Hispanic Immigrants & Social Networks
Successful immigration of Hispanic persons to the U.S. involves much more than a shift in geographical location. For the purposes of this dissertation, ‘successful immigration’ denotes the successful establishment of an independent existence is the U.S., to include ease of motion within a familial, social, and political context, as facilitated by language acquisition and the development of trust in the democratic government. I consider this form of immigration successful based on past and current studies suggesting that Hispanic immigrants benefit from language acquisition and the development of political trust, while immigrants who do not learn the English language are limited in their ability to experience the American culture and, as a result, have difficulty functioning in this culture, which in turn discourages trust and supports alienation.
The term ‘acculturation’ refers to the process of adopting cultural attitudes, behavioral norms, values and beliefs not previously held (Gordon, 1964). As the primary tool of communication within a culture, language acquisition is the cornerstone of acculturation and therefore the foundation for the development of social and political trust. Studies show that immigrants who choose to learn English acquire higher paying jobs in better work environments, perform better in educational — particularly higher educational — settings, have increased access to social aid services such as financial assistance, housing and healthcare services, and are less likely to become victims of fraudulent or violent crimes.
Considering the benefits of language acquisition, is might come as a surprise that many immigrants remain resistant to learning English, particularly in households and enclave communities where English isn’t spoken by family and friends. Studies suggest that the cause of this resistance is three-fold, to include an immigrant’s country of origin, social/economic incentive — or lack thereof — and the influence of family ties. For example, while Puerto Rican and South American immigrants tend to learn English quickly, Mexican Hispanic immigrants are often resistant to English or have difficulty learning English. The reason for this, according to Hakimzedah & Coh (2007), might possibly have to do with early exposure to the English language in countries such as Puerto Rico, versus the lack of exposure in countries such as Mexico. Similarly, in the case of South Africa, the sparse population of non-English speaking persons potentially results in an inclination to learn English, while the dense population of Spanish speakers in Mexico makes English acquisition unnecessary.
Nonetheless, exposure to English is merely one component of the contributing factors that encourage or discourage English language acquisition. For example, Hispanic immigrants of working age are more likely to choose to learn English as a way of obtaining financial security via higher-paying job; older immigrants of retirement age, on the other hand, might lack the economic incentive to learn English. Older generation immigrants might also resist new language acquisition as a means of preserving their native language and corresponding heritage, while their children or grandchildren might rebel by embracing English. Younger generation immigrants also stand to benefit in educational, professional and social settings by learning English, which in turn can encourage their parents and grandparents to learn English as another way of communicating with them. In this pull/pull relationship between children and adults, it is the children who facilitate acculturation.
In the broadest sense, acculturation is the process of adopting the behavioral attitudes, values and beliefs of the culture one lives in. While acculturation might at times require a departure from old behaviors and beliefs, acculturation is at its best when the new and old are integrated, as this allows for the boundaries that separate groups of people to be crossed, resulting a reciprocal learning opportunity.
Language acquisition — as the fundamental mean of communication between groups — is a volatile contributor to acculturation. What surprises some is that language acquisition is a choice, as opposed to the inevitable outcome of exposure. Studies show that persons who make no conscious effort to learn language will likely never acquire more than the most basic language skills, such as simple greetings and the ability to order food. In order for language to be acquired and understood in its full complexity, a person must consciously choose to learn language. It is for this reason that Hakimzedah & Coh’s exposure argument falls short of a full-picture view. Similarly, the argument of social/economic incentive only addresses certain components of the motivation to learn language, while the family ties argument has in the past been limited to addressing the relationships of parents and children.
It is my belief that the family ties argument comes closest to a comprehensive address of the contributing factors of language acquisition; however, a truly comprehensive address must consider the influence of other relationships, such as spousal, and the potential difference in how these relationships affect woman and men. For example, while men are often asked to perform one role — the role of financial provider — women are often required to perform the dual-role of family caretaker and financial contributor in immigrant households (Sarksiian, Gerena & Gestal, 2007; Guendelman et al. 2001). This dual expectation results in a push/pull of a different kind; on the one hand, the woman is obliged to preserve her family’s heritage, while on the other, she is inclined to learn English in order to better provide for her family.
In the following pages, I will attempt to address the influence of family ties and gender expectations on language acquisition, in addition to the potential contributing factors of depression among immigrants — particularly among women — and the components of acculturation required for the development of political trust. I will also look at the role of distance in the family ties scenario, to include the potential benefits and negatives of transnational bonds.
Potential for Development of Depression
In past studies, it has been assumed that immigrant family members live in the same household, however, this is often not the case. On the contrary, many families become transnational families as a result of immigration, as not all members of the family are able or willing to immigrate at the same time. In the case of transnational families, women are often the ‘social glue’ that hold the family together across great distances, which in turn can exert a tremendous amount of pressure on immigrant women (Mahler 1999, 2001; Parrenas 2005; Sarkisian, Gerena & Gestal, 2007). Not only are they charged with the responsibilities of caring for the children in their immediate household and to contribute financially to some degree; they are also charged with the additional responsibility of maintaining open lines of communication with non-immigrant family members — often across thousands of miles — and to preserve their Hispanic heritage in the face of acculturation. More specifically, while immigrant women work to acquire English language skills and become established as independently functioning adults in a foreign culture, they work also to maintain ties to the old culture, from which they are geographically, socially and politically separated.
This dual responsibility often has a detrimental effect on the mental health of immigrant women, typically manifesting as depression. Just as a rubber band can be stretched only so far before it snaps, immigrant women too have a limit to the pressure they can support and not break down. It is also worth noting that immigrant women are less likely to seek treatment for depression, due in part to the limitations of language, as well as the lack of financial resources and the knowledge of available services for immigrants with depression. In some cases, there might also be a social stigma attached to mental instability in their native community, resulting in a reluctance to acknowledge depression.
Unfortunately, when left untreated, depression often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Initial depression and the reluctance to seek help results in a deeper depression and a heightened perception of helplessness. In turn, the perception of helplessness results in an inclination toward isolation, resulting in a two-fold resistance to the process of acculturation and the maintenance of family ties, impeding the fulfillment of both roles: that of caretaker and financial provider. The perceived inability to perform as expected inevitably results in a downward spiral of depression that can be paralyzing if left untreated. As this downward spiral impedes the acculturation process, it impedes also the development of political trust in the U.S. government.
Development of Political Trust
For the purposes of this dissertation, trust is defined as “â€¦an expectation that people will behave with good will, that they intend to honor their commitments and avoid harming others” (Glanville & Paxton, 2007). In the case of political trust, trust exists between the citizens and a group of people elected to represent them, in addition to the trust that must exist between citizens for democracy to succeed.
While studies show that political trust in the U.S. government is decreasing as a whole, it is particularly decreasing among new immigrants who account for an increasing percentage of U.S. voters. Between 2003 and 2006, the granting of legal residency to immigrants rose 43%, and according to a statement released by the Department of Homeland Security in 2008, an estimated 8 million more immigrants will be granted residency in the next few years. What this means for us in 2011 is that a large portion of our voting population struggles with an inherent distrust of the U.S. government, due in part to their experiences with the immigration process, and in second part to their experiences with the governmental bodies in their localized communities.
According to Robinson and Jackson (2001), and supported by Glanville and Paxton (2007), the development of political trust in government is based on people’s experiences with government on a local level. From these experiences, people form a ‘standard estimate’ of the trustworthiness of government that is difficult to alter without altering a person’s experiences (Robinson and Jackson, 2001).
Above and beyond political trust, people form an estimate of trustworthiness particular groups based on their interactions with persons belonging to this group. For example, if a person is treated poorly by a particular race, class, social or religious group, they will inevitably form an inherent distrust of this group as a whole. On the other hand, if a person is treated positively by a particular group, they are more likely to trust this group. In terms of forming a generalized inclination to trust, people typically draw from the average of trustworthiness they have experienced over the course of time.
It is for this reason that social interaction — as opposed to self-induced isolation due to depression or a language barrier — is so important in terms of developing political trust. As the inclination to trust the U.S. government is based on one’s experiences with that government at a local level, it is imperative that immigrants have the opportunity to form positive impressions of local social and governmental bodies, such as social assistance programs, financial and housing assistance programs, state-run healthcare and government health insurance programs. It is also for this reason that language acquisition is important, as studies support the claim that immigrants who choose to learn English have increased access to social and governmental assistance programs.
In addition to the governmental bodies of a community, it is imperative that immigrants form a positive impression of that community’s people, as democracy is based on a trust in the ‘collective will of the people’ (Paxton, 2002). If an immigrant suspects that the will of the people of a community — or a country — differs from her own, she isn’t likely to trust that the democratic elections process will ever truly represent her will. In order for an immigrant to form trust in a community’s people, she must come to identify with these people as sharing her social values and political beliefs, in a sort of flip-definition of acculturation. While it might actually be the immigrant who is coming to adopt the social values and political beliefs of the community she lives in, it is nonetheless important for her to trust in the people’s will to uphold these values and beliefs.
Sociological theorists have broken this trust down into three sub-categories: trust in the strength of the federal power to govern; trust in the people’s acceptance of democratic governance; and trust in the ability of the government to support successful economic development. In terms of trust as built on the recognition of a shared identity, sociologists use models such as Gemeinshaft, civil society, and civic culture to illustrate the connection of identity with trust. The term Geneinshaft refers to an association of people who identify strongly as a group, and are governed by commonly held political beliefs and social attitudes. Similarly, civil society is a group whose actions are based on the shared interests, values and beliefs of the group, while civic culture refers to a civil society in which the group has be orientated to share a set of beliefs and values.
Despite the apparent common sense of the identity=trust theory, it is important to note that little research supports the claim of the reciprocal nature of identity and trust. One limitation of past studies is their failure to measure the influence of exposure to society/culture in a general sense — general acculturation — at the same time as they have measured the influence of exposure to a particular government’s laws — institutional context. It is also worth noting that many acculturation theorists claim that a large part of our impressions of government are formed second-hand through media representations of that government, which in turn inform our everyday discussions of government. On the other hand, institutional context theorists argue it is our first hand experiences with public outreach programs and state and community legislation that forms our opinion of government on a federal level, however the question of whether or not the enhancement of social ties to community enhances trust in a community — or rather, if enhanced trust results in more social ties — remains open-ended. In either case, contributing variables such country of origin, the existence or non-existence of family ties, gender, and an immigrant’s experience of the immigration process have yet to be accounted for in a truly comprehensive study of political trust origins.
For example, while the Latino National Political Survey (LNPS) conducted in 1990 failed to measure the influence of family and civic ties on the development of trust, the Latino National Survey (LNS), conducted in 2006, included several cross-disciplinary variables — to include family and civic ties — however it stopped short of exploring the types of information communicated through these ties, to include information pertaining to the cultural and political climate.
Nonetheless, the cross-disciplinary nature of the LNS paved the way for further research into the influence of family and civic ties on the development of trust specific to Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. What is needed now, and what I will endeavor to present in the following pages, is a study that incorporates the findings of the LNS into a comprehensive look at the acculturation and institutional context variables that support or discourage political trust development.
The following dissertation examines the acculturation process of Hispanic-Americans in three parts: language acquisition, the potential for the development of depression, and the factors contributing to the development of political trust. As discussed in this introduction, each component of the process of acculturation informs the other, however the specific ways in which this information is passed has yet to be addressed. For example, while previous studies support the claim that language acquisition results in a more positive experience in social, educational and professional sectors, the incentives for learning language — in addition to the sources of resistance to language — remain unclear, or at the least incomprehensive. It is the purpose of this dissertation to present a comprehensive study of acculturation in the institution context of Mexico and the U.S., accounting for several cross-disciplinary factors, to include distance, gender, age, family and civic ties as influencing the three components of acculturation.
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