Myths of Cultural Dysfunction

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

Samuel Farber

Clipping Their Own Wings
The Incompatibility Between Latino Culture and American Education
Ernesto Caravantes
Lanham, Md.: Hamilton Books, Rowman and Littlefield
Publishing Group, 2006, paperback, $22.

THIS IS ANOTHER “blame the victim” book faulting Latino immigrants for not being as prosperous as other ethnic and racial groups, such as the Asians, in the United States. According to the author, the cause is Latino culture, particularly its “counterproductive” values such as living for the moment, valuing and having large families, and, most important of all, resisting and not wanting to learn English.

Caravantes offers a grand solution to these cultural maladies. Latinos must adopt the “Selective Cultural Adoption” (SCA) strategy; namely, to behave like chameleons by picking and choosing those aspects of the dominant American culture that will allow them to get ahead in the world. Caravantes guarantees that if they do so, Latinos will be assured of a “royal road to success.” (2) However, this strategy will not work if Latinos distance themselves from those in the Establishment who can help them enjoy a better life in the United States. (8)

Caravantes’ favored SCA strategy, besides being overly naïve and simplistic, is contradicted by his overall view of culture as an unchanging, undifferentiated phenomenon that is not affected by history, by class and power differentiation, or by the changing structures of economic opportunities. For him, Latin Americans share a long-standing deference to authority figures whose origins, in the caste system of Medieval Spain, “may have left in Latinos an almost permanent stamp of deference to people in authority.” (54)

In this view, the varieties of Latin American countries, with different degrees of economic development, ethnic and racial makeups, and most of all substantially different histories, do not matter since everything can be traced back and attributed to the social system of medieval Spain.

Caravantes applies the same type of explanation to other ethnic groups such as the Irish-Americans. Thus, he claims that the Irish-Americans are sympathetic to the supposedly welfare state oriented Democratic Party because of the state-like quality inherent in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. (47)  Caravantes has apparently not heard about the substantial move to the right that has taken place in Irish-American political allegiances over the last couple of generations.

Caravantes explicitly excludes material factors such as discrimination, low wages in the nonunion sector of the economy and the poor quality of education in overcrowded classrooms, as causes of the Latino “lack of success.” For him, segregation and racism apparently play no role; the only reason Latinos congregate in barrios is their desire to find strength in numbers.

He has nothing to say about the material factors that lead Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants to move in large numbers to the United States. Consequently, he ignores the role that capitalism in its neoliberal phase has had on the economy of countries such as Mexico. For example, as a result of NAFTA the export to Mexico of massive amounts of corn, produced under agribusiness industrial conditions and subsidized by the U.S. government, have driven Mexican peasants and farmers out of their small and even larger plots and forced them to emigrate.

Questions of Class

Issues of class and economic opportunity do not exist in Mr. Caravantes’ intellectual universe. Therefore, he is unable to understand the importance that a certain degree of economic security has played in allowing working-class youth to go to college, which he correctly maintains has become a necessity in today’s America.

This is why many decades ago, the children of Jewish unionized garment workers in New York did not have to become fulltime workers immediately after graduating from high school. Instead, they went on and attended the then tuition-free City University of New York, just as years later the children of Black unionized auto workers could attend Wayne State University in Detroit.

When for a brief moment Caravantes becomes aware of this issue, he suggests that Latinos stop sending remittances to their relatives in Latin America and instead use the money to send their children to college and have adequate health insurance. Besides its callousness, his suggestion evinces his inability to understand that to a considerable degree Latin Americans emigrate precisely in order to help support the families they left behind.

In addition, Caravantes refuses to consider how their class position in society, and not the lack of the proper cultural values, affects the aspirations of young poor and working-class Latinos. This is not simply a matter of the poor education they receive in elementary and secondary education, although that is very important. This is also, paraphrasing Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, about “the hidden injuries of class, race and immigrant status,” which undermine the self-image, confidence, and sense of personal possibilities of Latino youth.

Material Factors

Caravantes’ conceptual lacuna about class and other material forces also explains why a book that is presumably about Latinos does not even mention the Cuban-Americans in South Florida. They are no less Hispanic in their values than other Latin American immigrants. But that does not seem to have been an obstacle to their significant economic progress in the United States.

This was in part due to the fact that Cuban-American women, contrary to the supposed cultural inclination of Latino women to stay at home, have a very high rate of participation in the labor force, comparable to if not surpassing that of white Anglo women.

The key is that the social background and composition of the Cuban-American population was and is substantially different from that of Mexicans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, and other Latino immigrants.

This example exposes in very sharp and blunt terms the inadequacy of “cultural values” as an explanation for the contrasting rates of social mobility among various racial and ethnic groups in this country. In his book The Ethnic Myth, Stephen Steinberg shows how a comparative and materialist analysis provides a superior and much more convincing explanation of why some groups have done better than others.

Steinberg shows that the majority of East European Jews moved higher and faster in the class structure of America than the Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants. This happened not primarily because of the supposed cultural values of Jewish immigrants, but because the Jewish immigrants came from shtetls (small towns) where they had engaged in artisan/trader occupations such as tailors, shoemakers and dyers.

Thus a Jewish tailor who became a garment worker in New York City continued to engage in an activity that was not very different from what he had done in the old country. In addition, a fairly high proportion of Jewish immigrants, and particularly Jewish men, were literate. In contrast, the great majority of the Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants had been mostly illiterate peasants in the old country, and were therefore at a greater disadvantage than Jews when they arrived in the United States.

Steinberg also points out that Asian immigrants, and particularly Koreans, are more likely to have had professional and other higher-status occupations in their countries of origin. This gave them a distinctive advantage, even if they ended up in different occupations in the United States than they had in their native countries.

English: Myths and Facts

Caravantes is at his worst when analyzing the supposed reluctance, if not hostility, of Latinos to learn English. He contradicts himself when he approvingly cites several public opinion polls, quoted by a number of right-wing authors such as Samuel Huntington, showing that well over 80% of Latino parents support limits on bilingual education and favor English instruction as soon as their children begin school. (52) If that is the case, then where is the alleged Latino resistance to learn English?

More importantly, Caravantes’ resistance thesis flies in the face of careful observation and serious research. For example, social scientists Rubén G. Rumbaut and Frank D. Bean of UC Irvine and Douglas S. Massey of Princeton University have researched and published their findings on the issue of English acquisition in Southern California (in the September 2006 issue of Population and Development Review).

While the first and second generations of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants in metropolitan Southern California retained a greater ability to speak their mother tongue very well, by the third generation at the latest their ability dropped sharply and converged toward the pattern observed for white Europeans.

As these authors graphically put it, “like taxes and biological death, linguistic death seems to be a sure thing in the United States, even for Mexicans living in Los Angeles, a city with one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the world.”

I would also argue that contrary to the ravings of nativists and racists, what is truly noteworthy about the United States is the unusually large proportion of people who are monolingual. This is striking in light of the size and the diversity of national origins of the 300 million who live in this country, and in stark contrast to Canada, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and other countries in Eastern and Western Europe.

This points to the remarkable ability of American society to homogenize its cultural products, especially if we leave aside the “usual suspect” cosmopolitan pockets in the campuses of elite universities and in certain areas such as Manhattan, and parts of big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is homogeneity that we should find worrisome!

Instead of having a serious discussion of multiculturalism, Caravantes’ goes on to thrash Chicano Studies (69), bitterly complains about the ‘“force-feed” multicultural approach’ (ix), and about how “the soft-heartedness of federal and state agencies in allowing immigrants to use their native language by staffing their offices with multi-lingual staff has allowed this multi-cultural separatism to flourish.” (44)

In addition, Caravantes shows tremendous ignorance of basic social science. For example, he blames large families, particularly among the poorest sectors of the Latino population, for their “lack of success.” It is clear that the author knows nothing about the standard social science analyses of the “demographic transition” and the social conditions that help to bring it about.

Politically, the book is a right-wing tirade with Lou Dobbs-like accusations such as the charge that uninsured and undocumented immigrants get free health care, without contributing to the system themselves. (89) In addition, there are some peculiar idiosyncrasies as when Mr. Caravantes tells us that Charles Lindbergh is one of his personal heroes. (74)

Although presented as an analytical study, the book also goes to great lengths to provide a behavioral manual for immigrants including a whole chapter (10) containing pedantic advice to Latino parents on how to raise their children, from brushing their teeth and going to bed at an early and regular time to take them to museums. There is also a brief manual on how to behave properly in college.

In light of all this, why bother to review such a bad book, particularly one written by a virtually unknown and ignorant author? It is certainly much better to confront a point of view in its strongest versions, if for no other reason that it forces us to put forward our own best and strongest case. Nevertheless one must confront politically pernicious, but unfortunately influential, “blaming the victim” theses wherever and whenever they pop up in the public arena.

from ATC 132 (January/February 2008)