From Zacatecas to Mission Control: A Story of Assimilation and Its Future

Joseph Barrientos/Battery Spencer, Sausalito, United States

It’s the question sustaining the latest phase of immigration anxiety: will the Hispanics assimilate? Some people hope not. Some people dread they won’t. Regardless of ideology, it’s an interesting question because America has a lot of Hispanics.

Hispanic is a loose term, encompassing everyone from Pope Francis to former Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero (who is definitely “not black”), so I’m going to use the word Mexican. If I were from Manhattan, I would use Puerto Rican or Dominican. But I’m from southern California, so I’m going to use Mexican. Just as Asians and Pacific Islanders never consider themselves Asians and Pacific Islanders outside America, Hispanics are only Hispanics in the eyes of white census takers in Washington. There is no pan-Hispanic unity al sur de la frontera and only a tactical unity among the Latino diaspora in America. The question I began with—will Hispanics assimilate?—will be answered differently for each group. I can’t speak for the Dominicans or the Cubans. I can, however, shine a light on the Mexican-American experience. It is an anecdotal light, but my family can serve as a representative anecdote to the question of Mexican integration because it offers the benefit of generational hindsight—three generations, to be exact. Think of me as the grandson of DREAMERS, come back from the future to tell a more nuanced story about integration than almost anyone else is currently telling.

I must admit, America today is not the America encountered by my young grandparents, and my grandparents were perhaps nothing like the migrants now at the border. America today has changed and has different ideas about what it means to be American. Mexico has changed, too. These are valid points. However, Mexicans have been migrating northward in non-trivial numbers for a century now. It makes sense to look at past migrants and, importantly, at their descendants, because current anxieties are not just a response to the first generation, but to the fates of the second and third. When we ask whether or not an immigrant group will assimilate, we have a generational trend in mind.

Here, then, is one generational trend, revealed at the scale of an individual family. It begins with my grandfather’s family fleeing north from Zacatecas circa 1920, in flight from the horrors of the Mexican Revolution. My grandmother’s family hailed from Durango, escaping northward across the desert at the same time and for the same reason. Both families were mestizo, being of Spanish and indigenous ancestry, with all the shades of skin tone and gradations of phenotype that that ancestry suggests. At the Mexican consulate, a nameless government official printed the word moreno—brown—on the immigration card given to my great grandfather Martin Herrera.

The Herrera family settled in central California. My grandmother’s family (the Alvarez’s) settled in El Paso. Both families would eventually reach Los Angeles, where my grandparents would meet, wed, and start a family. But in both cases, their parents never assimilated to a white norm. They and their children had crossed the border legally, and by all accounts, they worked hard and stayed out of trouble. However, my grandmother’s parents never quite learned English, and my great-grandfather seems to have drifted from one menial factory job to another before succumbing to alcoholism in later years. Nevertheless, through intuition or carefully considered ideology, all my great-grandparents wanted their children to assimilate to Teddy Roosevelt’s Unhyphenated American ideal. They encouraged it, in part, by Anglicizing their children’s names not long after bringing them across the border. My mother’s aunt Esperanza, for example, became Hope. And a young boy named Raul became my grandfather Ralph.

As a child, Raul worked the fields near a central California nowheresville called Tehachapi. It’s what Tehachapi kids did: go to school and work the fields to make money for the family. It was a dusty, vaguely tolerable existence similar to the one profiled in McFarland, USA, the Disney film about Mexican farmhand kids turned cross country stars. At some point, the Herrera family relocated southward to Los Angeles, where Raul’s father Martin found work in a shoe factory. Life there was likely no more or less tolerable than it had been in Tehachapi.

In 1942, Raul (now Ralph) did what most young men did, regardless of race or class. He joined the military. World War II had as much to do with lifting immigrants out of generational poverty and assimilating them into a middle class existence as did the Immigration Act of 1924 (from which Mexicans were, ironically, exempt). Ralph Herrera left Los Angeles a poor young Mexican and returned four years later a war hero with valuable skills in aviation technology. He was stationed in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps, a navigator aboard a B-24 in the 90th Bomber Group. Shot down during combat. Earned multiple ribbons and awards, among them the Gold Star and the Philippine Liberation Medal. His was the lone Spanish surname among his crew, and one of the only Spanish surnames in the entire 90th Bomber Group. Was he the butt of ethnic ribbing? I’m sure. I cannot speak to Ralph Herrera’s experiences of casual racism in the Army Air Corps because he never talked service to his grandchildren. He attended gatherings of the 90th veterans later in life, so the ribbing was obviously outweighed by the shared experience of near death. All I know is that my grandfather’s military service was crucial to the trajectory his life would take after the war.

When he returned to California, Ralph married Emma Alvarez and parlayed his newly minted aviation knowledge into a job as an electrical technician with Rockwell International. Ralph obviously knew his stuff because by the 1960s, he was supporting a large family (eight kids) as a Rockwell contractor on the Apollo missions. He would have been one of the contract men hanging around mission control in Houston, ensuring all the Rockwell components worked correctly.

In 1965, Ralph received a letter from the Apollo astronauts, thanking him for his service. It’s quite a thing to look at, for me personally, of course, but also in light of the simmering distrust that has arisen today between whites and Mexicans. It wasn’t always this way. Here at the end of the Jim Crow era, we find an Armstrong, an Aldrin, and a Grissom thanking a Herrera from Compton for his contribution to the space program—no hidden figure but a valued member of the whitest team ever assembled. From Zacatecas to mission control in one generation.

Seth Largo/NASA Apollo letter from 1965

According to my mother, Spanish was strictly forbidden in the home. My oldest uncle got some of it, but by the time my mother was born, the Herrera household was an English-only household. If you didn’t speak English, you were sent to a Mexican school, so Ralph and Emma relegated Spanish to late night fights over money. With the kids, it was all English all the time. Their parents struggled with or never learned the de facto American language, but their children spoke like newscasters. When it came time for my mother to mark an ethnicity on job applications in the 1970s, she eschewed the new HISPANIC designation (she didn’t speak Spanish, after all) and wrote “Human Being” instead.

Whether or not the cadences of perfect Los Angeles English had anything to do with this next anecdotal fact, I am unsure, but my mother and her siblings—all seven of them—married whites. South Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s was still majority white, but Mexican communities existed, and it was not impossible to stay insular. My grandparents did not stay insular. The Herrera family was the only Mexican family on the block, according to my mother, and while she had her flings with the occasional greaser, it was a green-eyed surfer who ultimately caught her eye and won her hand. My father is only half Irish, but that didn’t stop some of the Mexican girls at school from calling my mother a “paddy lover.” Did my aunts and uncles get similar treatment? I’m sure it was good-natured, but even if it was an attempt to keep the mestizos away from the gringos, not a single Herrera married a Rodriguez, a Garcia, or a Gonzalez. They married Donahues and Edmondsons instead. Los Angeles was the melting pot metaphor in action.

As to politics, I know little about the affiliations of my great-grandparents, or even of my grandparents. Insofar as the question here is one of assimilation, it matters little if the Herrera/Alvarez clan voted Democrat or Republican in the middle twentieth century because the distinction meant something different from what it does today. The fact pertinent to the assimilation question is that, in 2019, my mother and her siblings are either apolitical or Republicans. In 2016, at the height of racial tension between whites and Hispanics, these mestizo sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants either did not vote, or voted for Trump. To be sure, they remain Spanish Catholics at heart, so you can’t begrudge my maternal family a heart for the poor and a preference for a social safety net. An uncle is heavily involved in poverty ministries. One of my mother’s cousins runs a religiously affiliated orphanage in Baja, California. However, these are law-and-order Catholics who have no time for la raza politics or illegal immigration. Their parents and grandparents came legally—even during a time of great violence.

To sum up the trajectory: day laboring immigrants flee Mexico and cross the border circa 1920, their son becomes a war hero and NASA contractor, and their granddaughter grows up a California girl who marries a white surfer. Their son—the great-grandson of those Mexicans in flight from the revolution—is a white English professor who at this moment is sipping La Croix and listening to EDM. Hair and eyes a couple shades darker than the typical Anglo brunette, as well as a complete inability to grow a beard, are the only signs that he has any indigenous ancestry whatsoever (just under 20%, according to the test). In short, my maternal family’s story is a story of American assimilation par excellence.

I have no doubt that the Herrera and Alvarez families faced some discrimination in their new country. Nevertheless, the family was and remains patriotic and committed to adopting the norms of the country that adopted them.

My family’s story scores a point for those who argue that Mexicans (and Hispanics in general) will assimilate into American life as did the Italians and Poles before them. Of course, my family’s story also has the benefit of generational hindsight. I imagine Martin Herrera and his brood looked much the same in the eyes of 1930s Anglos as do the migrants crossing the border today: unskilled, unversed in English, poor, and brown-skinned. Would the Anglos of an earlier America had softened their glare if they’d known that one of Martin’s sons would fight the Japanese and contribute to the Apollo missions? Would they have softened their glare if they had known that Martin’s granddaughter would intermarry and vote Republican? If today’s Trump voters could be assured that the migrants’ children and grandchildren would grow into Unhyphenated Americans, would they take a softer view of immigration?

I like to think so. To reiterate my earlier point, a major component of immigration anxiety is a concern about the second and third generations. Americans don’t expect the first (adult) generation to learn English or ever feel American. Most first generation Mexicans, like most first generation groups, keep their heads down, work hard, and stay out of trouble anyway. It’s when their children and grandchildren join gangs, speak Spanish, and sport shirts with the Mexican flag that Americans start to get worried.

Do I have anyone like that in my extended maternal family? Here is where I must pivot, mark an asterisk, and admit that my grandfather’s and grandmother’s story is not the only Herrera/Alvarez story. The siblings of my grandparents bore other children who did not marry gringos, who bore instead a third generation of children whose lives look nothing like mine. My mother’s aunts, uncles, and cousins are mostly a foreign territory to me. When I see them at family functions (most recently, at my grandparents’ funerals), it’s hard to believe we are related. They aren’t la raza activists or cartel sicarios, but whereas I am a largely white Unhyphenated American, they remain undoubtedly Mexican-Americans. That’s not to say they’re poor. There is much non-poverty among southern California’s Mexican-American community. Some are working class. Many have scraped their way into California’s middle class (which, by national standards, is pretty economically well-off). But they seem to exist in a separate world, regardless of the particularities of their class status.

I would provide details about that side of the Herrera/Alvarez story, but I know no details. Out of what can only be called a sense of ethnic shame, my mother did not bring me around her aunts, uncles, cousins, or cousins’ kids very often. They are the Mexican-Americans. We are the Unhyphenated Americans. And the latter have been on a very different trajectory from the former. Mexicans like my mother and her siblings verify the “Mexicans are the new Italians” thesis. They married into the Anglo population, as have their children. They happily adopted the values and culture of the imagined American norm. They even adopted the values of a conservative version of that norm. The Spanish language has vanished from their homes. Tamales at Christmas are the last ethnic remnant. They vote Republican. They live in the suburbs. Their children call themselves Mexican only when it suits their interests.

Among the Mexican-Americans, however, the Spanish language has not entirely vanished. Many ethnic vestiges remain. They live a more urban existence. They marry within the Mexican-American community. And while I don’t know their politics, I doubt any of them voted Republican. There is a range of class statuses, to be sure, among all branches of my maternal family (families are always rising and falling in America), but the latest generation on the Mexican-American side seems to lack the full cultural and motivational resources gifted to me, my cousins, my nephews and nieces through our grandparents’ staunch insistence on American assimilation.

I cast no judgment on one trajectory or the other. But if the question of the day is whether or not Hispanics will assimilate, I can report as a descriptive matter that, after three generations, a divide does exist in my family between the Unhyphenated Americans and the Mexican-Americans. Interestingly, some of the poorer Unhyphenated American males have married Latinas, and their children have trended back into the Mexican-American trajectory. The reality is, marrying outside or within the ethnicity seems to be the defining characteristic that separates the Unhyphenated from the Mexican-American.

However, race isn’t everything when it comes to Mexican integration. That would be too simple. Brownness is much more fluid than blackness in America’s racial landscape, in part because Mexicans are already a mestizo population: part indigenous, part Spanish, with a spattering of African ancestry. At either end of the population distribution, one finds a few puros indios and a few true castizos, but the majority of Mexicans fall between a 60/40 and a 40/60 split in indigenous and Southern European ancestry. Skin color and facial features do interesting things in such an admixed group. Critics enjoy calling out the whiteness of telenovela actors, but these white casts almost certainly possess a non-trivial amount of indigenous ancestry. A dark day laborer could very well trace half his ancestry to Cortez. Unlike in African-Americans, there is no one-to-one correspondence in Hispanics between skin tone and oppressed ancestry. Hispanics challenge that core assumption of American race politics. In many Mexican families (including my mother’s), a swarthy son can be seen playing alongside a fair sister. While my mother could have passed as Greek or Italian in her youth, her brothers did and still do “look Mexican.” Regardless of looks, they all married whites, and all their children now identify as white. The lesson I take is that, regardless of looks, one generation is all it takes for Mexicans to marry into whiteness. There is no real sense in which I am “mixed.” Had my mother been black instead of mestizo, that would be a different matter.

If “looking Mexican” is not reliably indicative of one’s degree of indigenous ancestry, neither is it necessarily indicative of ideology and politics. Half the la raza activists on television and in academic departments are fair-skinned, Jorge Ramos being the most prominent example. (Of course, their activism might indicate assimilation to left-leaning American norms, but as a rule, when we speak about assimilation, we typically mean assimilation to a moderate or apolitical American sensibility.)

To illustrate the asymmetry between skin tone and ideology, we can look to California’s 35th Congressional District, where my parents reside. Stretching from the eastern Los Angeles suburbs into the heart of the Inland Empire, the district is 70% Hispanic and only 15% non-Hispanic white. In 2018, this congressional race was, expectedly, between two Hispanics: the incumbent Norma Torres (D) and the challenger Christian Valiente (R). Torres is what you’d expect a California Democrat to be: left-leaning on nearly every issue and non-committal on ones that don’t matter to the activist base. Christian Valiente, in contrast to the incumbent Torres, ran on an explicitly conservative platform of “faith, family, freedom.” His defunct campaign website sported a quote from Milton Friedman on the homepage. His Facebook page lists the following characteristics: Conservative, Non-Establishment, Army Veteran, Small Business Owner, Entrepreneur, Family Man, Man of Faith. As to Torres and Valiente themselves, I’ll let the reader decide whether or not, in this case, “looking Hispanic” correlates with political ideology.

In their election contest, Torres won handily, winning 70% of the vote to Valiente’s 30%. However, in a district that is only 15% white (many of whom are California liberals), the fact that a “faith, family, freedom” candidate garnered 30% of the vote is interesting. Valiente’s 30% is comparable to Donald Trump’s capture of 28% of the national Hispanic vote. This is double the rate at which African-Americans vote rightward; Republicans have plateaued in perpetuity at 10% of the black vote. Reagan and W. Bush captured 30-40% of the Hispanic vote, higher still, so the fact that Donald Trump managed to win 28% of Hispanics indicates that 28% is probably rock bottom when it comes to Hispanics’ penchant for far-right candidates. Unlike the African-American voting trend, these numbers do not indicate a stable racial voting bloc. Indeed, Hispanic presidential voting trends have wavered across the map since 1980, with Democrats capturing only 60% of their votes in some years and upwards of 80% in other years.

For the time being, the numbers above provide only a rough sketch of the socio-political context in which my maternal family’s divide exists. Do the Unhyphenated Americans in my family represent, to an approximation, that 30% of Hispanics who have adopted the traditional, white American ethos, who have in fact married explicitly into that ethos? Do the Mexican-Americans in my family represent the other 70% who, while more conservative than white liberals in matters of gender or sexuality, nevertheless continue to see value in an ideology of racial or cultural separateness?

Perhaps, perhaps not. But if my own family, after three generations, cannot present a picture of total integration across all its branches, then we can expect the cultural divide to continue at large. The divide will be emphasized as long as we have a steady stream of immigrants coming in across the southern border. A regular supply of Hispanics makes it easier for Hispanics to maintain a distinctive identity, and, above all, to intermarry within the Hispanic community. Some of the new arrivals will certainly follow the path my grandparents followed, but not all or even most of them. Wary whites will continue to be more threatened by Mexican-American pride days than by St. Patrick’s Day.

However, alongside the cultural divide, economic integration will continue apace. I noted that there is much non-poverty among my Mexican-American family, regardless of cultural assimilation or willingness to marry into whiteness. After three generations, the Herrera/Alvarez clan can claim a solid degree of economic success. Most data indicate that Hispanics do well enough in the long run, and that Mexico’s policy of poverty exportation exacerbates what is otherwise an economic success story. Across the southwest, you will find recently arrived Mexican adults cleaning dishes and serving fast food, but you will also find second and third generation Mexican-Americans running restaurants, teaching high school, joining police departments, working as contractors, mechanics, and welders. This community of economically but not quite culturally assimilated Mexican-Americans will define the next century of America’s demographic evolution. Whether it will form a separate nation within America, or simply come to define the new, slightly browner face of America, depends on institutional factors.

Drawing on my grandfather’s pivotal experiences, the question can be put like this: will today’s Mexican immigrant children grow up and join the equivalent of the military and NASA, or will they, by lack of such opportunities or deliberate choice, maintain a separate Mexican-American existence as part of America’s cultural mosaic? The story doesn’t end with the statistics on assimilation. The statistics are just a consequence of an underlying reality of available institutional paths, and even deliberate policy.

When my grandparents were choosing to assimilate themselves and their children, American culture at large had a negative association with hyphenated Americans, and for better or worse, put forth an unhyphenated ideal to help with the challenges of a previous generation of mass immigration. Through the war effort and later Cold War and NASA activities, Americans, hyphenated or not, had opportunities to integrate themselves into the core collective development efforts of the country. Those collective development efforts have since mostly ceased, and the ideal of the Unhyphenated American has faded into the background.

Assimilation depends on the larger question of whether the nation has a robust machinery of collective existence. Either way, the story of future assimilation isn’t really about Mexican-Americans. It’s about what kind of thing America is and will be, and what kind of people it will create.

Seth Largo holds degrees in linguistics and rhetoric. A native of Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl, he is now an English professor on the high plains.