SAN DIEGO — As someone who is often prodded to declare my allegiance to the United States, I’m envious of a group of Americans that no longer has to put up with such demands.
When it comes to identity, these folks enjoy the best of all worlds. No one questions their loyalty to this country. Yet they are also unapologetically proud of their ethnic heritage. They’ll never fully assimilate. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem. These are Americans with attitude.
For its part, America has never known quite what to do with this bunch. They’re all about paradoxes. They’re patriotic and always answer the call to military service, but a group of them – the San Patricios – once famously committed treason by siding with Mexico during the U.S.-Mexican War.
They’re comfortable in the mainstream, but they have also been accused of segregating themselves. They’ve climbed the ladder and enjoyed many opportunities over the years, but their ancestors suffered discrimination because they were Catholic and spoke with accents. They’re primarily an immigrant population who came here with their heads lowered because their home country failed them, and they know well what it’s like to be picked on and mistreated by nativists and “know-nothings.”
What can we say to this perplexing group of Americans? How about, Happy St. Patrick’s Day?
The 34.1 million Americans who identify themselves as either primarily or partially Irish helped shape this country in the 20th century. They have more in common than many of them may realize with the group that will help shape the next one: the 53 million Latinos in the United States.
Both groups had to overcome stereotypes. In 1914, while fear-mongering politicians such as Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts warned that immigrants (read: Irish) were “diminishing” the quality of U.S. citizenship, people named “Murphy” or “O’Brien” were constantly being depicted in newspaper cartoons as the three “d’s”: dirty, dumb and drunk. In 2014, Latinos are often portrayed by Hollywood and the media according to their own set of “d’s”: domestics, delinquents and drug dealers.
Both groups also had to decipher America’s mixed messages. One minute, we’re told not to segregate ourselves but to blend into the mainstream. The next, we have obstacles in our way to keep us from the mainstream. A century ago, there might not have been a need for the Irish to congregate in South Boston if the blue bloods on Beacon Hill hadn’t been so inhospitable.
One difference is that while the main wave of Irish migration to the United States lasted almost 100 years – from the 1840s to the 1930s – there was a clear beginning and ultimately an end. With Mexican migration, there are peaks and valleys but there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. This worries those who think that having a constant flow of people streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border will make it harder for those on this side of it to fully assimilate.
Not this again.
It’s an illogical worry. America has always changed immigrants as much as immigrants change America. Just because you still hear Spanish being spoken in the Southwest doesn’t mean that Latinos aren’t, by the second generation, conversing almost entirely in English. In fact, while many media companies still make the common mistake of approaching Hispanic consumers in Spanish, more than 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics now speak either English entirely – or a combination of English and Spanish.
As they navigate the messy immigration debate, Americans should pause to think about the history of migration to the United States. They’ll conclude that what the nativists of the 1800s and 1900s said about the Germans, Chinese, Irish, Italians and Jews back then sounds a lot like what the nativists of today are saying about Latinos. The fear and paranoia were unjustified then, and the same is true now.
I often refer to the Irish in trying to explain to clueless media executives what Latinos are about. We’re not just at ease in the American mainstream, I tell them. We are the new American mainstream. We’ll go along to get along. But, like the Irish, we will preserve our ethnic identity.
If you don’t like it, then – as our friends say – that’s your problem.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.