About twenty-five years ago, when I started college, I struck up a casual friendship with a Latina woman in one of my history classes. She told me that she was the first person in her family to have graduated from high school and, of course, the first to attend college. She said that her family reguarly berated her for wasting time and money getting an education when she could be working at McDonalds.
About twenty years ago, when I started law school, one of my classmates was a stunningly beautiful Chicana. It wasn't her beauty, though, that made her interesting, it was her story. As she told it, she attended law school in the face of fierce family opposition. This same opposition dogged her when she went to college. Indeed, she said that her family and friends all urged her to drop out of high school, telling her that she was wasting her time.
When I was growing up, my parents included amongst their friends a very, very upper class Spanish couple. They came from Puerto Rico's high society, and were the types who were deeply offended when lower status Hispanics addressed them, in Spanish, using the familiar, rather than the formal. Their children went on to become a physicist, a lawyer, and an MBA. About a decade ago, I ran into them on the street. When I asked them what they were doing, they told me that they had started a foundation to promote education within the Hispanic community. Their position was that the Hispanic immigrants' biggest problem in attaining academic proficiency wasn't prejudice, or lack of money, or even child-on-child peer pressure. It was the Hispanic parents' bone-deep disbelief in education. That is, unlike every other immigrant group in America that pushed its children through school in order to get a foothold in America's economic system, Hispanic immigrants, they said, strongly discouraged their children from attending school, considering it a waste of time.
A few days ago, I was talking to a friend who works in a public school district that has a large Hispanic population. She told me that it's normal for the parents not to know the name of their child's teacher. Indeed, she says, she's met many parents who don't even know the name of the school their child attends.
Whether hearing about it a quarter century ago or a few days ago, I'm always stunned by the anti-education attitude permeating the Hispanic community. I grew up with the typical Jewish reverence for learning, and attended schools filled to bursting with Asians displaying that same reverence. Each of these communities valued learning for its own sake and recognized that it was the fastest way out of the poverty attendant upon being a new immigrant. That last point emphasizes a standing goal immigrants traditionally have had: even if they can't benefit from American riches, they want their children to achieve. It's no secret that the Jewish American tradition is filled with jokes about "my son the doctor" and "my daughter the lawyer." Indeed, one of my favorite books is about a family that wants to "make it" in America through education — humorist Sam Levenson's wonderful Everything But Money.
And yet here we have an immigrant group that doesn't want to "make it" in America. So I have to ask myself, what do these immigrants want? Clearly, they want to come here, and many suffer terribly to make the journey. The immigrants have also shown that they fully expect government benefits: free health care, free education (at least through the 6th grade), welfare, etc. While the children are a mixed bag, the adult Hispanic immigrants have shown themselves to be hard workers at hard jobs — migrant field laborers, janitors, sweat shops employees, etc. The weirdness is that, as I discussed earlier in this post, even though these jobs are awful, they seem content to have their children work at the same jobs — and, indeed, push them to do so.
The picture that comes together therefore, is of an immigrant group that is voluntarily putting itself forward as a permanent underclass. The unspoken contract in the immigrant mind is that, if America will give Hispanics (usually illegal ones) the opiate of minimal free healthcare and some welfare, they and their children will do our dirty work indefinitely.
Although, in a superficial way, it's "nice" to have a group of people that's offering itself up as the serfs of capitalism, I think it's an appalling precedent for immigrants. America works because every new group comes prepared to labor at unpleasant jobs to create a better future for its children. These newcomers prime the economic and social pump with their energy, their willingness to work, and the infusion of new blood and ideas they bring to the next generation's working, middle and upper classes. To have a group position itself as a permanent underclass destroys the fluidity of the American immigrant system. It creates an impenetrable log jam at the bottom, with the result that both America's upper and lower echelons become stagnant and unworkable. In other words, to have a group that rejects the American dream will eventually destroy the American dream.
UPDATE: Apparently Teddy Roosevelt shared my belief that the great virtue of American immigration is assimiliation.