Monday, May 11, 2009

a yellow, red, a black or a blue one...

America's earliest settlers, who came in search of religious freedom, passed on a vision of America that still shines today. Between 1820 and 2001, more than sixty-seven million people came to the United States from every corner of the globe, attracted by the promise of liberty and opportunity.


…there are some Americans who don’t want newcomers in the country; and even some of the newcomers, once they get settled, don’t want any other immigrants to come. Usually the newest immigrants are poor, and willing to work hard and for less money than those who have arrived earlier. So some people want to stop immigration because they fear competition for jobs.

“There are other reasons, too. Because the newcomers are poor and can’t speak the language, they need help in school. That costs money-tax money. The cities where many immigrants live are overcrowded and filled with crime, so there is a need for extra police and extra city services. Some people say, "Why should we have to pay for the problems of these poor people?" They don’t stop to think that the newcomers are often doing jobs no one else wants to do- scrubbing floors, washing dishes, or building houses.”

Although a bit uneasy and disturbing, this quote accurately describes in a completely politically incorrect way how many Americans currently feel about new immigrants, particularly Hispanics. Wouldn’t you agree?

The above, present tense day quote, reflects what was going on back in the mid-1800’s - the thoughts and feelings of a growing nation towards the immigrants of the era. Back then they were digging ditches and building railroads instead of mowing lawns or building homes; apart from this, I was surprised by the timelessness of the feelings and worries of the American citizens. Did it boggle your mind as well?

History keeps repeating itself.

Back then as well as today, there was a lack of understanding, a misjudgment of the new immigrants, a fear that their culture and customs would change all that was familiar, a fear of loosing jobs to the new comers. People forget that these individuals make up the building blocks of America. They don’t stop and look around to see that what they are fighting against is actually what has made the United States the largest economy in the world today.

You need to always remember that this country is made out of immigrants-both voluntary and involuntary (that is, those brought over by the slave trade). The only people indigenous to the US are Native Americans (there is even an argument to be made about that), which now comprise less than one percent of the total population.

Everyone in this country, aside from those who are 100% of Native American descent, is an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants.

From the pilgrims on the Mayflower to those who yesterday set his foot for the first time in the United States searching for a better life for themselves and their loved ones-all of them and their descendants are the essence of America.

America’s Family Tree

People have flocked to the United States believing in the promise of the famous words that appear on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Independently if you are aware of it or not, these words resonated in the heart and mind of someone up your family tree. They risked everything, left loved ones and all that was familiar behind, came to America looking for a better life for themselves and their families, “burning their ships” once here.

Many of those who came, regardless of their country of origin, were running away from poverty, from political, religious or social oppression, or from lack of opportunities in their homeland. They, in one way or another, were discriminated against, struggled to make ends meet, felt lonely and desperate. They overcame all these and worked their way up, achieving success, independently of how it was measured. You are the living proof that all their efforts were not in vain.

Germans, British, French, Scottish, Irish, Italians, Swedes, Hebrews, Australians, Norwegians, Spaniards, Dutch, Mexicans, Portuguese, Poles, Africans-all shaped America into what it is today. All came with a dream, with a hunger for freedom, craving for a shot at the opportunities that only this great country has to offer.

The Hispanic community, from the early beginnings of this nation, has been an integral part of America. Latinos (Spaniards and/or Mexicans) where among the first to settle in, or at some point in history rule over, many areas of North America that now constitute States of the Union: Texas, Nevada, Utah, New México, Florida, California, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi. In fact, many ancestors of current day Hispanics never crossed the border, the border crossed them! One day they were part of México, the next they were US citizens.

How Fast We Forget

When first arriving on American soil, almost all immigrants have landed at the basement of the socio-economical system. Either because of a lack of marketable skills and/or little or no knowledge of the English language, they end up taking all those jobs that second generation immigrants (and beyond) have outgrown, due to the rapid upward mobility that the strong, relentless US economy consistently sustains.

Still, new immigrants, once established, tend not to want more people to come as they, too, perceive that immigrants will change their way of living and dilute the opportunities for them and their children.

A good example of this is the Irish Immigration sparked by the potato famines in 19th century Ireland.

In the early 1800s the Irish, who spoke English but were Catholic (in an overwhelmingly Protestant society at the time) immigrated in large numbers to the new world. Poor and with not many marketable skills, they became servants and laborers, being responsible for most of the canals, railways, rural highways, city streets, sewers, and waterworks built back then. They were discriminated against because of their religion and for being foreign-born.

By the late 1800s the Irish had joined the ranks of the other “native-born” and were against embracing new waves of immigrants, claiming that the new immigrants took away jobs from Americans by working for low wages.

How easy it is for us to forget through the passage of time, especially if we do not consciously make an effort to transfer history from generation to generation. By understanding what your forefathers went through you would not only empathize with what more recent immigrants are going through, but would open your hearts and minds by welcoming them into the American society and, more important in the context of this book, into your business.

The Ol’ Melting Pot

Up until recently, it was expected that every group of immigrants that came to America adopted the culture, beliefs, social structure, language and way of life of the male, white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant dominated society. Every group of immigrants, from Albania to Zimbabwe, had to set aside their customs, beliefs, traditional food, clothing, language and any other vestige of who they were, and adapt to the mainstream in order to fully function in this society. For some it was not such a difficult task as to others who barely clung to it only in the privacy of their own homes and in that microcosm tried to pass them along to new generations.

Still, for the most part it happened as expected. During the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, even if reluctantly, immigrants became part of the “American Alloy”.

Means of transportation and communication were neither as abundant nor sophisticated as they are now, impeding frequent contact with all that was left behind in the old country. With the passing of time, everyone became part of the mainstream American melting pot.

From the first English settlers to today, English has been the language of choice. Still not until recently was it declared the “national” language, politically staying short of calling it “official”. Independently of all the spin, it is a fact that in order to be part of mainstream America and totally enjoy all that this nation has to offer, you need to master the English language to a certain degree. From recent surveys, and as I contend later on, language does not define culture. In their majority, immigrants consider learning English a good thing, not seeing it as an impediment in their efforts of preserving their own culture.

The New Kaleidoscope

On this postmodern era, thousands and thousands of persons are coming to America from all over the world, with the same hopes and dreams as this nation’s earliest members, facing the same challenges of yesteryears. Yet, due to today’s reality it is a completely different ball game regarding the assimilation and acculturation processes.

First consider methods of transportation: Back in 1620 it took 36 days for the Mayflower to travel from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts (3,242 miles), even thought the duration for the transatlantic voyage became shorter as time went by; at its fastest time it was still significantly longer than the 8 to 8 ½ hours it now takes to air travel a similar distance from London to New York (3,470 miles).

Now let’s take a look at the forms of communication. Back then, staying in touch with family and friends from the homeland was a great feat. During America’s early days, people stayed in touch mainly through letters. Mail was carried on ships from the US to Europe, taking a little less than a month to arrive. Then the transatlantic telegraph became the method of choice for all rapid long-distance communications until 1927, when commercial telephone service (using radio) began between New York and London. A three-minute phone call cost $16 at the time (or $182.35 in 2006 currency). You can see why back then it was not so difficult to let go of your “roots” and merge into the dominant culture.

Now, just halfway through the first decade of the 21st Century, communication options are almost unlimited, and most are very affordable: Postal service, Couriers, telephone (land lines, calling cards, and cellulars), email, instant messaging, chat, VIOP (voice over internet protocol; Skype and the like), video conferences, air travel, buses, cars… Without spending too much time or money an immigrant can easily preserve, on a daily basis, very close interaction with their country of origin’s people and culture.

Not only can an immigrant maintain a relationship with their family and friends back home, with all the media options now available they can nourish and preserve their culture through TV & radio (broadcast, cable, satellite, and internet), newspapers & magazines (printed and online), websites, movies, and blogs. Anywhere you turn, you can find a variety of sources presenting information and entertainment specifically directed to a given group of persons.

There is a whole industry around catering, through events, to all the different cultures and tastes in America: Festivals, concerts, plays, etc.

Because of the growing demand and the efficiency and number of transportation options, there is a humongous surge in “Nostalgia Marketing”, providing everything from ethnic food to home décor, clothing and anything else you can think of that immigrants (primarily 1st generation) are longing from their homelands.

Due to the constant influx of immigrants from all over the world and all that each of their individual cultures brings to the table, the face of America will continue its intrinsic evolution; it will keep on changing. Not that there is anything wrong with that, given that it is this very fact that has brought America to the place where it is today.

It is not more a melting pot, but a mixture of elements, all combined and living symbiotically, but each maintaining their own individuality. I contend that it brings out the best of each culture and catalyses the American Experience. Only in America can you find the best of every culture in the world.

As American as Tacos

What is more American than Apple Pie? This is one of the staples of the US society which undisputedly defines America’s true nature. Something on which everyone in the United States and around the world could likely agree upon, as strange as it may sound.

Actually, American apples as we know them today were not native to the new world; seeds were brought by early European settlers, carried along with all their prized possessions to start a new life and cook from scratch some good ol’ English Apple Pie. Yes, apple pie was enjoyed in England since the fourteenth century, being a favorite dessert during the reign of Elizabeth I.

What about other “traditional” American cuisines? In 1905 pizza was considered a “foreign food”; by 1947 the New York Times stated that “Pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew about it.” Hot Dogs were introduced in the 1860’s; the sausages brought by European butchers of several nationalities; very likely Germans introduced the practice of eating sausages with bread, which is a long-practiced tradition in their homeland (Bratwursts are fabulous!). The ancestor of the modern hamburger arrived in American shores in the 19th Century when German immigrants brought with them a dish called Hamburg style beef.

All these foods that we now consider building blocks of American cuisine were actually introduced by immigrants at some point in the Nation’s history; each one being part of the culture and tradition of their homelands. I can foresee a time in a not too distant future, when someone will say, “It’s as American as Tacos”, when referring to something considered “native” to the country, and it will make perfect sense to everyone who’s listening.

The Latino Wave

The reasons for today’s immigration wave are not at all different to those of the past. Many immigrants are poor and want a better life for them and their families; are running away from the status quo of political/religious/racial persecution, from the endemic “classism” of their native countries; from having no feasible sources of income. Nowadays all this is happening in different parts of the world; i.e. Latin America.

When it comes to talking about the immigration phenomenon I’m not trying to cover the sun with one finger, “They’re coming to America” from every corner of the world, not only Latin America. So you ask why am I singling out the Latino community?

It is a matter of sheer numbers. With the release of the 2000 Census, and all the media hype surrounding it, you would have to live under a rock to not be aware that Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States, and their numbers are only about to grow bigger. It is estimated that by 2050 (not too far from now), almost 25% of the entire United States Population will be comprised by Latinos.

As discussed above, the methods of communication and media options available today make it easier for immigrants and their US born offspring to maintain a link to their culture. This is especially true in the Hispanic Market. Geographic proximity, present technology, and media/entertainment options guarantee the omnipresence of the Latino culture.

Please note that I am using the term “Latino Culture” not Latin American Culture. Being Latino/Hispanic is different from being Latin American; it is the merging of what the United States has to offer with what Latin Americans bring to the table when coming to America. If the United States and Latin America where the primary colors blue and yellow, Hispanics would be the many shades of green that resulted through their blending.

This is one of the first things you have to understand. Latinos are not all one and the same. Even if they come from the same country, their socio-cultural realities can be so diametrically different that they might as well be from different planets. Now consider different countries (22, including the US, Spain and Brazil), how many years they have been living in the United States (or were they born here), and in which part of the country do they live (There is a big difference in the Hispanic community from Los Angeles compared to that of Cheyenne, WI, Trenton, NJ, Billings, MT, Charlotte, NC, or Miami). Still there are certain traits that define them all, which I’ll share with you later in the book.

Also you might have noticed that I said, “Latino Culture” not Spanish Language. Even though there are many Spanish speakers among Latinos, the language does not define the group. Some Hispanics only speak Spanish, others have different levels of bilingualism, and there is a good percentage of the Hispanic population that doesn’t speak Spanish at all. All of these are members of the Hispanic Community and you need to be aware of the fact that simply translating a document from English into Spanish is by no means an effective or persuasive way to reach Latinos with your marketing message; you need to understand the culture. You have to reach them with a well crafted message that could be pretty much indistinguishable from one directed to the general population, but taking into consideration not necessarily what Hispanics do, but what they don’t do or don’t appreciate, or consider inappropriate within their cultural framework, be it in English or Spanish.

Best of Both Worlds

In no way this means that the pillars of the American Society will be completely replaced. Instead they will be colorized by what the Hispanic culture (as well as all other cultures living side by side in this country) brings to the table. People coming to the United States, in some way or another, are searching for what America has to offer, and a pivotal part of it are its principles, values, laws, and rules; the freedom, the opportunities. New immigrants don’t want to change that, they are longing for it; it is what attracted them her in the first place. Still they don’t want to completely erase their identity either. They know that there are some customs/values/traditions they call their own that will contribute to the never-ending construction of the American society.

As with all that was brought by the first immigrant waves, that eventually became part of the mainstream, so America has to give a chance to the many hundreds of individual quirks that new members of the society are bringing along with them. Some of them will disappear through the passage of time; others will become the future pillars of this society. If we don’t give them an opportunity, how will we ever know if they were any good? Think Sushi, Falafel, Tamales, Empanadas, Tequila, Vodka, Spring Rolls, Pearl Tea…The US is a nation of newcomers; its food reflects its origins. Also think of qualities like increased warmness and the value of family (and extended family); traits of the Latino culture that make me hold my head up high.

It is imperative for America to maintain its edge, let’s not castrate progress by narrow-mindedly opposing the American evolution. Again, this country is a country of immigrants and through their contributions its how America can continue to be the great country it is, maintaining and increasing its lead in the Global Economy.

No comments: