HS News Network
Photo: caldo de pollo
When people talk of the ethnic diversity in the United States, they oftentimes refer to the American “melting pot,” the historically-popular image of America as a confluence of different backgrounds into a singular American identity. Although such an image of America seems ideal, the melting pot comparison has the potential to be more sinister when it is used to pressure immigrant groups to trade their heritage and customs for America’s own cultural traditions. Despite popular notions, America has no official ethnic background – no official religion or language either. The United States of America was founded, in principle, as the world’s first multicultural nation.
When the Founding Fathers severed their legal ties to the British Empire, they also severed their ties to its culture; it would’ve seemed awkward for them to say that, although they were now Americans, they were also still British. The nature of the American Revolution makes it unique among other revolutions for the fact that it created a new brand of individual – the American. The French, of course, were still the French after their revolution, just as the Russians were still the Russians after theirs. And while much of America’s early heritage originated in the British Isles, being of British descent was not a prerequisite to being an American. From 1776 onward the American identity would be forged from the people who lent their hands to build this country. For instance, Alexander Hamilton – one of America’s Founding Fathers and its first Treasury Secretary – was an immigrant from what is now the Caribbean island of Nevis. America was to be a land of opportunity for all, fundamentally if not always actually.
It took the United States over half a century to realize that every person born in the country had the right to citizenship; it took another full century for the nation to protect that right. Since its birth, however, America’s self-perceived identity has broadened over time, as waves of Irish, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians, Jews, and now Latinos have immigrated to the United States. The United States has become what the Founding Fathers hoped it would be – an international laboratory of sorts, where ideas from around the world are brought, tested, perfected, and then exported back to the rest of the world.
Yet whenever the United States experiences a wave of immigration at a time when the nation is suffering a certain set of woes, it seems easy for many Americans to lump the immigrant group and the troubles together into one package of fear and resentment. Irish Catholics were widely antagonized in 19th-century America as bringing street gangs, domestic violence, alcoholism, and popery to the United States. European Jews were targeted as anti-Christian moneymakers bent on undermining American society by injecting socialism. Asians were characterized as villainous half-men who lured unsuspecting white women into opium dens, only to violate the women sexually once they were incapacitated. Italians were labeled as mafiosi. Blacks were deemed dangerously animalistic beasts of burden turned loose. But since the perceived threat that certain groups seemed to pose began to diminish, their members’ presence in American society has enjoyed increasing seamlessness.
Now it appears it is the Latino community’s turn to be viciously victimized by America’s penchant for fear. As America struggles to wage a global war on terrorism while climbing out of its steepest economic dive since World War II, the rapid increase of Latinos among American ranks is like to continue fostering hatred and resentment toward Latinos in the coming decade. Some Americans don’t like to see America’s culture evolve into something new and different, especially when they perceive America’s culture as being aligned with their own ethnic culture. Simply put, many Americans don’t want American culture to be anything other than Anglo-Saxon in origin – that means no carne asada, no Virgen de Guadalupe, and no español.
Latinos need not feel pressured to conform to American culture, because that has never been a part of what it means to be an American. Ironically, the American melting pot is less like a homogenous tomato soup and more like a variegated caldo de pollo. On the prerequisite tools of success in this country – a strong education, a solid work ethic, proper planning skills, frugal spending habits, and knowledge of the English language – it should be reminded that they are all good suggestions, not legal requirements. One virtue that goes beyond mere suggestion is an unshakable commitment to liberty, justice, and democracy. If you contribute to American society and worship those three principles, you are an American, regardless of where you’re from or what language you speak.
In the end, the face of America cannot change, because America has no face to begin with. America is an idea thought up over two centuries ago that we Americans today must dedicate our lives to preserving and passing on to future generations.
Today’s contributor is Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. Hector is a freelance writer and community activist of Honduran-Puerto Rican descent living in Chicago. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his departmental concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. In 2007 he co-founded an online blog, YoungObservers, and has remained its main contributor. Since 2010 he’s been the Opinions editor for the Chicago Flame, and he also contributes periodically for Examiner.com as its Chicago City Buzz Examiner. He is currently working on his first book.