiences of persons with one Black and one White parent, the discussion of mixed-race people has not focused on Latinos of mixed parentage. This is true despite the high rates of intermarriage between Latinos and Anglos and the many mixed Latino/Anglo people in the United States. As the Latino population in the United States increases, one can expect the number of intermarriages and mixed-race children to increase as well.

Changing demographics require careful examination of the breadth of the Latino experience in the United States. According to projections, by 2005, Latinos will be the largest minority group in the United States. If current demographic trends continue, by the middle of the twenty-first century, persons of mixed-race backgrounds will increase greatly as a proportion of the U.S. population. With the changing demographics, race relations and individual experiences will change. Legal analysis of issues of race in this country must change as well.

Some of my experiences exemplify the difficulties of forcing people into hard-and-fast categories, which law and society inevitably attempt to do. Mixed-race people regularly face this difficulty. For example, in the United States census, what demographic box should a person check who does not fit neatly into any of the enumerated racial or ethnic categories? The example holds true for admission to educational programs and for employment. None of the recognized categories fully nor accurately describe a mixed-race/ethnicity person. One hates to be in the unsavory position of denying one's background. At the same time, one fears being accused of claiming to be a minority--sometimes by members of the very group with which he or she identifies--simply to obtain a “special” preference.

Ultimately, the assimilation experiences of Latinos reveal much about race, ethnicity, and nationhood in the United States. This explains why Latino scholars have begun focusing attention on the limits of Latino assimilation. Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, and Latinos throughout the country, have been defined as a race of people different from and inferior to Whites. Latinos are viewed as foreign to the Anglo-Saxon core of the United States and thus as “foreigners” to the nation. Difficulties of assimilation for Latinos persist in part because of their definition as the Other. The stories of my mother and grandmother reflect the difficulties of assimilation for Latinas. Moreover, they serve as sad metaphors for the story of the assimilation of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. My experiences reflect the amorphousness of the concept of race, the difficulties resulting from racial uncertainty, and the complexities of racial mixture in a time of identity politics.

. . .

Immigration restrictionists, in advocating for closing the U.S. borders, often proclaim that today's immigrants, unlike those of generations past, refuse to assimilate. The underlying assumption is that immigrants of the modern era are identical to the White ethnic immigrants of the 1800s. As history teaches, however, immigrants of color often have had vastly different experiences than their White predecessors. Anglo society has often accused them of the crime of failing to assimilate. Indeed, the infamous Chinese exclusion laws of the 1800s and the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II were rationalized, and upheld by the Supreme Court, on the ground that Chinese and Japanese persons had failed to assimilate. Similar charges have taken root against Latinos, Asian-Americans, and others in the modern immigration debate.

This Article has focused on the difficulties of assimilation--encapsulated by the “ring of fire” metaphor--faced by persons of Mexican ancestry in the United States and Latinos generally. Because many differ from members of the dominant Anglo society in physical appearance and other salient differences, Mexican-Americans have faced serious impediments to assimilating into the mainstream. Political and economic assimilation are far from complete and Latinos frequently are treated as “strangers in the land.” This is even true for Mexican-Americans like my mother who made every possible effort to assimilate--Anglicizing her name, claiming she was Spanish and denying her Mexican ancestry, and marrying Anglos. These efforts failed with tragic consequences.

While the problems and issues may be different, assimilation also can be difficult for persons of mixed Anglo/Latino backgrounds. Some identify as being Latino with the costs this might entail, while othersto bury their past and suffer in different ways. This volitional nature of Latino identity adds much to the argument that race is a social, as opposed to a biological, construction. Moreover, intermarriage, by increasing the number of mixed Latinos, has steadily increased the diversity of the extremely heterogeneous Latino community in the United States. Although attention has been paid to Latino diversity in recent years, little has been paid to this component of the community. It should not be ignored, however, that Anglo-Latinos live in their own “ring of fire.”

Professor of Law, University of California at Davis.