Since the 1990's two important issues about immigration have led to lively debate and extensive research by social scientists. They are often put in opposition and they seem to define the two ends of the spectrum describing how immigrants behave culturally in their new host-country. On one hand some social scientists and policy makers argue in favor of welfare programs and public policies that promote the complete cultural assimilation of the newcomers to the values and norms of the host-country, which ultimately rejects the concept of multiculturalism. On the opposite side of that debate we find advocates for cultural preservation which encourages immigrants to maintain their cultural differences and keep - to various degrees - ties to their country of origin, sometimes even promoting the development of new national identities.
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That latter distinction draws towards another concept that I will be discussing in this paper which is transnationalism. Because of the growing influence that immigration has on the cultural identity, the economics and the overall growth of the United States it has been debated by social scientists whether or not transnationalism and assimilation were compatible. I argue in this paper that not only are assimilation and transnationalism compatible, they are complimentary in the successful integration of multiple generations of immigrants.
I will attempt to show that by first defining the characteristics of assimilation and debating whether or not it is compatible at all with cultural preservation. I will then introduce transnationalism, how it is a subset of cultural preservation, its advantages for immigrants when trying to settle in the United-States. Subsequently, I will present a personal case study taking a look at transnationalism in action through a second-generation Mexican-American who is arguably successfully assimilated. Finally I will draw upon previous scholar works to show how assimilation and transnationalism work in pairs on a spatial and temporal frame when immigrants are trying to settle in the United-States.
Since the 19th century, social scientists studied the patterns of integrations of immigrants in the United-States. Assimilation is defined as the process in which immigrants come to resemble the people in the host country and in which they adopt the common values, behaviors and beliefs of this host country. As opposed to that, cultural preservation, often associated with multiculturalism, is a mode of integration in which immigrants preserve most aspects of their cultures and reproduce it in the host country.
In this system, cultural identity seems to be formed by a simple binary choice in which the immigrants either identify with the dominant culture or with one's legacy minority culture. This would imply that a stronger identification with the majority culture means a weaker identification with the legacy minority culture. However, this model has been criticized as over simplistic and not representative of the multiple different experiences of minorities (Caytas, 2012). Cross-cultural psychology suggests that cultural identity is more complex and that the degree of identification to the majority culture can be treated as independent of the degree of identification to the minority culture (Berry, 1997).
Based on this model it has been shown that individuals can have a strong affinity for a majority culture and at the same time for a majority culture (Caytas, 2012). In this context, because of the differences in culture of the minority groups, it can be beneficial to keep a strong attachment to specific values of the culture of origin, which is called segmented assimilation. It has been shown by multiple studies that biculturalism can be a genuine asset, for example in the case of Vietnamese in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans: "being both Vietnamese and American frequently caused children to achieve superior levels of performance" (Zhou and Bankston, 1999, cited in Caytas, 2012). However, as the author also points out, we can have the opposite effect where in groups at risks of facing downward assimilation "English language skills compete with non-English skills," which eventually causes an inevitable confusion and conflicts in children exposed to both languages in equal measure (Caytas, 2012).
Therefore we can see here how different socio-economic and cultural background influences how well the integration will occur. In this context it has been shown that "seemingly integrated - or separated - immigrant groups are rarely able to preserve their original culture untouched without adapting it to an array of influences of the host country" (Caytas, 2012). It seems therefore that no genuine cultural preservation is possible when a group faces assimilation, it is rather the traditional values and customs of the minority group that are gradually redefined and adapted in response to a new environment. Or as Zhou claims, in order to adapt immigrants often selectively unpack from their cultural baggage those traits suitable to the new environment and they keep strictly to themselves other things not so fit, ultimately blending cultural preservation into assimilation.
In many cases, when immigrants migrate to the United-States they maintain regular or situationally mobilized involvement in a few or several economic, political, social, and cultural affairs of their home at different national or local levels. This pattern of immigration is called transnationalism and it has been extensively investigated since the 1990s (Morawska, 2004).
It has been shown by many studies that transnationalism has been an advantage on different levels for immigrants. In his case study on the adaptation of Salvadorans in the Washington area Raul Sanchez Morena explains that having often immigrated by themselves, single Salvadoran parents in the United-States develop a transnational multi-sited ethnography. According to him the transnational ties developed in the host country are directly linked to the social exclusion of the migrants who have no other choice than creating their own social networks through relatives, friends, and neighbors.
This process has allowed them to develop even more transnational relationships connecting them with their home cultures and societies, making transnationalism a pattern of adaptation helping them to overcome structural barriers faced in the host societies (Molina, 2008). It is important to note that this case study represents migratory patterns of low-skilled, often undocumented, immigrants seeking a better life and better opportunities or sometime fleeing unstabilties in their country of origin. Other studies have shown that more educated, first and second generation, Polish immigrants workers are maintaining "multi-level informal transnational engagements" but are at the same time clearly committed to the obligations coming with American citizenship, for example voting, paying taxes, observing the law, etc (Morawska, 2004).
The same kind of studies have been conducted with Russian Jews and Chinese immigrants and Morawska claimed that their successful assimilation was greatly dependent on their transnational engagements: "(Rusian Jews) immigrants' involvement on behalf of Israel as their symbolic homeland will be an indicator of their successful incorporation into American Jewish society. [...] A quite different pattern of the assimilation-enhancing effects of transnational economic activities has been suggested [...] by studies of immigrant Chinese business elite whose global connections facilitate their incorporations into mainstream American Society.
We can therefore see that assimilation is here working in complement to transnationalism, and in most cases it can be explained as a new pattern of adaptation, helping the immigrants transition from one culture to another or to even fusion the two henceforth creating new national identities.
To put in perspective my research on assimilation and transnationalism I interviewed a second-generation Mexican-American friend that I will refer to as Rosa. I first inquired about Rosa's parents, her mom - Maria - was born and raised in Mexico and immigrated to California when she was in her 20s, trying to go away from an unstable and unsafe environment.
Rosa stated that her mom immigrated because "she didn't want to raise a family in Mexico where there is a lot of internal problems, violence, corruption, poverty, etc". Maria married a San Diegan native very early and had Rosa and her brother, therefore earning the American citizenship. Unfortunately, Rosa's parents got divorced when she was young and from this point on she and her brother were mostly raised by her mom alone.
When I inquired about how well her mom assimilated in the United-States and how much of her culture of origin she kept I had a very interesting double sided answer.
According to Rosa her mom never thrived to master english or adopt the "American Culture" that she often even criticized, she had to learn enough to live here but in Rosa's own words what she was looking for in America was mainly "a better and safer situation for her kids to grow up in, go to school and prosper".
Maria maintained very strong familial ties with the family that stayed in Mexico (frequent visits, phone calls, etc), and thanks to her brother who immigrated before her she was able to acquire a lot and manage a small mechanic shop for a couple years in San Ysidro which has a large Mexican population.
It is interesting to notice how even while purposely avoiding assimilation, Maria was directly investing her time and resources in the American economy, profiting and expanding an already existing ethnically enclaved network. We can see this as a classic transnational pattern similar to the social networks of Salvadorans in the Washington area. Maria then created an even stronger transnational connection when she later sold the business and reinvested the money in Mexico to construct a clubhouse, a project that she has had for the past 14 years now.
In the meantime, Rosa has received an exclusively Mexican education from her mother, she is completely bilingual in Spanish and English, grew up with mostly mexican friends, can cook traditional Mexican dishes, has strong Mexican values, etc. However, when asked if she felt more Mexican or American she stated: "I feel more American than Mexican because I grew up here and most of my interactions outside of home have been with the American culture".
It is important to note that Rosa emphasized that regardless of her complete assimilation in the US she still feels very connected to Mexico thanks to the ties she has with her mom's family, she also mentioned wanting to move there eventually for her graduate studies.
This specific case study shows that strong transnational bonds allow first generation immigrants to transition and settle more easily and more effectively in the United-States. Indeed, even if it seems that Maria did not assimilate when migrating, she still managed to raise a family, preserve her culture, maintain her bonds with her country of origin and at the same time get involved in the american economy.
Above all, through Rosa and her brother, a complete assimilation happened in one generation, and regardless of Maria's strong one-sided cultural influence, her children now identify with both cultures and they are closely connected to both countries, making them the embodiment of a transnational cultural identity.
To conclude I would like to use the work of Patricia Fernandez-Kelly who offers a synoptic theoretical model that considers a spatial and temporal vector (Fernandez-Kelly, 2016).
As we have seen with my case study and Morowska's, first generation immigrants use multi-sited transnational connections to negotiate their membership in both the host country and their country of origin while partaking to various degrees to the economic, cultural and political life of the United-States.
It is also important to emphasize the intergenerational aspect of transnationalism. As I have discussed in the first part of this paper, second generation immigrants assimilate by selectively adapting parts of their parent's culture to the host country's culture, making assimilation an inevitable consequence of living in America, as exemplified by Rosa's experience. Transnationalism then becomes a way for them to assimilate and recast their identity within the host country while maintaining a strong cultural connection to their country of origin.
That is why I believe that assimilation and transnationalism are complementary patterns of immigrations allowing multi-generational families of immigrants to properly settle in the United-States.
Caytas, Joanna Diane. "Conundrum of an Immigrant: Assimilation versus Cultural Preservation." Journal of Identity and Migration Studies Vol. 6, No. 2, 2012, pp. 36-54. SSRN: https://www.ssrn.com/abstract=2260061
Fernández-Kelly, Patricia. "Conclusion: Assimilation through Transnationalism: A Theoretical Synthesis." The State and the Grassroots: Immigrant Transnational Organizations in Four Continents, edited by Patricia Fernández-Kelly and Alejandro Portes, 1st ed., Berghahn Books, NEW YORK; OXFORD, 2016, pp. 291–318. JSTOR , www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qd9c9.16.
Molina, Raúl Sánchez. "Modes of Incorporation, Social Exclusion, and Transnationalism: Salvadoran's Adaptation to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area." Human Organization, vol. 67, no. 3, 2008, pp. 269–280. JSTOR , www.jstor.org/stable/4412735 3.
Ziyanak, Sebahattin. "Critically Assessing Classic Assimilation Theory and Alternative Perspectives for Immigrants and the Second Generation in the United States." Race, Gender & Class, vol. 22, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 143–149. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2650533 0.
Morawska, Ewa. "Exploring Diversity in Immigrant Assimilation and Transnationalism: Poles and Russian Jews in Philadelphia." The International Migration Review, vol. 38, no. 4, 2004, pp. 1372–1412. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27645450.
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