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An Obsession to Become Unhealthy

September 20, 1998|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation."

SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe we need to put a sign at the border and in our international airports. WARNING: AMERICA MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH.

It has never been easy to be an immigrant. Imagine what those 19th-century immigrants knew, leaving certainty behind, abandoning Ireland and Italy and Russia, to travel to America. (In those days, an ocean's separation from loved ones was permanent as death.) What bravery, what recklessness the journey to Ellis Island required. What a price there was to pay for leaving certain poverty.

A study, headed by Professor William Vega of UC Berkeley and published last week, has found that Mexican immigrants suffer increased mental stress the longer they stay in this country. Rates of mental illness and other social disorders, like drug use and divorce, rise after immigration. Vega's team of researchers observed the breakdown of immigrant families within a generation, on a scale comparable to other Americans.

These findings are, at least, ironic. For generations, Americans have assumed moral superiority toward Latin America. Early this century, for example, citizens of San Diego traveled south, into Tijuana, whenever they wanted to sin. Just as today, Americans like to imagine that Mexican drug lords are contaminating our "innocent" youth.

The tables have turned. Four years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington warned Americans away from Mexican food. Eating a chile relleno is the equivalent of devouring a cube of butter! Now, U.S. professors warn immigrants away from burgers and fries.

A week before Vega's report, a panel of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine found that the longer an immigrant child lives in this country, the greater the chance of physical and psychological deterioration. The panel's chairman, Dr. Evan Charney of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, warned, "The longer you're in this country, the more you want to eat at McDonald's."

Immigrants. I see them all the time in California, their eyes filled with terror and wonder. Their jogging shoes have transported them from villages in Mexico or Central America into the postmodern city of freeways and peroxide and neon. How will they find their way?

Vega and his team of researchers studied the problems of Mexican immigrants in Fresno County. But the researchers would, I suspect, have come up with similar findings of social breakdown had they talked with young Mexicans in Tijuana. The poor are in movement, all over the world, from village to city, from tradition toward change.

Recently, in the boomtown of Monterrey, Mexico, I met teenagers, poor alongside rich, who were busy consuming drugs. Cocaine was evidence of their modernity, a habit that made them just like the Americans on TV and the movies. Monterrey has not yet turned as violent as Mexico City. But the women in the new factories, on the outskirts of town, know divorce.

All over the world, from Andean villages to Southeast Asia, America advertises the "I." You can drink America from a Coke bottle; you can dance America. America is seducing the young all over the world with the idea of individual freedom. Change. Movement. Dollars.

On the line between Tijuana and San Diego tonight, you can meet kids waiting for dark to run into the United States. They say they do not want to become Americans. They do not speak of Thomas Jefferson or the Bill of Rights. There is, they say, a job waiting for them in Glendale or Fresno. A job in a pizza parlor or a job as a roofer that will keep them and their families from going hungry.

The U.S. professors fret. The panelists for the National Research Council advise against attempts "to push immigrant youth toward assimilation." But they might as well bemoan the jet engine or the bicycle.

Movement. America is not an easy country for either the native-born or the immigrant. Everything keeps changing. In small towns in Arkansas today, Mexican immigrants arrive to pluck dead chickens because no one else will do it. They paint their houses gaudy colors, speak Spanish at the post office. Native-born Americans bemoan the change. They become foreigners in their own town.

The kid from Oaxaca ends up making pizzas in Santa Monica. He learns English by hearing "Hold the pepperoni!" Day after day, he breathes America. America flows into his ears--California slang, the thump of rap. There is no resisting it.

Assimilation is more a biological process than a matter of choice. Immigrant kids end up breathing America, swallowing America. When you approach the counter at McDonald's, you buy more than a burger: You buy an American spirit of impatience. Immigrants end up walking like the native-born, assuming the same nervous slouch.

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