The Chavez brothers prefer hip-hop to ranchero music, pizza to chile rellenos and basketball to soccer. For them, Mexico is an assortment of black-and-white photographs sitting on the mantel, some stories told to them by their parents and a few, brief visits during their childhood. "My dad, he understands some English. If you talk to him, he will try to talk back,” said Francisco Chavez, 15, a sophomore at Northwest Classen High School. "But it sounds all whacked, more like ‘Spanglish' than anything else.” Their father, a construction worker, speaks enough English to get by in the workplace. Their mother, who stays at home, speaks none at all. Around the dinner table, their native tongue dominates and their Mexican heritage is the prevailing culture. Out in the world, the opposite is true. A study sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a public policy research group, released May 13, suggests today's immigrants have done a better job of assimilating than immigrants of previous generations, but progress has been obscured by their numbers. Among immigrant groups, Mexicans have had the most difficulty when it comes to economic and civic assimilation, the study shows.
Many are able to keep speaking SpanishThe U.S. immigrant population has nearly tripled since the 1970s, and has doubled since 1990. In Oklahoma, immigrants account for nearly 30 percent of the state's population growth since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants assimilate slower in terms of economics and civics because of the proximity of their native countries, the dominance of the Spanish language and U.S. immigration policy, he said. "It's sort of unprecedented in American history to have immigrants so dominated by one language. So it becomes less necessary for immigrants to assimilate,” said Jacob Vigdor, Duke University professor and the report's author. "It does run a risk of forming a distinct sector in society, and I think that's what some people are worried about.”
Politics may help explain adaptabilityWhen Vinh Nguyen left Vietnam, he had no choice. He had been a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese April 30, 1975, he knew if he didn't escape, he would be killed. The new communist government already had confiscated his house, his car and his land. "I left that morning. I left my country by boat,” Nguyen said. "I left with one shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of shoes and not one penny.” He and his wife and four children crowded onto a boat with 30 others, assuming they would never see their homeland again. A man on the boat had a radio. After about 18 hours of sailing, they heard the voice of an American rescue vessel en route to rescuing a boat full of refugees. "When we heard this, we were all screaming with joy,” Nguyen said. "Since then, I think of myself as an American.” Today, Nguyen, of Oklahoma City, wears two flag pins on his lapel. One is the American flag and the other is commonly referred to as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom flag. It has a yellow field with three horizontal red stripes, symbolizing the unifying blood running through north, central and south Vietnam. Vietnamese and Cubans have been quickest to assimilate. Vigdor said this is explained by the politics of their native countries. "The set of individuals choosing to flee a communist nation likely include a high proportion of entrepreneurs or skilled workers,” Vigdor said. "These people were drawn from the economic elite of their home country, and they face very strong incentives to make their way here because they can't go back.” Nguyen arrived at age 34. He went to college and ultimately received a master's degree. In 1999, he returned to Vietnam for the first time to attend his mother's funeral. "I miss it, but I don't want to go back, not until there are no more communists,” Nguyen said.
Some regret the loss of their cultureNguyen raised his children speaking only English in the home. They have virtually lost their understanding of Vietnamese. "It's my fault that they cannot speak Vietnamese now. But I wanted them to be American. I wanted them to feel like they belonged here,” Nguyen said. "Now, sometimes, I regret making them lose that part of their culture.” The mainstream perspective of assimilation, Vigdor argues, is often oversimplified. "A lot of people are caught up on the cultural issues. What they appear to be advocating is that somehow using our language will make you a more active citizen,” Vigdor said. Canadians and Europeans have little difficulty adapting to our language and culture, the study shows, but they usually come for economic reasons, rarely naturalize and eventually return to their home countries. Immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and even Mexico are often more committed. "They are in it for the long haul,” Vigdor said. Around the dinner table, the Chavez brothers often are called to interpret more than language. They also decipher culture, music, fashion and even humor. Their parents have been here more than 20 years. But those years have been insulated. Their beliefs in the simplicity of work and family were fully formed before they came. Their understanding of the world around them remains strained, perhaps stifled by translation. "Sometimes, they just don't get it,” Luis Chavez said.
From left, Francisco, 15, and Luis Chavez, 19, are second-generation Mexican immigrants. BY DEVONA WALKER, THE OKLAHOMAN
Immigration in Oklahoma•Oklahoma's population increased by 9.8 percent between 1990 and 2000, and by 3.6 percent between 2000 and 2006, bringing Oklahoma's total population to approximately 3.6 million. •Approximately 28.5 percent of the total population increase between 2000 and 2006 in Oklahoma was directly attributable to immigrants. •Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates Oklahoma's illegal immigrant population in 2005 at 83,000, which ranks 22nd in the U.S. This number is 45 percent higher than the U.S. government estimate of 46,000 in 2000, and more than five times the 1990 estimate of 16,000. •According to an estimate of the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2005 there were an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 illegal immigrants living in Oklahoma. Source: Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Civic Innovation, The Manhattan Institute