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.

Language Acquisition

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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 “…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…


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