Why aren't Latinos learning English? Do they really want to take over the Southwestern United States? Political pundits have made their careers debating these questions, but UCI anthropology professor Leo Chavez provides answers and exposes myths in his latest book, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation. Chavez recently spoke about immigration and the 2008 election, May Day rallies, and the surprising way Latino culture is changing American culture.
Q. Why did you title your book The Latino Threat?
A. The title reflects the public discourse so prevalent on TV shows such as "Lou Dobbs Tonight," radio talk shows, books and Internet blogs where Latinos, especially Mexicans, are vilified for all sorts of imagined problems. It seemed to me that it has become rather easy to beef up your audience or rile up people by invoking the so-called threat to American society by Latino immigrants and their children.
Q. How are Latino immigrants changing American culture?
A. They bring new ideas to the U.S. - ideas about sports (soccer), humor, music, dance, food, hard work, personal responsibility, and the importance of family, beauty, among many other things.
Q. What myths about Latinos are you hoping to dispel?
A. The myths include assertions that Latinos don't want to learn English, they don't want to learn and engage in American culture, they want to remain isolated and separated from the larger U.S. society, and they are engaged in a generations-long conspiracy to take over the United States. None of these myths can stand in the face of empirical evidence. For example, only 3.8 percent of third-generation Latinos in Orange County speaks Spanish at home. In the second generation, only a fifth speak all or mostly Spanish at home. Clearly, Latinos are learning English.
Q. How will immigration reform impact the 2008 presidential election?
A. I think those who oppose immigration and any form of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will force both John McCain and Barack Obama to take a more hard-line stance against immigration given their past positions on the issue.
Q. What do you think will be the long-term impact of the May 1, 2006, immigration rallies?
A. On the one hand, immigrants realize that when their very existence is threatened, they can come together peacefully in large numbers to have their voices heard. On the other hand, those who oppose immigration can turn the immigrants' visible desires for inclusion into reasons why immigration should be restricted. So, the marches were able to get Congress to throw out some of the more outrageous parts of the House of Representatives bill passed in December of 2005 - those that made being undocumented a felony. At the same time, the marches added fuel to efforts to put more funds and resources into immigration control and border surveillance.
Q. How are Latinos similar to earlier immigrant groups? How are they different?
A. Latinos are similar to other immigrant groups in that they come to share in the benefits of this country's economic opportunities. However, they are different from some of the other recent immigrant groups in their willingness to undergo the hardships of migration and low-paid occupational prospects for many years - in some cases, generations. The U.S. has benefited from their endurance. --
--by Laura Rico, University Communications