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The Unmelting Pot


By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

The dusty boxes lay hidden in the basement of Powell Library, tucked away since the mid-1960s, when their contents were used for a seminal study on Mexican Americans. In 1992, during a retrofitting, workers discovered the stacks and passed them on to UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.

Vilma Ortiz, then the center's associate director, knew she'd been handed a treasure trove. Inside the boxes were the original questionnaires filled out almost three decades before by 1,576 respondents in Los Angeles and San Antonio, and used for the book The Mexican-American People: The Nation's Second Largest Minority. With them, Ortiz and colleague Edward Telles M.A. '84 could perform a truly intergenerational study on the assimilation of the largest immigrant group in this country's history.

Now, after 15 years locating and interviewing almost 700 of the original survey subjects and about 750 of their children, the scholars have put the research into 400 pages of edited analysis. Ortiz and Telles' findings were published in late February in Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation and Race.

"This population in the 1960s was fairly disadvantaged," Ortiz said. "They were relatively poor, relatively less educated. We expected there would be dramatic change since the 1960s. And we did find that. What we weren't as sure about was what would be the generational differences. And that is where we got the most interesting — yet saddest — outcomes."

While English proficiency, residential integration, intermarriage and political involvement increased each generation after immigration, education and economic status only improved between the first and second generation. For the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, these advancements were flat at best, and actually worse in many cases.

The phenomenon was unexpected because it was markedly different from the story of European-American immigrants, whose children and grandchildren often escaped the poverty of previous generations.

"We basically eliminated all the reasons people suggested," Telles said: cultural differences, language barriers, parental education, "and we still found that things only get worse from the second generation on. So what is left? Most people would say racial discrimination."

Education certainly couldn't be understated. In their research, Ortiz and Telles found that later-generation Mexican Americans often attended the poorest-performing public schools, 15 percent to 25 percent dropped out of high school and most did not complete college.

Given better educational opportunities, third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans would have exhibited assimilation and socioeconomic advancements more in line with the improvements Ortiz and Telles expected.

"If American society wants to incorporate these groups, they really have to focus on educating them. This is a potential underclass in the making," Telles says.