Today's date:
  Summer 2004

Understanding the Hispanic Challenge

Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, is the founding president of the Pacific Council on International Policy. With Katrina Burgess, he co-edited and contributed to The California-Mexico Connection (Stanford University Press, 1993).

Los Angeles — Samuel P. Huntington is one of America’s most influential political scientists. Throughout his career, he has framed debates on an astonishing variety of issues—from civil-military relations to American political institutions, from political order in developing countries to the role of political Islam, from US-Soviet relations to the "clash of civilizations." His penchant for big questions, his lucid prose and his willingness to pose unconventional and at time unpopular arguments have combined to make him a must read. He has also trained hundreds of students, including me.

Like many others, I will always be in Sam Huntington’s debt. It particularly saddens me, therefore, to read Dr. Huntington’s essay on "The Hispanic Challenge" (Foreign Policy, March–April 2004), which was excerpted from his forthcoming book on migration. Basing his approach on the undeniable fact of burgeoning and persistent Mexican immigration to the United States, Huntington presents a series of imaginary horribles.

He alleges that Mexicans and Mexican Americans today assert an historical claim to territory. He charges that Latino immigrants, supposedly unlike all previous groups, retain their original language and culture and are likely to turn the US into a dual-language society. He claims that Mexican Americans today do not identify with the US and with mainstream American values. And he offers the chilling prediction that Mexican-dominant areas of the US could become "an autonomous, culturally and linguistically distinct and economically self-reliant bloc within the US...contemptuous of American culture."

The evidence Huntington offers to support these assertions is dubious at best. Quoting secondhand one third-generation Mexican American saying that he knows few Mexicans in South Tucson who rely on education and hard work as the way to prosperity and "buy into America" is a very weak basis, indeed, for concluding that profound cultural differences between Mexican Americans and Anglos could deeply divide the US. In fact, none of Huntington’s major arguments holds up under critical scrutiny.

There is no empirical support for the claim that Mexican or Mexican American leaders or organizations seek to reconquer US territory. There was considerably more backing for the "nation of Aztlan" concept when it was launched in the radical student environment of 1968 than there is today. It was never large, even then, and it was focused on "brown power" within the US, not on separatism, secession or "reconquest." Mexican immigrants to the US and their children and grandchildren are learning English at about the same pace as previous immigrant groups, according to numerous studies and everyday observation One study, for example, shows that 73 percent of first-generation Hispanic immigrants speak Spanish only at home, 17 percent of second generation speak Spanish sometimes at home, and only 1 percent speak only Spanish at home in the third generation.

Charges that Mexican and other Hispanic American immigrant groups insist on preserving their own language and cultural institutions simply echo the attacks launched earlier in American history against earlier waves of immigration from Europe and Asia. The strong increases in Hispanic American voter registration and political participation during the past 15 years undercut the claim that Mexican Americans do not identify with the US. So does the demonstrated support of Mexican American voters for municipal bonds to pay for educational facilities, and their acquisition of American consumer, music and cultural tastes. Mexican immigrants are hardly contemptuous of American culture but rather admire the rule of law and rewards for hard work so often lacking in Mexico. Far from rejecting the values of the US, Mexican-Americans are actually more likely to embrace core American tenets of individualism and patriotism than are non-Hispanic whites, according to survey data.

To the modest extent that US Latino communities engage in affecting US foreign policy, their impact is to advance mainstream US foreign policy goals: to strengthen democracy and promote international trade and investment. An accelerating process of economic, demographic, social and cultural integration is taking place between Mexico and the US, not invited or formally condoned but nonetheless real and irreversible. We need to understand the causes, nature and impact of this integration. And we must work to manage its pace and effects—to reinforce its positive aspects and to reduce and fairly distribute its costs. However ill-informed, poorly supported and nostalgic Huntington’s argument, his essay can make a positive contribution if it helps Americans focus on the unique US-Mexico connection.