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The Americanization of All of Us

An Editor's Note

September 10, 2006|Rick Wartzman

I once wrote a story about an advertising campaign aimed at Latino teenagers. The idea, ginned up by the marketing geniuses behind "Got Milk," was to entice this fast-growing group of consumers to reach into the fridge for a cool glass of leche instead of a Coke or some other kind of drink.

The California Milk Processor Board envisioned a cutting-edge TV spot that would resonate with those who straddle two worlds: one steeped in traditional Latino values, the other squarely part of teen America.

Along the way, though, something unexpected happened: Focus group research revealed that these kids thought the existing "Got Milk" commercials were hilarious. There was no need, the milk board concluded, to spend extra money targeting them in Spanglish.

I was reminded of all this as I read Jasmin Darznik's piece about the evolving (or is it dissolving?) state of dress among Iranian girls in California ("The Shah's New Clothes," page 46). Darznik recounts being at a recent family gathering where a 12-year-old, sporting "a black lace G-string peeking out from a pair of low-rise jeans," startled her. "She turned around, flashing me with the none-too-subtle pun emblazoned on her tank top: HOT FCUK . . . Iranian girls have definitely changed."

Or have they?

You hear a lot these days about how the fabric of U.S. society is being altered by a never-ending influx of immigrants. Xenophobes condemn this. Others, including me, celebrate it. But what often gets lost in both camps is how strong the pull is toward a homogenized nation--one in which we all wear the same garb, eat the same grub and watch the same shows.

"People always emphasize the Latinization of America," Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC, recently told CBS News, but "they don't look at what's happening to the Americanization of Latinos."

The path toward assimilation is rarely smooth or simple. Socioeconomic status, race, history, even international relations all play a part in how quickly and seamlessly newcomers are absorbed. So does the grip of an older generation, afraid of seeing a culture vanish.

"How shall we describe Americanization, except as loss?" Richard Rodriguez asks in his book "Days of Obligation." "America is the country where one stops being Italian or Chinese or German."

Ruben Rumbaut, a sociologist at UC Irvine, says there is one sure way, though, to slow the process. "The moment you start dissing people, putting them down, calling them names, they start digging in their heels" and clinging to their backgrounds as Mexicans or Koreans or whatever.

He's witnessed this "reactive ethnicity" countless times, including after the passage of Proposition 187. Suddenly, kids who had been feeling very "American" were "identifying as Mexican," he says. "It was a U-turn."

Will this happen again, with the current immigration debate? Perhaps. But invariably, the road veers back and runs straight toward the mainstream.

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