The American Challenge: Reflections on the Integration of Mexicans in the United States of America

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

43 Pages, Grade: 1,7



The Hispanic Challenge?

1. Important Terms and Notions in the Context of Integration
a. Definition of Culture and Its Implications
b. Interactions between Cultures
c. Definition of and Determinants for Successful Integration

2. Integration of Mexican Americans in the Heartlands
a. Quantitative Development of the Mexican Population in the United States
b. Integration across Generations
c. Willingness and Capability of Integration
i. Mexican Immigrants’ Attitude towards Integration
ii. Americans’ Attitude towards Integration

3. Integration of Mexican Americans in the Borderlands
a. Quantitative Development of the Mexican Population in the Borderlands
b. Integration across Generations
c. Willingness and Capability of Integration

The American Challenge

Table of Figures

Works Cited

The Hispanic Challenge?

In July 2012, one of the leading articles in the Time Magazine dealt with the issue of illegal immigration in the United States. According to the article, 59 per cent of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country come from Mexico. Influenced by their stigmatisation in the media, “for many, immigration is synonymous with Mexicans and the border” (Vargas 27). After the publication of Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We? in 2004 with one chapter being called “The Hispanic Challenge”, provocative arguments on Mexicans in the United States have found their way into the academic discussion as well. As the title of the book already indicates, the author examines the question of American identity. In a country “where the impetus to forge a single, American self, a national identity, out of difference, has always existed in tension with a counter-impetus towards separation” (Campbell and Kean 73), the arrival of large numbers of Mexicans is perceived as a clear threat to the integrity of the United States (Huntington 1) because they challenge the predominant culture (Portes and Bach 23).

On the contrary, the sociologist Georg Simmel offers a distinct perspective: he argues that identity is formed through the confrontation with the foreign (Simmel 59–64). When Mexicans establish contact with Americans, they offer each other a new reference culture which enables them to distinguish their own identity. From this perspective, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands play a particularly interesting role because the intercultural encounters are most frequent in this area. Although they manifest the willingness to separate and differentiate, the “Hispanisation” of the Southwest (Huntington 7) also demonstrates the incapability of controlling a porous border. They are both areas of mediation between cultures as well as of the destruction of cultural identity (Maihold 224).

Permanent residence of millions of Mexicans has become an irreversible reality. Consequently, the new challenge is the integration of this national minority into the society. Huntington claims that Mexicans lag behind other immigrant groups in five essential areas, i.e. education, professional success, income, ethnic intermarriage and homeownership, which are supposed to prove the failure of their integration (Huntington 11). Since some of his data are over twenty years old (cf. Huntington 11), a revaluation of the salient facts appears necessary.

Basically, integration has two phases. On the one hand, it is the legal process of naturalisation. On the other hand, it is the social and cultural integration. This paper will emphasise the second aspect and analyse in how far Mexicans can be incorporated into the American society. Therefore, the analysis of culture and the interaction between cultures are crucial steps towards understanding integration. Then, the main part applies these prior theoretical reflections to the historical and present integration of Mexicans in the United States in comparison to other minorities. Since the number of Mexican immigrants in the heartlands[1] differs significantly from the borderlands, it is necessary to consider them separately. Eventually, the comparison between the heartlands and the border periphery can reveal insights on how to improve or advance the integration of the largest Hispanic group in the United States. Finally, Huntington’s provocative thesis, that the constant influx of Latinos is a menace to the nation’s integrity and cultural foundation will be discussed and refuted (Huntington 256).

1. Important Terms and Notions in the Context of Integration

To begin with, it may prove helpful to think about the problem of integration in a more general and abstract way. Since acculturation (and therefore culture) is the essence of integration (Krauss 15), it is necessary to reflect upon culture. After attempting to define this intangible term, the next subchapter deals with intercultural behaviour because integration can only work if both parties interact with each other in a peaceful way. Finally, the synthesis of both concepts, culture and interaction between cultures, makes it possible to describe the prerequisites of integration. Figure 1 schematically outlines the structure for the ensuing theoretical analysis based on the sequential connection between the elements discussed above.

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Figure 1: Framework for the Theoretical Analysis

First of all, immigrants with a different culture from the receiving society often experience a “culture shock” (Jackson 189). They become aware of cultural differences and their cultural self-awareness grows. As the newcomers settle in and establish initial relationships, interactions between the host society and the immigrants increase. These experiences can be positive or negative and influence the success of integration. Friendly relationships are vital to overcome the natural suspicion towards foreigners and allow immigrants to be part of the society. In the long run, when immigrants become residents, a solution has to be found to make the coexistence of the two cultures possible. That can be the avoidance of each other (because the differences are irreconcilable), the domination of one over the other or the adaptation of both sides. The latter is the point where integration sets in.

a. Definition of Culture and Its Implications

To understand the factor which renders integration of foreign people so difficult, it is necessary to cogitate upon the term “culture”. Unfortunately, as Raymond Williams famously wrote, it is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams 87). As Harris states:

The one dependable ingredient in anthropological definitions of culture is a negative one: culture is not what you get when you study Shakespeare, listen to classical music, or take courses in art history. Beyond that negative, confusion reigns. (19)

In the academic literature there exists a wide range of definitions for the term culture. However, they usually have one of two central weaknesses. Either, they are so specific that they omit important notions of what is comprised by culture or they are so abstract that they become impractical.[2] Nevertheless, there is a tendency of shifting the focus from exploring

cultures as if they were pure, territorially bounded and ordered in systematic categories to the study of more conflicting interstitial domains of paradox, fuzziness and ambiguity, notions of diversity, polyphony, fluidity and complexity. (Wendl and Rösler 11)

In spite of many contradictions, three recurrent notions can be identified:

1) Culture is tied to the human activity (Frost, Beuchot, and Xirau 31; Higgins, Smith, and Storey 1).
2) Culture is a dynamic, evolving process (Diner 159; Frost, Beuchot, and Xirau 35).
3) It is a form of social organisation (Rosaldo 26; Frost, Beuchot, and Xirau 50; Williams 19; Higgins, Smith, and Storey 1).

At first sight, Raymond Williams seems to combine these three elements fairly well in his definition: “I would then define the theory of culture as the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life” (Williams 63). Nonetheless, Williams’ description reveals some inconsistencies with the above mentioned points.

As Max Weber wrote, human beings take account of the behaviour (actions and reactions) of others and thereby (re-)orientate their “social actions” (Weber and Winckelmann 12). As a result, the “interaction” with other people is central to the human advancement. The term “relationship”, on the other hand, does not convey the dynamism of the cultural process. A relationship can be something intimate that does not find expression in concrete actions which characterise cultural productivity. Consequently, it makes sense to replace it with “interactions” which better transmits the evolutionary and social aspect of culture.

Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how elements should interact with each other or build any relationship. Objects and things are also elements but their relationships are chemical or physical rather than social and therefore lack the human constituent. Only living things can actively form relationships or interact with each other in a meaningful way. More specifically, in the context of the “human activity”, interactions take place between individuals.

Lastly, Williams’ “whole way of life” appears a bit vague and misleading. Individuals interact with their environment and the “way of life” is a result of this activity. Accordingly, the “way of life” is the solution for or arrangement with everyday challenges.

Following the structure of Raymond Williams’ phrase, I would then redefine the theory of culture as the study of interactions between individuals in their environment. It is important to emphasise that “environment” has a temporal and geographic component, and that “individuals” can also refer to a group. The advantage of this definition is that the distinction between “culture” and “nature” is also considered in the term “environment”.

Although the definition still falls short of concrete applicability, it will help to conceptualise the subsequent analysis. To understand the processes between larger ethnic groups, the focus will now turn away from the micro level towards the macro level. Before that, certain assumptions must be made:

1) A culture is shaped by the interactions of human individuals.
2) Individuals of the same culture share certain attitudes, values, beliefs and certainties. An individual’s identity is characterised by a combination of the before mentioned constituents and personal opinions.
3) Certainties are ideas and concepts shared by all individuals of the society because there is no experience within their horizon to contradict them. Ideologies can be certainties, for example.
4) Opinions, attitudes, values, beliefs and certainties form the mentality of a social group, i.e. their way of thinking.
5) From these underlying “ways of thinking” emerge “ways of acting” such as practices, rituals and patterns which are the expression of social behaviour. Habits are the individual or personal traits of behaviour.
6) Ways of acting shared by all individuals are codified and agreed upon as institutions. Examples include any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation such as religion, family, marriage or norms.

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Figure 2: Mentality and Social Behaviour

Figure 2 visualises the relation between the number of individuals and the level of adherence to the before-mentioned terms. The more people strongly belief in something, the harder it is to change this way of thinking responsible for a society’s social behaviour. Likewise, if many people behave in the same manner, this activity will become more and more institutionalised. Hence, a culture is characterised by its way of thinking and acting.[3] Whereas mentalities form the underlying basis, ways of acting are the visual and observable expression of it. In turn, because humans are social beings[4], these are the factors which determine the development of an individual’s identity as she or he grows into the society.

b. Interactions between Cultures

Samuel Huntington’s provocative thesis of a “clash of civilisations” (Huntington 28) has been discussed controversially in the academic literature. Many authors strongly oppose his views stating that he is “[w]riting without knowledge of the facts” (Portes and Rumbaut 139) and disagree with him that “Spanish-speaking migrants and immigrants at the start of the 21st century […] pose ‘special social and cultural problems’” (Tillett 234–235). From a theoretical point of view, the confrontation of cultures can be described as follows:

1) When two cultures meet (through trade, explorations, missionary trips, etc.), each culture faces foreign certainties. This bears the potential for conflict.
2) Through the non-violent encounter between two different cultures, the horizon of at least one culture is widened which leads to civil progress. Or in the words of Robert E. Park: “Every advance in culture, it has been said, commences with a new period of migration and movement of populations” (Park 881).
3) On the other hand, the confrontation can also lead to conflicts, war and destruction if the rivalling world views and interests of each group cannot be brought into line with each other. This ambivalence has been named “catastrophic theory of progress” (Park 882). On an individual level, interactions produce knowledge as a form of learning whereas on a larger scale, the collective learning leads to cultural or civil advance.

The ensuing graphic schematically shows the dynamism of culture through interactions. Each bubble is subject to constant change, either through externalities (here “Environment”), the contact with new individuals or the encounter between foreign cultures.

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Figure 3: Culture-Interaction-Model

In the Culture-Interaction-Model, a culture is made up of individuals who are characterised by their unique identity, attitudes and opinions. By living together with other individuals they come to agree upon certain values and beliefs. The collective experience with the environment leads to the social construction of certainties[5]. Over time, this moulds the mentality of the society (cf. Figure 2) which then determines the behaviour towards and interactions with other cultures.

Different cultures may have dissimilar values, beliefs and certainties. When two cultures meet, these diverging worldviews collide in the Contact Zone. Now, a learning process of adaption can set in or the differences are being overcome through domination or evasion (cf. Figure 1) (Kopytoff 28). Since humans are creatures of habit, sudden changes may be violently refused. Indeed, Huntington only considers the situation of conflict and destruction and completely omits the positive side of progress and civilisation. He stigmatises precisely the line of conflict that arises when two different cultures establish contact. With this tunnel vision, he writes that “[i]t is human to hate” (Huntington 130) and thus “cultural differences sharpen the conflict” (Huntington 208). Naturally, the ideal situation of increasing civilisation through exchange remains only true if the encounter is non-belligerent. War is a destructive force that diminishes civil progress in the long run. Hence, the higher the number of diverging certainties, the higher is the potential for conflict.

Theoretically speaking, the success rate of interaction between people(s) depends on two variables. The first one is the degree of Cultural Sensitivity which lays the basis for peaceful relations. This variable can be subdivided into knowledge about the other culture, cultural self-awareness and the flexibility in dealing with new circumstances. Knowledge comprises skills such as language but also being informed about the other’s culture’s history, for example. Self-awareness is the ability to reflect upon one’s own mentality and behaviour (cf. Figure 2) and anticipate what they might trigger in a different cultural context. Finally, flexibility means the spontaneity and openness towards unexpected situations and in how far an individual is able to accept new perspectives. The higher the combination of these factors, the more likely is the harmonious development of an intercultural relationship (cf. Figure 4).

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Figure 4: Cultural Sensitivity

The second variable is the quality of the interactions which is made up of three components. First of all, it is the frequency with which these interactions take place. For example, politicians who meet regularly will find it easier to coordinate their actions and deepen multilateral cooperation than politicians who meet once a year on a general summit. Second, it is the duration of the encounters. For instance, a businessman who stays only for a couple of hours to sign a contract may not have the same success rate as a permanent sales representative who invests days of conviction before closing the deal. Finally, there is the intimacy of the relationship. Friendship can overcome occasional conflicts because both parties trust each other (Bukowski, Newcomb, and Hartup 25).[6] Again, the Quality of Interaction increases as the duration, frequency and intimacy of the exchange processes augment (cf. Figure 5).

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Figure 5: Quality of Interaction

While Figure 2 elucidated the meaning of culture on an individual level, Figure 3 illustrated the interactions between two different cultures. Based on the prior contemplations, it is now possible to abstract one level further and discuss the tightrope walks between “conflict and destruction” and “civilisation and progress” presented in Figure 3 in order to see how peaceful interactions can be promoted because integration requires the nonviolent coming together and alteration of both cultures (Krauss 14).

Taking the two variables described above, Figure 6 specifies four different quadrants where cultures can be situated. Ideally, as the Quality of Interaction increases so does the Cultural Sensitivity. If there were no interactions between cultures, there would be no need to invest in building up understanding for other cultures because the incurred costs would yield no revenue. In contrast, if there is high Quality of Interaction but little Cultural Sensitivity, the cultural misunderstanding might prove costly in the end. The “Ideal Line of Interaction” symbolises this interdependence.

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Figure 6: Interdependence between Cultural Sensitivity and Quality of Interaction

For instance, Culture 1 is placed in quadrant I which means that it does not exploit the potential from its high Cultural Sensitivity to the full. In economic terms, an example would be Mexico. Regardless of being culturally closer to Latin America and Spain, Mexico’s trade relations are with over 80 per cent singularly oriented toward the United States (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía 49). Like quadrant IV, quadrant I is inefficient. Although the “pluralistic perspective” of Culture 1 does not lead to conflict, there is “unused” Cultural Sensitivity as a result of past experiences, for example. A country in quadrant I should strive to move horizontally and increase its Quality of Interaction. For Mexico, this could be the intensification of external commerce with Latin America and Spain because the country has a high Cultural Sensitivity for these cultures through past immigration and a common colonial history.

Conversely, Culture 2 in the diagram maintains high quality interactions but lacks Cultural Sensitivity. If this group does not move up vertically, it runs the risk of causing serious misunderstandings which might hamper interactions and cause a “culture shock” (Jackson 189). A good example for this kind of culture is the United States of the 1980s and 1990s. Even though America upheld diplomatic relations to many countries, it did not use the potential of its multicultural society to improve the political dialogue with some nations, such as Cuba[7]. In fact, America’s politicians almost exclusively stemmed from White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who excluded “nearly all persons of less favoured origins from elite positions, activities, and networks” (Alba and Moore 373).

Lastly, the remaining second and third quadrants – called “Multiculturalism” and “Isolation” respectively – represent the efficient solutions as they are crossed by the Ideal Line of Interaction. A multicultural group upholds high Quality of Interaction combined with high Cultural Sensitivity similar to a cosmopolitan person. Currently, Germany offers a good example for such a country. According to an interview with the head of the German Goethe Institute, Bruno Gross, Germany is the most popular country in the world (Brill). Moreover, it is a leading export nation and the world’s “champion” in tourism (DPA). Of course, Germany does not share the same degree of Cultural Sensitivity and Quality of Interaction with all nations, but many European neighbours might fall into this category.

In contrast to multiculturalism stands isolation where the culture falls back upon clichés, stereotypes and prejudices because it lacks proper experiences to update these images. North Korea provides a drastic example here because it has been isolated over decades and the political elite constantly repeats anti-American paroles while the population has no way of verifying these statements (Kim). In a larger sense, the Cold War can be understood as a culture clash where the lack of sensibility led to the isolation (evasion) of two political cultures (horizontal move towards quadrant III). Here, Western capitalism and democracy confronted Eastern communism and single-party states. Ideologies (which corresponded to certainties) were so deeply rooted that interactions had to be reduced to the absolute minimum to avoid open conflict.


[1] Here, the term “heartlands” refers to those Federal States which are geographically remote from the U.S.-Mexico border. Alternatively, Kopytoff has suggested employing the term “metropole” as opposed to “border periphery” (27).

[2] An example would be Rosaldo’s definition. On the one hand, it encompasses all human activity while, on the other hand, it offers random examples which unnecessarily restrict culture: “Culture lends significance to human experience by selecting from and organizing it. It refers broadly to the forms through which people make sense of their lives, rather than more narrowly to opera or art museums. It does not inhabit a set-aside domain, as does, for example, that of politics or economics. From the pirouettes of classical ballet to the most brute of brute facts, all human conduct is culturally mediated. Culture encompasses the everyday and the esoteric, the mundane and the elevated, the ridiculous and the sublime. Neither high nor low, culture is all-pervasive” (26). In comparison, Krauss offers a more abstract definition of culture and thereby omits aspects of high culture such arts or music: “Kultur wird in der Kulturanthropologie betrachtet als Bereich der Traditionen, Werte, Einstellungen, des Prestiges und der Ehre, der Ideologien und Deutungsmuster sowie aller Formen des Kommunikation und symbolischen Interaktion” (14–15).

[3] Harris confirms this view in his definition: “culture is the socially learned ways of living found in human societies and […] embraces all aspects of social life, including both thought and behaviour” (19).

[4] Aristotle described humans as “zoon politikon”, i.e. political and social beings (Glaeser 145). This means that humans are dependent on society and strive to form such ecosystems. This can only work if there is a common set of attitudes, values, beliefs and certainties which guide the behaviour.

[5] For example, Galileo Galilei shook the prevalent certainty that the earth is the centre of the universe when he proved that, in fact, the earth turns around the sun. Before that, there had been nothing in the medieval experience that would have contradicted the original assumption.

[6] By promoting ERASMUS exchange programmes, the European Union tries to create precisely these kinds of liaisons to foster cooperation in Europe (European Commission).

[7] Between 1959 and 1980 more than 800,000 Cubans emigrated and most went to the U.S. Moreover, a large proportion of these emigrants “were members of the upper and middle socioeconomic classes” (Diaz-Briquets and Perez 1). In spite of ideological differences, these immigrants might have been able to exploit their contacts to Cuba for the political benefit of America.

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The American Challenge: Reflections on the Integration of Mexicans in the United States of America
University of Passau
American Studies; Cultural Studies
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integration, Huntington, culture, Mexican Americans, Mexican, American, Borderlands, Hispanic Challenge, definition of culture
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Marvin Hanisch (Author), 2012, The American Challenge: Reflections on the Integration of Mexicans in the United States of America, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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