Layout 1 mexican americans and immigrant incorporation by edward e. telles 29winter 2010 contexts Contexts, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp XXXXXXXXXXISSN XXXXXXXXXX, electronic ISSN XXXXXXXXXX. © 2010 American...

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mexican americans
and immigrant incorporation
by edward e. telles
29winter 2010 contexts
Contexts, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp XXXXXXXXXXISSN XXXXXXXXXX, electronic ISSN XXXXXXXXXX. © 2010 American Sociological Association.
All rights reserved. For permission to photocopy or reproduce, see DOI:
10.1525/ctx XXXXXXXXXX.
The European American experience of incorporation is
often described using the language and framework of “assim-
ilation,” wherein immigrants or their descendants eventually
become an indistinguishable part of the dominant or main-
stream society. However, an increasing number of sociologists
argue that this may not always be true: today’s immigrants are
far less homogenous and encounter distinct circumstances and
conditions when they arrive in the U.S. and as they become
part of its society. For example, unlike the immigration of pre-
dominately low-skilled Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, today’s immigrants are mostly from Latin America
and Asia, they have varied skills and educational backgrounds,
and many work in labor markets that offer fewer opportuni-
ties than before. The experience of today’s immigrants with
American society and culture, in other words, is more varied and
uncertain than the old models can allow.
At the extreme, pundits like political scientist Samuel Hunt-
ington have argued that some new immigrants have not assim-
ilated (or will not assimilate) and so they are a threat to
American national unity. Similar, though usually more muted,
claims about immigrant assimilation often involve cultural, eco-
nomic and political worries about the new immigrants, which
incidentally were similar to those raised during previous cycles
of immigration. In any case, a careful
examination of the evidence is impor-
tant in order to design appropriate
immigration and immigrant incorpo-
ration policies.
For examining the full range and
complexity of the contemporary incor-
poration process, Mexican Americans,
with their history, size, and internal
diversity, are a very useful group. Their
multiple generations since immigra-
tion, variation in their class back-
grounds, the kinds of cities and
neighborhoods they grew up in, and
their skin color may reveal much
about diverse patterns of immigrant
incorporation in American society
today. Unlike the study of most other
non-European groups, the study of
Mexican Americans allows analysts to
examine the sociological outcomes of
adults into the third and fourth generations since immigration.
some history
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 30 million
people of Mexican origin currently live in the United States,
and 13 million of them are immigrants. Mexicans comprise the
largest group of immigrants in the U.S.—28 percent—so what
happens to them and their descendants largely reflects what
will happen to today’s immigrants in general.
Moreover, Mexicans have been “coming to America” for
over 150 years (before Americans came to them), and so there
are several generations of U.S.-born Mexican Americans for us
to study. (Ironically, analysts have mostly overlooked the fact that
Mexican immigration is part of the old, or classic, period of
immigration—seen as primarily European—as well as the new.)
Each of these generations, successively more removed from
the first-generation immigrant experience, informs our under-
standing of incorporation.
But first, we must start with approximately 100,000 Mexi-
cans who instantly became Americans following the annexation
of nearly half of Mexico’s one-time territory. Since that year, Mex-
ican immigration has been continuous, with a spike from 1910
through 1930. A second peak, beginning in 1980, continues
Mexico shares a 2,000-mile bor-
der with the United States. Until
recently, Mexican immigration has
been largely seasonal or cyclical and
largely undocumented. The relative
ease of entry and tight restrictions set
by the U.S. government on immigrant
visas for Mexicans have created a
steady undocumented flow, which
has increased in recent years. Demog-
raphers estimate that 7million undoc-
umented Mexican immigrants now
live in the U.S.
The issue of race has also been
important to the Mexican American
experience throughout history. The
U.S. based its conquest of the for-
merly Mexican territory (the current
U.S. Southwest) on ideas of manifest
destiny and the racial inferiority of the
Sociologists, public policy-makers, and the general public usually try
to anticipate how modern immigrants and their descendants will
become part of American society by comparing their experiences
to those of European immigrants a century or more ago.
area’s racially mixed inhabitants. Throughout the 19th and early
20th centuries, race-based reasoning was often used to segregate
and limit Mexican American mobility. However, prior to the civil
rights movement, Mexican American leaders strategically empha-
sized their Spanish roots and sought a white status for the group
to diminish their racial stigma.
These leaders associated their belief in whiteness with the
goal of middle-class assimilation, which they saw as possible for
groups like southern and central Europeans, who were not
considered fully white at the time. Indeed, historians like David
Roediger show that European Americans were able to become
white and thus fully included in American society through state
benefits, such as homeownership subsidies, that were largely
denied to African Americans.
Mexican Americans didn’t, however, succeed in position-
ing themselves on the “white track.” Jim Crow-like segrega-
tion persisted against them until the 1960s, when a Chicano
movement in response to discrimination in education and other
spaces emerged among young Mexican Americans. The move-
ment encouraged ethnic and racial pride by opposing contin-
ued discrimination and exclusion and drew on symbols of
historic colonization.
Only a fewMexican Americans today can trace their ances-
try to the U.S. Southwest prior to 1848, when it was part of
Mexico, but this experience arguably has implications for the
Mexican-origin population overall. This history of colonization
and subsequent immigration, the persistence of racial stigma-
tization by American society, and the particular demographics
involved in Mexican immigration and settlement make the Mex-
ican American case unique and informative.
the mexican american study project, 1965 to 2000
In 1993, my collaborator, Vilma Ortiz, and I stumbled upon
several dusty boxes containing the questionnaires for a 1965
representative survey of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and
San Antonio. We believed that a follow up survey of these
respondents and their children would provide a rare but much-
needed understanding of the intergenerational incorporation
experiences of the Mexican American population. Indeed, based
upon this data set, we initiated a 35-year longitudinal study. In
2000, we set out to re-interview 684 of the surviving respon-
dents and 758 of their children.
The original respondents were fairly evenly divided into
three generations: immigrants (1st generation), the children
of immigrants (2nd), and the grandchildren of immigrants (or
later generations-since-immigration—the 3rd+). Their children,
then, are of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th+ generations. Using their
responses from 2000, we examined change across these four
generations regarding education, socioeconomic status, lan-
guage, intermarriage, residential segregation, identity, and
political participation.
We found that Mexican Americans experienced a diverse
pattern of incorporation in the late 20th
century. This included rapid assimila-
tion on some dimensions, slower assim-
ilation and even ethnic persistence on
others, and persistent socioeconomic
disadvantage across generations.
In terms of English language acqui-
sition and development of strong American identities, these
Mexican Americans generally exhibit rapid and complete assim-
ilation by the second generation. They show slower rates of
assimilation on language, religion, intermarriage, and residen-
tial integration, although patterns can also indicate substantial
ethnic persistence. For example, 36 percent of the 4th gener-
ation continues to speak Spanish fluently (although only 11
percent can read Spanish), and 55 percent feel their ethnicity
is very important to them (but, often also feel that “being
American” is very important to them). Spanish fluency clearly
erodes over each generation, but only slowly.
The results for education and socioeconomic status show
far more incomplete assimilation. Schooling rapidly improves
in the 2nd generation compared to the 1st but an educational
gap with non-Hispanic whites remains in the 3rd and even by
the 4th and 5th generation among Mexican Americans. (This
stands in contrast to the European immigrants of the previous
century who experienced full educational assimilation by the
3rd.) Although we see that conditions for Mexican Americans
in 2000 have reportedly improved from their parents in 1965,
the education and socioeconomic status gap with non-His-
panic white Americans remains large, regardless of how many
generations they have been in the U.S. The 2000 U.S. Census
The experience of today’s immigrants with
American society and culture is more varied and
uncertain than the old models can allow.
showed that, among 35 to 54 year olds born in the in the U.S.,
only 74 percent of Mexican Americans had completed high
school compared to 90 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 84
percent of blacks, and 95 percent of Asians.
The graph at right illustrates the contrasting incorpora-
tion trajectories for Mexican Americans on Spanish language
retention and education. While we see a large gain in educa-
tion between immigrants and their 2nd-generation children,
there is a slight decline in education to the 3rd and 4th gen-
eration. Figure 1 also reveals a slow but certain linear trend
toward universal English monolingualism. In other words, edu-
cational assimilation remains elusive, but complete linguistic
assimilation—or the loss of Spanish bilingualism—is nearly
reached by the 5th generation.
Indeed, consistent with at least a dozen other studies, our
evidence suggests that when the education of parents and other
factors are similar across generational groups, educational attain-
ment actually decreases in each subsequent generation.
the continuing importance of race and
A high percentage of the Mexican Americans in our study
claim a non-white racial identity. Even into the 3rd and 4th gen-
erations, the majority see themselves as non-white and believe
they are stereotyped because of their ancestry. Nearly half report
personal incidents of racial discrimination. Race continues to be
important for them, and Mexican continues to be a race-like
category in the popular imagination in much of the Southwest.
In addition, the predominance and undocumented status of
Mexican immigration coupled with large doses of anti-Mexican
nativism may stigmatize all members of the group, whether
immigrant or U.S.-born.
In many places, Mexican Americans are intermediate in
the racial hierarchy, situated between whites and blacks (and
newly arrived Mexican immigrants). Our survey did not directly
examine the process through which race or racial stigma lim-
its Mexican Americans. However, based on our in-depth inter-
views and other evidence, it seems that this occurs through
both personal and institutional racial discrimination as well as
through the internalization of a race-based stigma (which may
affect life strategies and ambitions, especially during school-
ing). The geographical proximity of an underdeveloped and
misunderstood Mexico and the persistent immigration of poorly
educated (and often undocumented) Mexican workers may
also reinforce the low status and the self-perceptions of Mex-
ican Americans.
Low levels of education across generations also slows
assimilation on other dimensions. Less-educated Mexican Amer-
icans of all generations earn less, are in less prestigious occu-
pations, and are less likely to own their home than if they had
more education. They are also more likely to live among,
befriend, and marry other Mexican Americans; tend to have
more children than their more-educated counterparts; are less
likely to strongly identify as American; are less likely to vote; and
are more tied to the Democratic party.
Finally, the large size and urban concentration of this pop-
ulation facilitates in-group interaction and limits exposure to out-
group members. It also provides a large market for Spanish
language media. Along with these, the continuous flow of
immigrants from Mexico reinforces Spanish language fluency
and use and provides incentives for later generation Mexican
Americans to continue speaking Spanish. Also, the common use
of Spanish language may raise nativist ire, which, in turn, may
sharpen ethnic and racial identities for later generation Mexican
lessons for immigrant incorporation
The Mexican American incorporation experience
is not easy to sum up or generalize. But in many ways,
that is precisely the point. The findings from the Mex-
ican American Study Project demonstrate a range of
outcomes and experiences. There are dimensions on
which Mexican Americans assimilate as would be
expected by the traditional (and most optimistic) the-
ories. At the same time, there are other domains in
which their experience is one of limited assimilation
and even ethnic persistence. Particularly problematic
is their experience in the educational realm, which
31winter 2010 contexts
Educational and lingusitic incorporation in 2000
Level of assimilation
Complete assimilation
Years of schooling deficit
Generations since immigration
English monolingualism
Source: Mexican American Study Project (from multivariate analysis among children)
leads to persistent socio-economic disadvantage
across generations. Racial differences and stigmas
can further contribute to these disadvantages,
though the persistence of linguistic and other eth-
nic differences may be beneficial in other ways.
Perhaps because of immigration’s centrality to
the economy and social policies regarding immi-
grant incorporation, the heated immigration
debates today are largely about whether or how
long it will take the descendants of immigrants
to assimilate in terms of schooling and the job
market. In framing the debates about immigrant
incorporation simply in these terms, we have neg-
lected other dimensions of that process. The Mex-
ican American case clearly demonstrates the
multifaceted nature of the incorporation experi-
ence. Moreover, it has clear implications for how
Americans—scholars and policy makers as well as the lay pub-
lic—think about the incorporation of new generations of immi-
grants in their midst.
For example, there is a tendency to exaggerate the consis-
tency of assimilation across dimensions. While examining the
heterogeneous Mexican American population, we have shown
that incorporation on particular dimensions may directly affect
others and that the speed and direction of these dimensions
may vary in unexpected ways.
To be certain, we have found that education affects nearly
all other dimensions of assimilation. Moreover, we have also
found that residential integration is a key intermediate vari-
able where low education impedes one’s ability to afford hous-
ing in an integrated middle class neighborhood, which in turn
slows other dimensions such as intermarriage. A generation
later, children who grew up in integrated neighborhoods and
whose parents were intermarried are more likely to assimilate
themselves. There may also be gradual assimilation on dimen-
sions like retaining an ethnic language and increasing inter-
marriage, at the same time that there is rapid assimilation on
learning English or no assimilation on educational attainment
after the 2nd generation.
The study of Mexican Americans also points to the impor-
tance of looking at the diversity of the immigrant incorporation
experience within groups. Previous findings mostly compare
group averages or statistical distributions. We find, for example,
that Mexican Americans in the second generation and beyond
have lower educational levels and are more likely to end up with
working class jobs than other groups. But, we also found a
diversity of economic experiences among Mexican Americans,
ranging from a few who move into the middle class and fall out
of the ethnic community to others who are poor and are strongly
rooted in the ethnic community, even into the 4th generation.
We often forget about the importance of history. This is
understandable since many immigrant groups arrived at a spe-
cific time point so most group members experienced the same
historical events. Most Italians that came to the United States,
for example, arrived in the first fifteen years of the 20th cen-
tury and experienced World War I as immigrants, World War
II as 2nd-generation ethnics, and as 3rd-generation Italian
Americans fully integrated into the American mainstream by the
For Mexican Americans, though,
successive waves of immigrants have
led to generations that experienced
different historical events. We found
that the experiences of incorporation
for Mexican Americans depend largely
on where they are inserted in history.
The Mexican American Study Project disentangled generations-
since-immigration from historical generations. By doing so, we
found, for example, that the educational gap with whites has
been narrowing for adults educated in the 1970s and 80s com-
pared to those educated at mid-century. Spanish fluency has
also diminished in recent decades for Mexican Americans of
comparable generations-since-immigration. These are both
indicators of group assimilation over historical time, though
educational assimilation does not necessarily occur over gen-
Connected with this is the importance of examining mul-
tiple generations and at ages when they have completed their
education and are well into their careers. Other empirical stud-
ies of incorporation have examined only the second generation
A visitor looks at portraits made using fingerprints in the show ”A Declaration
of Immigration” at the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL.
The Mexican American experience in education is
particularly problematic and leads to persistent
socio-economic disadvantage across generations.
that are in their 20s at the oldest, compared to their immigrant
parents. This is largely due to the policy-related concerns of
funders and researchers about how the children of the current
wave of immigrants are faring. Our respondents, though,
include the 3rd and 4th generation as
well and are in their 30s, 40s and 50s,
ages when they are more likely to have
formed families and to have already
availed themselves of the second
chances that American society often
provides, including the GED and occu-
pational skills training. This gives us a
fuller picture of incorporation.
Previous studies of incorporation have also generally over-
looked local context. We also showed substantial variation in
how Mexican Americans growing up in Los Angeles and San
Antonio were incorporated. Overall, Mexican Americans in San
Antonio had more ethnic lifestyles and behaviors, including
retaining Spanish fluency into the third and fourth generation,
but they were more politically conservative and identified as
white to a greater extent than their Angeleno counterparts.
However, educational disadvantage was similar in the two
urban areas. Variations in urban contexts are likely to affect
how some immigrants or groups of immigrants and their
descendants incorporate into society, especially as some areas
place greater demographic or political pressures on assimila-
tion. These factors may help account for differences in the
incorporation of Mexican Americans compared to European
Americans, whose ancestors arrived to New York and other
east coast cities.
Finally, many previous studies of incorporation have empha-
sized a core to which immigrants and their descendants assim-
ilate. But the case of Mexican Americans reminds us of the
importance of a long-standingMexican American core, which has
arguably been a dominant model for assimilation for descen-
dants of Mexican immigrants in many Southwest urban areas.
This ethnic-based core represents models for Mexican American
incorporation including acceptable occupations or class posi-
tions as well as cultural styles and models of political action.
Americans like to repeat the American narrative of immi-
grant success and assimilation, but that story doesn’t describe
the experience of many of today’s immigrants. Even worse, to
insist on the assimilation narrative as the story of all immigrants
ignores the need for policies that address the specific needs
and situations of different groups of immigrants. This neglect—
born of a certain kind of historical optimism—comes at the
peril of the lives of many Americans. But it also limits educa-
tional policies appropriate for the American economy, which
increasingly requires an educated, employed, and integrated
workforce and populace to maintain its international edge.
Perhaps the most basic and important lesson of the Mex-
ican American incorporation experience, then, is the danger
of trying to understand all immigrants with a single, one-size-
fits-all model.
Recommended Resources
Richard Alba and Victor Nee. Remaking the American Mainstream.
Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration (Harvard University
Press, XXXXXXXXXXA modern theory of assimilation based on new immi-
grant realities and an analysis of official government data.
Brian Duncan, V. Joseph Hotz, and Stephen J. Trejo. “Hispanics in
the U.S. Labor Market,” in Marta Tienda and Faith Mitchell, eds.,
Hispanics and the Future of America (National Academies Press,
2006). Compares Mexican Americans to other Hispanic and non-
Hispanic groups over three generations using recent government
Milton M. Gordon. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race,
Religion and National Origins (Oxford University Press, XXXXXXXXXXThe
classic statement on the many dimensions of assimilation in the
United States.
Phillip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, Mary C. Waters, and Jennifer
Holdaway. Inheriting the City: Children of Immigrants Come of
Age (Russell Sage Foundation Press, XXXXXXXXXXA recent study of the
children of immigrants in New York City that finds rapid assimila-
tion for the second generation.
Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut. Legacies: The Story of the
Immigrant Second Generation. (University of California Press, 2001).
An analysis from the well-known Children of Immigrants Longitu-
dinal Survey that shows various paths of incorporation for the sec-
ond generation, including both upward and downward mobility.
David R. Roediger. Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s
Immigrants Became White (Basic Books, XXXXXXXXXXA historical work
that shows how previously-stigmatized European groups were
accepted as part of the white majority in the United States.
Edward E.Telles is in the sociology department at Princeton University. He is the
author (with Vilma Ortiz) of Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assim-
ilation, and Race.
33winter 2010 contexts
Americans like to repeat the American narrative of
immigrant success and assimilation, but that story
doesn’t describe the experience of many of
today’s immigrants.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Answered Same DayMay 08, 2021


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SOCY-101: Introduction to Sociology
Module 13: Sociology of Immigration
Introduction : The purpose is to explain the concept of the Mexican Americans and how they have adapted or excepted the ...

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