Thursday, October 16, 2008

A dual Mexican-American identity: Assimilation and bilingualism

Most Spanish-language radio and television programming today is targeted at recent immigrants because their tastes and buying patterns are easiest to assess. Many have predicted the demise of foreign-language radio over the past seventy years, perceiving it as an inevitable victim of the “natural assimilation” of immigrants, who will abandon their customs and language. However, the people most deeply involved in Spanish-language media firmly assert its uniqueness and that of the Latino community in comparison to other ethnic media and groups.

KXEX’s manager said in 1983, “I don’t believe Mexicans will become Anglicized to the point where they do not speak Spanish… Kids will listen to what other [English-speaking] kids listen to as long as they are with other kids…But when they go home, they’ll listen to the main language.” The Spanish-language has been better retained by Mexican-Americans than has been the case with many ethnic groups, especially in those areas where there are strong barrios and Spanish-speakers do not mingle as much with English-speakers. It is still hard to say whether Spanish-speakers will follow the language assimilation model observed with most American immigrants, just at a slower rate, or whether they will establish a new model.

Unlike other immigrant groups, which have come in waves, there has been a near constant influx of Mexican immigrants to California, especially to the Central Valley, where they still form the bulk of the agricultural labor force. Mexico is never far away, Gutierrez commented in a newspaper article.

I was born in Hanford. My flag is the Stars and Stripes and my allegiance is to this country. But I’ve been to Mexico 15 or 20 times, so I’m still ‘Mexican,’ and so are our listeners. If you are Greek, you are probably third- or fourth-generation. You know you’re Greek, but you don’t relate to Greece anymore. Greece is 10,000 miles away; you will probably never go there. But Mexico is next door. For $20 you can be on the bus to Mexico. Not only that, but this land right here was once Mexican, and a lot of the names- of the cities, the places and the streets- remain [Spanish] That’s why we relate to Spanish so much.

The KFTV manager said in 1983, “The language is the symbol; the key is the culture… Now there’s a trend that there’s no reason you can’t be bilingual. The either-or mentality is changing.” Indeed, bilingualism is an increasingly valued skill in the job market. Where French was touted as the language to study in the 1950s, and Japanese in the 1980s, Spanish is now the “practical” language studied by English-speaking high-schoolers and college students.

Benjamin Gutierrez said that the station attracts older listeners, but these are not all necessarily first-generation immigrants.

What happens is this, most young children, not so much today, but back then, most of the young children spoke Spanish before they spoke English. I did. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English and learned English when I went to school and then after a while you want to be more Americanized. You don’t want to be associated with your own culture, your own race. There’s a period in there- but after a while, you want to go back. It’s especially easier today than it was then because back then there were prejudices that don’t exist today…not to say that there aren’t any that exist today.

There is a constant struggle over identity in the U.S. and what is authentically “American.” The melting pot model has given way to the “tossed salad,” where all the elements keep their own distinct characteristics which, brought together, give the salad its flavor. Proponents of multiculturalism reject the assimilationist model that has held for much of the twentieth century. It is still hard to say whether the Spanish language and Mexican-American culture will be preserved over many generations, and what would happen were immigration to slow, but right now, Spanish-language media continues to grow, something neither academics nor advertisers can ignore.

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