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Y'all say hola to the future

May 21, 2006|Michael Skube | Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Skube teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina.

IT'S 9 O'CLOCK, the sun has set and I'm going to chill out. I take two soft tortillas, spread on each a layer of fat-free refried beans, follow that up with a generous sprinkling of jack cheese, pop 'em in the microwave for a minute and then give 'em a few squirts of Texas Pete.

I'd like to say I have a more sophisticated palate, and once in a while I do. But when I want to put the cares of the day behind me, I head south of the border. It's the meal of a Mexican peasant, and it's as American as pizza.

The proliferation of Mexican restaurants in the United States began decades ago, before the proliferation of illegal Mexican workers. But the two do not intersect. We've appropriated the quesadillas and the enchiladas. We can make them well enough here. The workers -- well, better that they stay home. Or go home.

Such is the ambivalence -- to put it mildly -- of many Americans toward Mexican immigrants, especially the illegal ones. We like what they've given us to eat, but we wouldn't much like them at the table with us. We see them at Wal-Mart, bronze as pennies and so different from us. There are so many of them, enough that we feel like a minority. Like Anglos feel when they go to Dade County, Fla., and hear nothing but Spanish. Doesn't anyone speak English here? Hey, this is America, y'know.

Miami and Dade County were Cubanized. Spanish achieved dominance. The huge influx of Mexican immigrants since 1980 -- not just to Los Angeles and Southern California but also to the Southwest and the South -- portends a broader erosion of English. A nation whose first language was once English could become bilingual, its identity part Latino and part Anglo.

This is the unstated reason that many people oppose President Bush's plan to legalize as many as 11 million undocumented workers. Conservative Republicans in the House, in opposing both Bush's plan and a Senate immigration bill close to the president's wishes, object to legalizing undocumented workers, calling it amnesty. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans are with them. They expect immigrants to play by the rules, as many of their forebears did.

But there is something else at work: Many Americans sense that the nation's identity, long under siege in the schools and universities by multiculturalism, is up for grabs. More than religion or race, more than ethnicity or political persuasion, language defines us as a people. Before long, many worry, an American is going to be anyone who merely lives and works here, and there's a good chance he will speak Spanish.

The cliche -- colorfully emblazoned on some wall of elementary schools across the land -- is that "We Are All Immigrants." True enough, wave upon wave of immigrants have come ashore, from Germany and Ireland, Italy and Poland, from Asia and Africa. None was welcomed but most, in time, assimilated, leaving one culture and one language behind and adopting a new culture and learning a new language. They became Americans. And in doing so, they enriched the nation in immeasurable ways. We all know the story, even if we forget the resentment and prejudice.

Now comes another wave, except these immigrants are mostly coming not from across an ocean but from next door. And they are coming by the millions, some legally, others slipping across the border, unseen. Because they are coming from a contiguous country, many see them as threatening the nation's ability to control who does and who does not enter -- and, by extension, its sovereignty.

Here are some figures. In 1960, the census showed that immigrants to the U.S. came principally from five countries -- Italy, Germany, Canada, Britain and Poland. They numbered 4.7 million in total, with Italy's 1.25 million leading all others.

According to the 2000 census, the Mexican immigrant population in the U.S. was 7.8 million -- and that counts only those who came here legally. No other country was even close; China, with 1.4 million immigrants in the U.S., was second.

"Contemporary Mexican immigration is unprecedented in American history," Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his 2004 book, "Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity." The United States, he argued, might be a nation of immigrants, but it was also one whose institutions and political culture were Anglo-Protestant. What's more, that foundation was laid not by immigrants who came later but by English settlers. Huntington's book provoked a firestorm of dissent. But it also touched a nerve because of his unapologetic reverence for an Anglo heritage and his analysis of recent Mexican immigration.

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