BY LEONEL MARTÍNEZ
LA VOZ DE KERN
From La Voz de Kern, 10-22-2009
Sometimes, I’d like to be a time-traveling sociologist.
That way, I could go back to the turn-of-the-century U.S. and research the type of claim I hear from people all the time: My grandfather came to the U.S. from Europe in 1901, immediately shed his immigrant culture, learned flawless English in five minutes and became a professor of Shakespearian literature at Princeton.
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. And these claims usually end with the question “Why can’t Hispanics do that?”
In other words, “Why don’t Latinos assimilate?”
Countless hard drives brimming with data from the U.S. Census Bureau and dozens of well respected think tanks say otherwise, but why let actual facts and data change your mind?
Those who pose these questions usually believe that in some ideal past, European immigrants assimilated almost instantaneously. But they argue that their Hispanic counterparts resist assimilation because they are spoiled by bilingual education in the schools, the prevalence of Spanish-language media, and the increasing number of businesses that cater to Spanish speakers.
Did past immigrants assimilate quickly? Fewer people crunched numbers back then, and it’s hard to reconstruct the habits immigrant groups that existed more than a century ago. How can we verify any of this without boarding a time machine to the past?
A Wisconsin college professor did the next best thing. He plowed through census data, newspapers, books, court records and other materials from 1839 to the 1930s, focusing on the characteristics of German immigrants in his state.
And guess what he found? Many German newcomers took their time learning English or never learned it at all and lived in communities that spoke only German. In fact, many thrived for decades while speaking only the mother tongue.
So much for instant assimilation.
University of Wisconsin-Madison instructor Joseph Salmons and recent UW-Madison German Ph.D. graduate Miranda Wilkerson published their findings last year in the academic journal “American Speech.” They found that German remained the primary language of business, education and religion in parts of Wisconsin well into the early 20th century. Amazingly, some second- and third-generation German adult immigrants born in Wisconsin still spoke only German.
More amazingly, they did it without being stalked by CNN’s xenophobic commentator Lou Dobbs.
Sorting through numbers from the 1910 Census, the researchers also discovered that in many Wisconsin communities, approximately one of four residents spoke only German. In fact, after 50 or more years in the U.S. many of these immigrants were still monolingual.
A few of the study’s other findings:
- People who complain that too many people speak a foreign language in the U.S. workforce should hear this: Things weren’t much different at the turn of the century. In fact, speaking only German in Wisconsin didn’t prevent most people from getting and keeping a job. That’s because many teachers, clergymen, retail merchants, blacksmiths, tailors, yard foremen, surveyors, farmers and laborers also knew only German.
- Folks who wring their hands over the number of grade-school students who don’t speak English should realize that in the 1890s, some correspondence from Wisconsin school districts to the office of the state school superintendent was still entirely in German. And this is after the passage of an 1889 law that required schools to teach in English.
- Those who gripe about the increasing number of Spanish-language television and radio stations and newspapers should know that Wisconsin had more than 500 German newspapers throughout its history, including many that published through the 1940s.
Professor Salmons deserves a hearty “danke schön” to for digging out these facts. While they won’t settle the assimilation debate, they at least show that assimilation in the past was more complex and time-consuming than we were often led to believe.
As for Latino immigrants, they will continue to assimilate despite the horror stories circulated by Dobbs and his buddies. They know that English is the language of success in America.
They only need what their European counterparts had at the turn of the last century: Time.