Many years ago immigrants in the United States were eager to accept the opportunity to start over, to begin anew to create their own future. Most of our recent immigrants are still eager to accept that opportunity. However, each new influx of immigration to the United States also triggers new social and political tensions that threaten to split apart many of these new ethnic groups from the descendants our earlier immigrants. At the root of these tensions lies the philosophical question of what it means to be an American, of what the so-called American dream truly means. In his “Cult of Ethnicity,”Arthur Schlesinger calls his readers’ attention to the current racial and cultural threats brought on by current ethnic demands “pressed too far”. At the same time he offers hope that that these threats can be handled wisely and fairly (Schlesinger, 2003).
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Is it possible that the geographic location of America has helped to shield it from the growing problem of racial and ethnic strife so abundant in the rest of the world? Many immigrants came to this country for a better life, one free from persecution surrounding their religious beliefs. They came to America to begin new lives, to practice whatever religion and beliefs they chose. However, the tensions have been increasing between American descendants of earlier immigrants and those recently arrived as fugitives from the Near East and those both legal and illegal from South and from Central America. Adding to those tensions are the demands of many African Americans who are no longer content to savor recently won Civil Rights. Nor are we speaking of a small number of immigrants. For example, the Hispanic population has been growing so fast that many of their leaders have been pushing strongly for bilingual accommodations in the form of bilingual classes and bilingual signs and labels.
The small town of El Cenizo, 7,800 people, and just south of Laredo, Texas, become the center of a cultural divide when it became the only town in the United States to make Spanish its official language. This has stirred a serious controversy from the day Spanish was adopted as the official language. Is this an example of ethnicity “pressed too far”? Linda Evans, a spokesperson for then Governor George Bush said; “as a general rule, Governor Bush believes that government business in America should be conducted in English,” There are arguments from others as well, like Jim Boulet the Executive Director of English First and a leader of an advocacy group that wants to make English the Nation’s official language. Boulet has been quoted as saying that this should be viewed as an early warning sign: “Language divisions rather quickly lead to other divisions” (Estrada, 1999). Should those who choose to become citizens of the United States be expected to adopt every American facet of American culture or should they be allowed to substitute some facets of American culture as did the citizens of the town of El Cenizo?
How can a country based upon the acceptance and the tolerance of others be experiencing a cultural backlash based upon too many ethnic groups wanting to hold fast to their beliefs? Granted that every country has its own culture, but what should our American culture be? Who should decide what that culture ought to be? Schlesinger points to the public school system as a tool to develop the American culture. However, if the growing minority groups choose separation over assimilation, such as in the case in El Cenizo, should that town be allowed to make a free choice? Merely associating with a particular ethnic group is not going to cause alienation from society as a whole; however, people who decide not to associate with those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds will do themselves more harm than good by depriving themselves of some cultural opportunities.
If a town in Texas adopts a new language to best suit the needs of the citizens, what negative effect ought this to have on surrounding communities? What is this telling the next generation?
Diversity and acceptance are some of the great things about America that drew many people from many countries around the world. But as more people hold on to their culture and are less willing to accept that of others, they are drawing a line in the sand that can be crossed only once.
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