Immigration and Cultural Change

Cultural change is something we folklorists think about a great deal. My colleague Kristina Downs wrote a thoughtful post on “Community Folklore in Changing Communities” that considers the issue: What traditions do you celebrate when your community members have left, only to be replaced with newer residents who do not have any links to those traditions?

If the op-ed writers of the nation’s major newspapers are any indication, white America is experiencing significant angst about immigration and cultural change. They fear that the white Protestant way of life will be usurped by the “hoards” of Latinos who (gasp, shudder) may be amnestied if the new immigration reform bill becomes law. The irony here, as I see it, is that white America rarely sees the tragedy when they are the usurpers. What about all of those ethnic or African American neighborhoods that disappear was communities gentrify? Where is the moral outrage when historically black neighborhoods become the latest hip locales?

Here in San Miguel, I’ve uncovered something unusual: Mexicans do not seem to be overly concerned with the cultural changes that are part of the expat immigration here. My assistant and I have completed nearly 60 oral history interviews, and while foreign expats are concerned that their presence may make SMA less Mexican in the long run, Mexicans to not see this as a problem? Why? That part is not as easy to tease out. Sifting through the data, and this is very preliminary, there are few instances of Mexican-expat friendship and fellowship. In fact, when expats here have Mexican friends, they are more likely to be internal migrants from Mexico City or other parts of Mexico, but not San Miguel.

What I believe is going on here (and I will work to try to confirm over the course of the project) is that SMA natives are much more like their cohort in greater Western Mexico: they are family oriented, Catholic, and personally and politically conservative. They do not have much interest in the liberal lifestyles and politics of their new neighborhoods, so they live their lives, try to benefit from the booming economy, and in general, resist the cultural encroachments that come with immigration.

The Mexican Republic helps with this cultural maintenance, no doubt. There are federal laws which prohibit foreign residents from becoming involved in local politics. That means it is illegal for a foreign resident to participate in a protest, to express opinions against the government, and so on. I know that many of my gringo readers, recalling the mass protests in the U.S. a year ago, might call “Foul!” at this. Go ahead, but remember that Mexico historically has had significant problems with foreign interference. They do not mind expats living in their country, but this is a not so subtle reminder that it is, indeed, their country.

The article I’ve linked from today’s Washington Post discusses the American fear of Latinos as a pathology–“they’re not that different from us,” the author implores, and he’s right, to a point. The problem that is not address here, and rarely discussed in the U.S. is that our society is and has been fairly fluid. We’re a trendy nation, and because we do not have 500+ years of tradition to burden and maintain our way of life, we are more likely to succumb to different cultural influences. It’s they way we live in the U.S. Rarely have we seen many of those changes as negative. Yes, we lament that our lives are too busy, but then continue to schedule our six year-olds in four different activities. We pine nostalgically for “home town America,” yet never make time to talk to our neighbors in suburbia. We make these choices, folks. We can make others.

At the same time, I think we need to find a constructive way to talk about cultural loss in the U.S. Somehow we’ve allowed the polarized voices on the right and the left hijack civil discourse about issues that are important to us. Why would it be wrong to feel sad that the little community you grew up in is now gone, and populated with a new group of people who have no connection to that part of your life? If you value something, you should miss it when it disappears or changes.

The discussion I would love to have would ask, “if it was really important to you, that neighborhood or community, why did you let it go?” Native-born Mexicans in San Miguel have decided to hold on to what is important to them. That’s something to think about.

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One thought on “Immigration and Cultural Change

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Doc Deb: Cindi and I loved your Blog entry, “Immigration and Cultural Change”, and are so excited for your work. I personally am chomping at the bit for you to publish. Two things: For my next writing project I’ve been talking with Mexicans in GTO as well as expat who have lived here for decades. One American fellow, has lived in Mexico since he was 20 years old—now he’s in his 70—he is as fluent linguistically and culturally as can be. He is my ideal for my own fluency. He is familiar with the past and present GTO government. To the question, do the expats in Marfil want to create another SMA, his reply is that they want to but the government won’t allow it. The government apparently has considered the impact of the SMA expat community and has actually discussed how to prevent that from happening here. The second thing is, that I do not believe SMA expats nor GTO expats (the Marfil group) understand how dependent they are on bilingual Mexican through which they interface with the “real Mexican” community. Without the bilingual Mexicans in either town, the vast majority of Americans simply would have no way of coping with their monolingualism. And yet, these Americans tell me they judge their cultural fluency according to the amount of “Mexican Bilingual Friends” they have.—Just a few thought about which I’ve been researching.Doug and Cindi

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