Department of English

Spring 2005 Edition

American Values?

Jordan Bull
Expository 2010 Runner-up

“We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it” – Thomas Jefferson

Evidently, we are a nation besieged. The word “terror” is becoming a byline prerequisite in newspapers and magazines. In the land of the free, when things are not going our way, we become a nation of “Little Red Hens.” “Not I,” said the Conservatives. “Not I,” said the Liberals. “Not I,” said everyone in between. It becomes not a question of who will fix, but who is to blame. Discover the culprit, make him culpable, and somehow that will clean up the mess. Pointing the finger occupies the hands and keeps them from working, rebuilding, or finding a solution. Samuel Huntington, Victor Hanson, and Edward Abbey, like latter-day Redcoats, have been to see Macbeth’s weird sisters and foreseen their downfall, a second American revolution. They are minutemen sounding the call, for America’s sake, they claim, before it is too late. They look ahead and see a proverbial toppling of their literal ivory tower. Greed is not a popular excuse, and elitism will not win you friends; thus the finger is pointed at the encroaching “other.” Huntington, Hanson, and Abbey, like harbingers of doom or the horsemen of the apocalypse, add a new threat to keep Americans up at night. According to them, the new threat is not bombs but bodies. The invading Hispanic immigrants are the reason for the unraveling of America’s “creed” and the Anglo-Protestant values upon which this nation was built. Citing lack of assimilation and the discordant values of the Hispanic Culture, they foretell a bifurcation that will assuredly lead to the end of the America’s golden tabula rosa.

However, the values of the Hispanic culture not only have a fraternal twin in American values, but also the divergence may be just what this nation needs.

American Values vs. Hispanic Values?

Samuel Huntington, the well-known Harvard scholar, identifies what he perceives as the threat in his opening paragraph of “The Hispanic Challenge”: “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages” (1). I wonder if we, as Americans and individuals, were ever one, and if now divided, if only into two? Will it be Caucasian against Latino, and will all other minorities have to pick a side? Thomas Jefferson, one of the original “Anglo-Protestant Americans,” also saw a division:

  1. Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:
    Those that fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.
  2. Those that identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest. (345)

Huntington’s own words indicate that he would be of the former opinion. He claims these new immigrants are “rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream” and that the United States is ignoring this at “its peril” (1). If the fear is a corruption of American values, let us examine the values at stake. What are the values of America? So what are the endangered American values? Jefferson identified them as the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The word “inalienable” becomes a pun as many Hispanic immigrants enter this country seeking those very things. Furthermore, Huntington identifies the American “creed” in terms of these keys elements: the English language, Christianity and a religious commitment, English concepts of the rule of law, Protestant values of individualism, and a Protestant work ethic (1).

According to the Educational Resources Information Center, and a study done on Hispanic American Students and Learning Style:

Hispanic-Americans are united by customs, language, religion and values. One characteristic that is of paramount importance in most Hispanic cultures is family commitment . . . . Spirituality, the dignity of the individual, and respect for authority are valued throughout Hispanic culture. (Baron)

Again, it appears less like a tug of war and more like a two-legged race. A leg from each side tied to each other moving towards the same end.

English Language and Assimilation

Huntington has identified the English language as a key element of American values. Leaving your identity behind in the Motherland has never been a prerequisite for entering America. Were it so, our forbearers would never have come. There is little room in Huntington’s America for bilingualism. What he sees as a lack of assimilation or a “rejection” is as dangerous to him as if the immigrants were refusing to be vaccinated and purposely contaminating the nation. Huntington is worried that “massive Hispanic immigration” will result in the whole nation becoming “bilingual and bicultural” (8). Again, where is the grave danger here? Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican novelist and critic, answers with the observation that “to speak a second or third or fourth language is a sign of culture throughout the world” (Fuentes 6). Some may argue successfully, notwithstanding Huntington, that Canada with its French Quebec has not degenerated due to its inclusion of a second language, so why are we to assume that a second language in America would lead to an extinction of the first? Juleyka Lantigua is the managing editor of Urban Latino Magazine in New York. The bi-monthly magazine targets young, English-speaking Hispanics who have not relinquished their cultural roots. Lantigua notes, “We live in English, but we enjoy our lives in Spanish. I come to work every day, and I speak in English to my fellow Latinos, but I think when we each go home, we speak to our parents and to our, you know, extended families in Spanish” (2).

According to the Hispanic Ministry, Hispanics consider language as the most important element to be preserved. Many Hispanics are fearful that their children will forget their native language (HMC 3). Huntington seems to feel similarly about his own language. If there are two predominant languages, and neither group wants to part with a language invariably tied to their cultural identity, is not the American thing to do, to be to make room? Would not that even be the Christian thing as well? Huntington retorts, “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English” (12). Does Huntington have a hierarchy for accents as well? What did the first Anglo Protestants sound like when they came here? So if your dialect retains some of the crisp British, are you more an American than someone from the South, or what of the Eastern States where so much of our nation was shaped?

What does Huntington fear? Does he lack the aptitude for efficient language acquisition? Is he truly concerned about the disruption in educational curriculum and the confusion over highway road signs that may occur were America to become a bilingual nation?

Huntington answers, "They could also eventually undertake to do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural systems" (8). Hispanic Immigrants could challenge the existing system. Here again we have the element of fear. Perhaps Huntington is worried about becoming a minority, and he does not want his system challenged. It is the same system he credits our white Anglo progenitors with creating and perfecting.

The reality is that these people are simply trying to be themselves, to cling to their cultural identity. Huntington seems to take this personally. He argues, “If they choose they can preserve their distinctive culture indefinitely” (8). The Hispanic immigrants could enjoy the opportunity of being both Hispanic and American. They could “preserve” their culture “indefinitely,” unlike the indigenous tribes that are now extinct or the Navajo language that is slowly dying with the elders. Had patriots been as zealous as Huntington in the push for assimilation, America would not have had the upper hand by employing the “code talkers” during World War II.

To his fears concerning a bilingual nation, Huntington adds concerns about assimilation. He claims, “Many Mexican immigrants and their offspring simply do not appear to identify primarily with the United States” (8). It is the “they don’t really fit in here anyway” argument that follows such adages as, “it’s for your own good” or, “this will hurt me more than it hurts you.” One invariably wonders; how is it that they “appear not to identify?” What does identifying dress like, talk like, act like? Instead of the nameless voiceless “many,” Jeff Valdez, who is a television producer for Nickelodeon, offers his perspective: “The media, the industry, always go, ‘Oh well, you’re Latino. You do things differently.’ No, I don’t ride a Latino car, I don’t use Latino pencils, and I don’t have a Latino shirt on. You know, I’m an American like anybody else” (Valdez 1). Lantigua is another name and voice that refutes the assumption that Hispanic immigrants do not want to assimilate. He writes, “I think we definitely want to assimilate. I just think that we’re not willing to give up everything the way that, you know, other immigrants had to” (Lehrer 6).

Considering assimilation and a uniform nation, Thomas Jefferson wondered:
Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites (Jefferson 344).

Isn’t it a little late for “the city on the hill” to institute a secret handshake and a cultural dress code? American pride, being based in the richness and variety of its original “melting pot,” it seems, would lose by eradicating diversity.

“Little use for education” ( Huntington 11)

Huntington, Sosa, and Abbey have all claimed that Hispanic Immigrants do not set education as a priority. But according to the Hispanic Ministry:

Education is a priority on the agenda for Hispanics. Educational opportunities are one reason Hispanics come to the United States. Many parents do not have a good education. Realizing that education can lead them out of poverty and enhance their family’s earning power; they are willing to sacrifice to give their children a good education (HMC 5).

These values would appear to fall in line with the American tradition except perhaps for the word “sacrifice.” America esteems education ideologically, but when it comes to the allotment of funds, some lawmakers are hesitant to “sacrifice.” In this light, the verdict of “ignorant” does not coincide. Hispanic cultural values seem to align with pilgrim and Puritan purposes. Huntington employs statistics to support his claim, showing the number of high school graduates to be below the average. However, just because something is not achieved does not mean it isn’t necessarily valued. There are children who go hungry every night, but it is not because they do not value food.

Poverty as a Virtue

It seems a little Marie Antoinette-ish to assume that people are poor because they embrace it as a virtue. It is as though the only thing standing between poverty and prosperity is ideology. Sosa claims that Hispanics embrace “poverty as a virtue.” We have but to hold up his opinion to the millions of Hispanic immigrants that risk their lives to come across the border in the hopes of a better life, a better life that can be earned and purchased. According to the Hispanic Ministry, “The need and desire for basic items, as well as luxuries, bring many Hispanics to the United States. Here they can earn better salaries and can afford many typical American possessions. They work, save, and sacrifice to purchase homes, cars, and other items familiar to the American lifestyle” (HMC 5). This is a point conceded by many sides in this issue. Why is it that these people risk time and time again, crawling through sewage tunnels, walking through the desert and crossing oceans on makeshift boats? Does it follow that a people who were committed to a life of poverty would work harder than many American teens in pursuit of something better?

Hispanic culture

Individualism, religious commitment, a hard work ethic- these values are not disparate, but coincide precisely with what Huntington claims are key elements in America’s creed. It is difficult to see how a people espousing these values could challenge the fabric of American culture, much less unravel it.
There are Hispanic values that are unique from the Anglo-Protestant canon. For instance, the Hispanic attitude toward time called the “manana syndrome,” seen in a negative light by Sosa and Huntington, may be just what this nation needs.
An individual’s relationship to time is offered as a value that differs some in American and Hispanic minds. The Hispanic Ministry offers the attitude toward time as an example:

Time is life. Many Hispanics find it difficult to adjust to the American-scheduled life. A man’s life is not crowded with a hundred-and-one thing to do. The Hispanic nature is not to follow the clock. To the Anglo ‘time is money’ and the clock ‘runs,’ but to the Hispanic ‘time is life’ and the clock ‘walks.’ (UMC)

In a nation where our meals consist of “fast food” and we look to self-help books and diet fads to give us identity and meaning, would it not benefit us all to take some time?

The State of America/The American dream

And what of the America Huntington claims these immigrants threaten? Are we a perfect nation? Abbey recognizes the problems in American society when he writes, “The United States remains burdened with mass unemployment, permanent poverty, an overloaded welfare system, violent crime, and clogged courts . . . ” (42). There are problems that exist in this great nation, but they did not just arrive with the immigrants.

Abbey claims, “These uninvited bring with them an alien mode of life which let us be honest about this, is not appealing to the Americans” (43). This American does not wish Abbey to be her mouthpiece. Neither is it evident by examining American and Hispanic values how “alien” or “undesirable” inclusion of this culture would be. The Hispanic values of religion, education, and family as top priorities as well as a willingness to work hard and the ability to celebrate, something many Americans have forgotten, do not foreshadow America’s demise.

Perhaps then it is time for something different. Jefferson himself admitted that it was necessary for our nation to undergo rebellions and revolutions when he wrote, “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms to the physical” (343). This does not have to mean civil war or genocide. Surely in this civilized age the world superpower can find a way to include the most beautiful parts of Hispanic culture and better itself.

There are indeed problems besetting this great nation, but they were not brought across the border, they are not the sole invention of one ethnic group, and neither will they vanish by extradition or exclusion. Perhaps it is time for America to take responsibility for what we, including the best Anglo-Protestants among us, have done to ourselves. Perhaps it is time to add a language, and to add to our values, in our pursuit of happiness. Perhaps it is time for America to do what it was christened to do: evolve, expand, and dare we say, improve?


Works Cited:

Baron, 1991. Griggs, Shirley-Dunn, Rita. "Hispanic American Students and Learning Style." ERIC Digests May 1996 <http://www.ericfacility.net>.

Fuentes, Carlos. “Looking for Enemies in the Wrong Places.” The Herald 21
March 2004.

Hanson, Victor. Mexifornia. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy March/April 2004
<http://www.foreignpolicy.com>.

“Hispanic Cultural Values.” Hispanic Ministry. <http://www.hispanic-ministry.org>.

Republican Hispanic Assembly <http://www.rnha.org>.

Valdez, Jeff , and Juleyka Lantigua. “Hispanics in the Media.” Online Newshour. 13
March 2001<http://www.pbs.org/newshour>.