Xochilt's Tacos: A Metaphorical First Step Towards Healing the Emerging Racial Rift In Modern American Society.
The recent battle in the U.S. Senate over Comprehensive Immigration Reform, (CIR), exposed several rifts in the fabric of our society. There are no easy answers or quick fixes that can heal these rifts, although CIR would have been a good place to start. Clearly that will not be forthcoming in our immediate future, but to do nothing is to admit defeat. To do nothing would be to allow our current legal, political, and societal systems, such as they are, to deteriorate into further disarray and alienation. Therefore, proactive solutions are required. Where do we start? Assimilation.
The assimilation of the undocumented immigrant population into the mainstream of our culture can and would yield positive results on many levels, not the least of which would be to increase the quality of the lives of the immigrants. While one would think that quality of life should be the paramount reason to assimilate, in the crazy and wacky world of American politics, the assimilation of the undocumented immigrants into the mainstream of American society must proceed immediately for the ulterior motive of political expediency. If CIR is to happen here and now, or more accurately as soon as politically possible, it is clear that the Americans who are opposed to CIR need to be educated as to the benefits that CIR would impart on our society as a whole, including the legal citizen population. Since the facts are on the side of the pro-CIR argument, it is imperative that we chip away at their erroneous arguments against CIR. This can be done bit by bit, but I believe that we can and should start with assimilating the illegal immigrants into the melting pot, as this will benefit all parties concerned.
The old proverb, "familiarity breeds contempt", took on an ironic twist in our recent national debate, as it was the lack of familiarity that "exposed" a contempt that was already all too present among a very vocal minority of citizens. Clearly, the rancorous debate that was spawned by the now dormant CIR created a national "tension" that, while lethal to the passage of needed legislation on this issue at this time, might yet yield positive results on a national level. Clearly there is a deep racial divide that exists in our society, which thus exposed can be bridged, but it is the building of that bridge that must demand our focus and our energy.
The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke specifically and with prescient insight on this issue over 40 years ago, when he wrote the following passage: "But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension". I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that is was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for non-violent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."
Dr. King wrote that in his famous, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". I find it particularly ironic, but certainly not surprising, that is was Jeff Sessions, the senior senator from Alabama, that led the crusade against CIR in the recent senate debate. Wouldn't it make Dr. King smile up in Heaven if it turned out to be Sessions that was the gadfly that inadvertently helped men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism? That could possibly turn out to be the case, if we can harness the societal tension and refocus our energy on building bonds that will tie us together as a fully integrated society. That starts with familiarity, and familiarity starts with assimilation.
I have a couple of personal anecdotes that speak to the subject of familiarity leading toward assimilation that seem germane to this discussion. When my wife was a freshman at UCLA, (discretion prevents me from disclosing the decade), she befriended a student that had grown up in the south. After they had gotten to know each other, the girl was surprised to find out that my wife was Jewish, as she had never met a Jew before. She innocently asked if she could see my wife's horns? They eventually became close friends, but because she was completely unfamiliar with Jews, she didn't even realize that they were the same species.
I grew up in New York, but moved to Los Angeles when I was 10. I remember that my 6th grade class took a field trip to Olvera Street, which, for lack of a better explanation, is sort of like a Mexican version of China Town. I recall going with my teacher to a food stand, and ordering this exotic new dish called tacos. I watched my teacher, (an L.A. native), with a mixture of horror and fascination as she liberally garnished her taco with a generous portion of hot sauce, (probably salsa). I couldn't believe that she actually ate it! I'd never seen such bravery!
I mention this incident because it leads me to an important point. Living here in Los Angeles, integration is a lifestyle. For example, my kids played Little League baseball in a league that was approximately 45% Hispanic, 45% Caucasian, and 10% Black or Asian. We had two boys go through that league, so we spent the better part of a decade getting to know these people. We felt like a big, extended, integrated family. We shared our triumphs, troubles, and lives with each other. However, we especially shared Xochilt's Tacos. Xochilt, (pronounced so-che), was a parent who loved to cook, and always made her homemade tacos and salsa available at the snack bar. I can picture it now, a bleacher-load full of parents cheering their kids on, and all of us munching away on her delicious tacos. Yes, even I garnished my tacos with a generous portion of her salsa!
The point is that after years of hanging out with these people, our individual ethnicities weren't an issue, but merely an afterthought, if that. The better you get to know people, the less their heritage or race matter. You look to their character, and overlook their color. It has been my experience that by sharing our cultures openly, our differences unite us, rather then divide us. Call it the Xochilt Taco Principal.
If, through assimilation, the citizens of the United States get to know our illegal immigrant population on the basis of their character, then CIR is going to be a slam-dunk. To put this into perspective, consider that the illegal immigrants that migrated to this country did so because they had the character and fortitude to not only wish for a better life for themselves and their families, but to do something about it. They invested their lives, and their life's savings on themselves, and undertook the very perilous journey to get here. Once here, they only asked for hard work, and then did it without complaint. These are exactly the types of people that made America great.
Okay, so I know that immigrants are great people. Now I told you, so you know too. The question is, how do we get the whole country to recognize that our massive illegal immigrant population will make a positive contribution to our society, and not just to our economy, (although that point evidently needs to be made as well, but that's another whole story)? The answer is assimilation. Frankly, the responsibility for the lack of assimilation to date must be assumed in equal measure by both the illegal immigrant population and the established legal population. Certainly it takes two to Tango, but the immigrants must take the lead.
The effort required to assimilate into the general population is part of the cost of coming to this country, but I know that this investment will yield great dividends. First of all, every immigrant should make the effort required to learn to read, write, and speak English. It's step one, but it will benefit everyone in the end. If the illegal immigrant population improves their English skills, it will help their children speed their own assimilation as well. The kids need their parents to learn English, if for no other reason then to help the kids with their school and homework. The drop-out rates among the illegal immigrant population are abysmal, but by having English spoken at home, it will enable the parents to help the children to succeed in their studies, and stay on the path to graduation. Also, because classrooms can only advance as quickly as their slowest students, it will help our schools to proceed at a quicker pace, and therefore they will be able to teach a higher percentage of the curriculum then they currently are able to. This benefits the entire population, not just the immigrants.
By learning English, the immigrant population will benefit our economy by making our workforce more efficient. Furthermore, they will benefit themselves by providing a pathway to advancement in the workplace by improving their communication skills. If the goal of the illegal immigrant population is, in fact, to become Americans, then by all means, they must and will pursue the American Dream.
In terms of the additional steps that will be required for full assimilation into the fabric of American society, that probably cannot be achieved without some type of CIR. However, a partial assimilation will speed the progress to eventual passage of CIR. Therefore, I can only encourage our illegal immigrant population to step out of the shadows, (metaphorically), and make an effort to join in. For example, I would encourage those that are parents to join their children's school PTA, and become involved in their kid's schools. They should join youth athletic leagues, with an eye toward integrating with the non-immigrant population. They should become involved in the community, and again, not just the immigrant community, but the mainstream.
I know that it will not always be easy, so I don't want to sound condescending. There will be incidents of resistance. Overcome them. Americans are, by and large, a welcoming and friendly society. Many of the people that are against CIR are against it out of fear and ignorance. They fear that they are losing the safe and tidy "white" America that they grew up in, and they are ignorant of the positive aspects of the assimilation of 12,000,000 new immigrants. That fear and ignorance can only be overcome through time and experience. Time will take care of itself, but experience can only begin after assimilation. Words alone will not suffice. If the immigrant population shoulders the need for assimilation with the same energy and dedication that they continually display in the workplace, they will achieve the assimilation that they require and deserve. Will the inevitable assimilation come at the price of a generational loss of heritage and culture? Indeed it will, by generation, and by degree. This is inevitable too, and it is the same price that all immigrants have paid since our nation's inception. However, our illegal immigrant population should rest assured that while they have already paid a steep price to come here, and will still need to pay further steep costs in terms of money, energy, and patience to become Americans, they should know that they will have gotten the bargain of their lives, even if they had paid twice the price.
Robert Gittelson has been a garment manufacturer in the Los Angeles area for over 25 years. His wife, Patricia Gittelson, is an immigration attorney with offices in Van Nuys and Oxnard, California. Robert also works closely with Patricia on the administrative side of her immigration practice. Throughout his career, Mr. Gittelson has developed practical, first hand experience in dealing with the immigration issues that are challenging our country today.
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