Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

American-made ethnic-Americans

By Claude Fischer


As we approach the 4th of July with all its patriotic celebrations, it is worth adding to the list of American accomplishments the creation of hyphenated ethnics: the Italian-, Irish-, Jewish-, Mexican-, Chinese-, etc.- American. The immigrant experience in the United States has entailed making both sides of the hyphen.

Of course, we understand how immigrant groups (and forcibly incorporated groups, Africans, Native Americans, and southwestern Hispanics) became “Americanized.” They and especially their children thoroughly learned English, fit into Anglo institutions, adopted Anglo views and values, and so on. (See this earlier post.) But it also striking how the immigrant experience in America also entailed defining what it meant to be the adjective, Italian, Irish, Jewish, etc.

Defining the 'old country'

It is by now a commonplace among historians and other students of 19th- and early 20th-century immigration that most immigrants from Italy, Germany, China, and other places did not think of themselves as Italian or German or Chinese until they came to America.

Knights of COlumbus

Knights of Columbus, North Ridgeville, OH

In the “old country,” they were defined by region, district, or even village; they spoke different dialects if not different languages altogether; their customs differed; they thought of themselves regionally rather than nationally; and sometimes their home communities were even at war with one another. (Indeed, some “Germans” and “Italians” came to America even before there was a national Germany and Italy.) Similarly with Native-Americans and African-Americans.

Confronting so many diverse kinds of people from around the world in 19th- and early 20th-century America and confronting, as well, the domination of Anglo-Protestants led immigrants to coalesce and define themselves anew. Organizations like the Knights of Columbus and the Sons of Italy emerged to form the Italian part of Italian-American. So did the B’nai B’rith with Jewish-Americans, shifting over a century from a German-Jewish-American self-definition to a  broader Jewish-American definition as later waves of Jews arrived from Eastern Europe. Notably, such organizations worked to help their people make it in America, not to have them return from America.

Part of building ethnic solidarity was constructing a culture and an identity. Necessarily, that culture was often a mash-up of different practices immigrants brought with them, and of half-recalled customs, and of homeland myths – all encased in nostalgic amber. Sociologist William Kornblum studied the descendants of Slavic immigrants living in South Chicago. He describes how they would startle cousins vising from the old country with displays of “folk” customs that had long ago been discarded back “home.”

Making ethnic consciousness today

The process continues. Take the case of Mexican-Americans, an intriguing instance of Americanization, given their especially large numbers and their easy travel back-and-forth to the “old country.” These immigrants are, as the title of historian George Sanchez’s 1995 book states, Becoming Mexican American. That is, they are defining and building a distinctly new identity. Through organizations, political mobilization, and ideological construction (for example, building up the legend of Atzlán), activists are constructing what it means to be both Mexican and American. And they are doing it in American ways, with voluntary associations and mobilized by modern American ideology extolling ethnic consciousness.

Cesar Chavez, Navy man

Cesar Chavez, Navy man

The latest wave of immigrants have entered a culture that values, at least ceremonially, ethnic pride, probably as a result of the 1960s Black Pride movement. (“Black is Beautiful” was soon followed by “Kiss Me I’m Polish.”)

One advantage of studying contemporary over historical immigration that we have more tools for the study.  Some survey research casts light on how Hispanic or Latino consciousness has developed. For example, a recent study [1] compared the answers of Hispanics who took a survey in English to those who took it in Spanish. The English speakers expressed more “Hispanic Consciousness” than did the Spanish-speakers. They were more likely to say that it was very important for Hispanics to “maintain their distinct cultures,” less likely to say that it was very important for Hispanics to “blend into the larger American society,” and more likely to be critical of how the U.S. media portrayed Hispanics.

That is, the more integrated into American society, the more  they emphasized their ethnicity. Another study not only found that, as might be expected, more educated and later-generation Latinos were likelier to vote in elections, but also that they were likelier to engage in specifically Latino-oriented activism. [2]

As we do the hullabaloo about George Washington, fireworks, the Declaration of Independence – all that Americana – let’s recall that hyphenated Americans, with all their supposedly traditional food and music and humor and pride, were also made in America.



[1] “Difference between Hispanics in the U.S. from Whom Data are Gathered in Spanish . . . .,” Paul J. Lavrakas, et al. Prepared for presentation at the 2011 annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research Phoenix AZ , May 2011.

[2] “Generational Status and Mexican American Political Participation,” Wayne A. Santoro and Gary M. Segura, Political Research Quarterly 64(1) 172–184. (The authors stress a decline in ethnic activism in the 4th generation, but that effect appears only after controlling for positive predictors of activism, such as education and expressions of ethnic identity.)

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.