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Assimilating In The Wrong Direction
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December 08, 2011, 12:32 AM
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There`s a widespread assumption that assimilation cures all immigrant ailments, but that has long struck me as dubious American chest-beating. As a Los Angeleno, that New York - D.C. view never seemed a particularly good model for Mexican immigration. Lots of other cultures seem better at certain things than Americans, such as getting along with the group. Thus, it`s not uncommon for American-born children of old immigrant groups to assimilate toward anti-social American norms. 

For example, the Chicano culture that was visible in L.A. by, say, 1972 after a long era of only modest immigration was largely made up of Mexicans born in East L.A. (to quote the title of Cheech Marin`s funny 1980s movie), who had developed a distinctive local culture, proud, insular, and insolent. In many ways, they were highly assimilated, with an enduring affection for the teen culture of 1950s America: 1957 Chevies, doo-wop, greaser hair-dos, etc. Chicanos had both impressive accomplishments (e.g., the beautiful low-rider car) and downsides, such as a tendency to form violent gangs that were a mark of assimilation in America, of confidence compared to the beaten down peons of Mexico. The percentage of Mexican-American who made some some mark on the larger world may well have been higher back then than today after all the enormous influx from Mexico. 

Here`s a summary of a new study (don`t see the full paper online anywhere) on prevalence of "Conduct Disorder" (as measured by the DSM-IV) among 1) children in Mexico, 2) Mexican children born in America of parents of Mexican birth, and 3) Mexican children born in America to American-born parents. Bad conduct was worst in the kids whose parents were born in America and least prevalent among kids living in Mexico. So, in terms of conduct, we see downward assimilation.

"Conduct disorder" is one of those psychiatric catch-all categories where the symptoms describe the condition:

Children with conduct disorder tend to be impulsive, hard to control, and not concerned about the feelings of other people.

Symptoms may include:

Breaking rules without obvious reason

Cruel or aggressive behavior toward people or animals (for example: bullying, fighting, using dangerous weapons, forcing sexual activity, and stealing)

Failure to attend school (truancy — beginning before age 13)

Heavy drinking and/or heavy illicit drug use

Intentionally setting fires

Lying to get a favor or avoid things they have to do

Running away

Vandalizing or destroying property

These children often make no effort to hide their aggressive behaviors. They may have a hard time making real friends.

Here`s the summary:

The prevalence of conduct disorder (CD) appears to have increased substantially across generations of the Mexican-origin population after migration to the United States, however this increase was observed more for nonaggressive than aggressive symptoms of CD, according to a report in the December issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals. 

"Conduct disorder (CD) is defined in the DSM-IV by persistent patterns of child or adolescent behavior involving aggression or other violations of age-appropriate norms that cause significant clinical impairment," the authors write as background information in the article. "Twin studies suggest that CD is under substantial genetic influence, which is stronger for aggressive than for nonaggressive symptoms. Studies of migrating populations offer an alternative strategy for separating environmental and genetic influences on psychiatric disorders." 

To examine variation in the prevalence of CD associated with migration from Mexico to the United States, Joshua Breslau, Ph.D., Sc.D., of the RAND Corporation, Pittsburgh, and colleagues compared the prevalence of CD, different types of CD symptoms and CD symptom profiles across three generations of people of Mexican origin with increasing levels of exposure to American culture: families of origin of migrants (residing in Mexico), children of Mexican migrants raised in the United States, and Mexican-American children of U.S.-born parents. Data were collected using the same face-to-face interview with adults age 18 to 44 years in the household population of Mexico and the household population of people of Mexican decent in the United States. 

The authors found that compared with the risk in families of origin of migrants, risk of CD was lower in the general population of Mexico (Mexicans living in non-migrant households), but higher in children of Mexican-born immigrants who were raised in the United States. The highest risk of CD was found in Mexican-American children of U.S.-born parents. The authors also found that the association of CD with migration was much lower for aggressive symptoms than for nonaggressive symptoms. 

"The results suggest that there is a large difference in risk for CD between Mexicans in Mexico and people of Mexican decent in the United States. Only 2 percent of people in families of migrants met DSM-IV criteria for CM, but 11.5 percent of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans with at least one U.S.-born parent met these criteria," the authors write.


Let me point out that there are problems with using this methodology to examine nature-nurture questions. The three different groups in the study are not obviously genetically homogeneous. Recent immigrants from Mexico have tended to be more Indian than previously, while people in Mexico who stay in Mexico range from Indians completely out of touch with the modern world to the predominantly white ruling class.

Nonetheless, this study implication that nurture impacts Mexicans over the generations in America, and not always in a socially beneficial direction, seems reasonable to me.

Having traveled a modest amount in Mexico with my father when I was young, it seemed like a not badly behaved place. Mexico under the PRI was a police state, although only a small fraction of the large number of policemen were efficient and formidable. The populace was fairly cowed and meek, at least when sober. Bad driving and accidents were a major problem (presumably originating in Mexican fatalism), and petty graft was an annoyance, but outright crime wasn`t a major problem for tourists. One reason was the cocaine trade bypassed Mexico back then, being routed from Colombia to Florida. Over time, the number of cops and private security with 5th grade educations carrying assault rifles increased as Mexicans wrestled the cocaine business into their hands, and the place got scarier. Thus, the weird anomaly that in our interconnected globalist yada yada, white Southern Californians don`t drive to Mexico anymore the way they did in the bad old days before we all learned that "diversity" is the most sacred word in the language.

Joseph Wambaugh`s book about illegal immigrants crossing the border near San Diego in the late 1970s, Lines and Shadows, confirms this impression: illegal immigrants from Mexico tended to be much more passive than Mexican-Americans. They came from a rural society where the caciques ruled and peons had no rights. The bandits who preyed on the illegally immigrating peons in the no-man`s land on the American side of the border were Mexican-American gangbangers or fairly Americanized Tijuana criminals. The heroic San Diego cops who searched out gunfights with the banditos were also assimilated American-born Mexican-Americans.

In general, Americanization seems to make Mexicans less passive, more assertive, more aware of their rights. This has positive and negative implications.