World Trends& Forecasts
Latinos in America’s Cultural Laboratory
Immigrating for diverse reasons, Latinos complicate U.S. policy choices.
merica is a land of immigrants, but also a country that hasstruggled with immigration is-sues in nearly every generation. Backin the nineteenth century, Americansof English descent resisted the on-slaught of Irish settlers. Massachu-setts was alarmed at the “alienhorde” of French Canadians in thetextile factories “taking good jobsfrom real Americans.” Around theturn of the twentieth century, xeno-phobic critics wrote diatribes abouthow the criminal mind of Italian im-migrants would surely ruin Amer-ica. And in the latter part of thetwentieth century, America was fig-uring out how to incorporate theteeming masses from South andCentral America. Thus, current con-troversies about Latino immigrationto the United States are hardly new.However, the events of 2006 illus-trate that the Latino experience isnow profoundly different in manyways. For a country so interested in border security and requiring workpermits, it says much about theUnited States that Latinos were ableto gather recently to demand rightsfor those without legal papers. TheLatino community is such a power-ful bloc that large groups of themcan assemble, essentially admit theirillegal status, and return to theirhomes without fear of deportation.Whether legal residents or illegalnewcomers, Latinos are a force inAmerican society.Yet, this powerful immigrant com-munity is putting a strain on na-tional policies for border control andlabor. As shown by the recent na-tional debate about illegal immigra-tion, many find it untenable to havemillions of Central and South Amer-icans simultaneously driving theeconomy while bypassing laws thatare designed for the whole world.Some say the United States should build a wall. Others suggest simplygranting amnesty to those who arehardworking and attempting to im-migrate. For both business and gov-ernment, neither solution is simple.Several trends indicate how thecurrent wave of immigration is dif-ferent from any in the nation’s pastand will bring new challenges andopportunities.Not all Latinos are coming to livein the United States permanently.Immigrants are coming to Americamore to find high-paying work for awhile than to become part of U.S.society. Historically, people emi-grated to the United States to escapepolitical repression or crushingpoverty. America has represented formany people the chance at a goodlife and unequaled freedom.Latino immigration today is hap-pening for a more mixed set of rea-sons. As society in South and Cen-tral America has progressed awayfrom military juntas and instability, basic political freedoms have beenmore assured, but the poverty re-mains. The drive to come north ismore likely to be economic than any-thing else.Many Latinos are now coming towork for short periods of time, makeenough money to send home to Peruor El Salvador, perhaps work until anew house is built, and then returnto their families. If you take a trip toany store in a Latino neighborhoodyou will likely see a man with a fist-ful of dollar bills filling out the formsfor Western Union, sending moneyto family members. The Salvadorangovernment calculates that thelargest contributor to its economy ismoney sent in from its people in theUnited States—more than $50 billionper year.On one hand, this new kind of im-migration is beneficial to all in-volved. Clearly, Latinos are findingwork, and the money is providingeconomic opportunities in othercountries where economic develop-
I realized the changing valuesamong Latino immigrants as theresult of an unlikely experience. Aclose friend of mine, Colombiansalsa singer Verny Varela, askedme to translate a song from Span-ish into English. This song wasabout the mixed races of the Latinculture, and how this mixed bloodwould keep the Latin people mov-ing forward. He wanted to re-record the song for an English-speaking audience.No song translates exactly, so inorder to make the song hang to-gether, I changed “moving for-ward”
to “seekingfreedom.” It rhymed, it was rhyth-mic, I used it a couple times.Verny was concerned. He ex-plained, “Eric, we already hadfreedom in Colombia. I can writeanything I want, even about thegovernment. We all came here because the pay is better.”While this isn’t as poetic interms of song lyrics, his point waswell taken—not all Latinos cometo America to stay and adhere tothe American culture for reasonsas abstract as freedom.—
New Song for a New Future
By Eric Garland