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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 has struggled with immigration issues in nearly every generation. Back in the nineteenth century, Americans of English descent resisted the onslaught of Irish settlers. Massachusetts was alarmed at the “alien horde” of French Canadians in the textile factories “taking good jobs from real Americans.” Around the turn of the twentieth century, xenophobic critics wrote diatribes about how the criminal mind of Italian immigrants would surely ruin America. And in the latter part of the twentieth century, America was figuring out how to incorporate the teeming masses from South and Central America. Thus, current controversies about Latino immigration to the United States are hardly new. However, the events of 2006 illus-


By Eric Garland trate that the Latino experience is now profoundly different in many ways. For a country so interested in border security and requiring work permits, it says much about the United States that Latinos were able to gather recently to demand rights for those without legal papers. The Latino community is such a powerful bloc that large groups of them can assemble, essentially admit their illegal status, and return to their homes without fear of deportation. Whether legal residents or illegal newcomers, Latinos are a force in American society. Yet, this powerful immigrant community is putting a strain on national policies for border control and labor. As shown by the recent na-

New Song for a New Future
I realized the changing values among Latino immigrants as the result of an unlikely experience. A close friend of mine, Colombian salsa singer Verny Varela, asked me to translate a song from Spanish into English. This song was about the mixed races of the Latin culture, and how this mixed blood would keep the Latin people moving forward. He wanted to rerecord the song for an Englishspeaking audience. No song translates exactly, so in order to make the song hang together, I changed “moving forward” (echa pa’lante) to “seeking freedom.” It rhymed, it was rhythmic, I used it a couple times. Verny was concerned. He explained, “Eric, we already had freedom in Colombia. I can write anything I want, even about the government. We all came here because the pay is better.” While this isn’t as poetic in terms of song lyrics, his point was well taken—not all Latinos come to America to stay and adhere to the American culture for reasons as abstract as freedom. —Eric Garland

tional debate about illegal immigration, many find it untenable to have millions of Central and South Americans simultaneously driving the economy while bypassing laws that are designed for the whole world. Some say the United States should build a wall. Others suggest simply granting amnesty to those who are hardworking and attempting to immigrate. For both business and government, neither solution is simple. Several trends indicate how the current wave of immigration is different from any in the nation’s past and will bring new challenges and opportunities. Not all Latinos are coming to live in the United States permanently. Immigrants are coming to America more to find high-paying work for a while than to become part of U.S. society. Historically, people emigrated to the United States to escape political repression or crushing poverty. America has represented for many people the chance at a good life and unequaled freedom. Latino immigration today is happening for a more mixed set of reasons. As society in South and Central America has progressed away from military juntas and instability, basic political freedoms have been more assured, but the poverty remains. The drive to come north is more likely to be economic than anything else. Many Latinos are now coming to work for short periods of time, make enough money to send home to Peru or El Salvador, perhaps work until a new house is built, and then return to their families. If you take a trip to any store in a Latino neighborhood you will likely see a man with a fistful of dollar bills filling out the forms for Western Union, sending money to family members. The Salvadoran government calculates that the largest contributor to its economy is money sent in from its people in the United States—more than $50 billion per year. On one hand, this new kind of immigration is beneficial to all involved. Clearly, Latinos are finding work, and the money is providing economic opportunities in other countries where economic develop-



January-February 2007


ment has not always succeeded. But this phenomenon is precisely what many fear about illegal immigration. Millions are coming from the south, not to seek freedom and become part of the American experience through citizenship, but to “sneak” in, make some money, send billions to other countries, and leave when the work is done. Thus, a conflict could rise between those Latinos who immigrate temporarily, returning once they’ve earned enough money to pay for a new house back home, and those who intend to stay and integrate into U.S. society. Those who stay will have to face the political pressure aimed at those who do not. Unlike other groups of immigrants in past centuries, Latinos keep their language and culture much longer. This will become a new experiment in bilingualism in the United States. Fully 66% of the planet is bilingual—

most people live in places where there are neighbors who don’t speak the same language, and so you need extra language skills to do business. Today, America is increasing its population that truly lives in two languages. In less than two generations’ time, there will be Latinos who will never have known a time when they couldn’t receive services in the United States using Spanish. At that point, Spanish will be a bigger force in the culture, resulting in even greater political tension. The world is watching how the United States manages its immigrant issues, because other countries face similar problems. There are fourthgeneration Turks in Germany, North Africans who have lived in France for several generations, and Koreans and Filipinos in Japan. Whereas America’s “melting pot” tradition of equality has encouraged immigrants to quickly shed their nationality and

declare themselves American, other countries have no history of admitting new ethnicities into their national identity. The French recently had riots because of the persistent economic exclusion of their immigrants, and now the government is wondering how to encourage employers to hire those with non-French names. The Netherlands, normally an inclusive, peaceful society, is experiencing a backlash due to the tensions caused by immigration. The United States, as a cultural laboratory, could lead the world in learning to manage immigration and meet the challenge of integrating many nationalities.
Eric Garland is principal of Competitive Futures Inc. (www.competitivefutures.com) and author of Future, Inc.: How Business Can Anticipate and Profit from What’s Next (AMACOM, 2006). ■

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January-February 2007