Revising and diagraming the melting pot myth.

This project started back in 2006, when I first became interested in Ugly Betty. I am currently re-writing an essay that looks at Ugly Betty as a story of undocumented immigration. My main contention is that the stories about immigrants to the United States are usually shaped by the myth of the melting pot. Namely, immigrants are the huddled masses, who come to the U.S.A. in search of opportunity. However, before they can reap the full benefits that the U.S.A. has to offer, they must undergo a rite of passage (see Van Gennep and/or Turner). Ideally, the passage leads to gradual assimilation, as immigrants adopt American ways and shed their own customs. If they assimilate fully, immigrants incorporated into the receiving community and granted rights. If they fail, they are doomed to an eternity in liminality. I came up with this diagram to explain the narrative structure of the melting pot myth.

original mP

Click to enlarge.

Since I’m dealing with undocumented immigration, though, this structure doesn’t fit. Undocumented immigrants cannot be fully incorporated into the receiving community because they have committed a transgression against the receiving community. Territory, once settled and demarcated, is considered sacred (see Van Gennep). Therefore, I came up with a different diagram that offers two alternatives, one leading to incorporation, and the other one leading back to a status that I am calling liminal residence (you reside in the receiving country, but lack the rights of the native born or naturalized).

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Thoughts? please leave a comment.

Cuentame: Immigration Crusaders.

Now that Tony Plana no longer plays an illegal immigrant, he’s becoming more active in the immigration reform movement. Plana has put his celebrity to use as a campaigner for Reform Immigration for America, and Cuentame. He is by no means alone, as other celebrities and prominent Latinos(as) have joined the fray. Here’s Plana’s Reform Immigration for America ad:

And this is the Cuentame campaign ad:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/video/video.php?v=392770581902&ref=mf

Cuentame,is a Brave New Foundation project. Its organizers describe themselves as “the Latino instigators.” Unlike the Reform Immigration for America campaign, Cuentame is using Facebook exclusively. I think they have a some things re-think about their strategy. Slick as it is, it has problems.

Now, the use of facebook as a tool for social activism is not new. Nick Judd, in an article posted on tech president, notes as much. He also states that the results of FB activism haven’t been exactly spectacular for Cuentame. Fund raising and national exposure are still relatively low. The campaigns celebrity videos, featuring Tony Plana and Hector Elizondo, can catch the attention of supporters, but without data on sharing and re-posting, all we have to go by is the likes.

Can we judge the effectiveness of a campaign based on likes? if so, is the fact that the Tony Plana video has only garnered 159 likes (as of 5/18/2010) evidence of failure? Cuentame has almost 30 thousand followers. So, 159 likes is less than 0.5%.

Here’s three additional issues I find odd about this particular campaign:

1) The petition drive doesn’t provide any stats about how many people have signed. Even the Tea Party patriots have stats on their petition. When Nick Judd checked for his piece, they had 43,500 signatures. When I checked back today, they had a little over 58,000. How come Cuentame doesn’t have anything like that?

2) I totally agree with Judd. A FB-only campaign has the disadvantage of closing off your video linking ability. I can’t embed it on this blog, like I can with youtube videos. I actually tried to embed the Tony Plana video, after googling how to do it. Guess what: It didn’t work. For me, this begs the question of why on earth would you want to cut yourself off from youtube, the most popular video sharing sites, when you’re producing video?? That just baffles me.

3) The fact that Kobe Bryant’s wife was wearing a “Do I look Illegal” T-shirt could have been significant, but the t-shirt in question looks nothing like the ones that Cuentame is selling (even they admit it). Take a look:

Worse part of it is that Vannessa Bryant’s former housekeeper, a Latina immigrant from Peru, sued her boss for verbal abuse.  The Bryants decided to settle out of court, which is just icing on the controversy cake. I suppose neither of these things should matter, in terms of exposure. But they do. The character issue casts doubts on the legitimacy of the claim. Cuentame, by so joyously jumping on the celebrity bandwagon, might end up doing itself more harm than good, although I seriously doubt that it would go too far anyway. Only one person mentioned the lawsuit on Cuentame’s page. Ergo, it’s not part of the conversation (at least not yet).

The Reform Immigration for America campaign is, in my opinion, much better organized, and obviously better funded. Their use of social media doesn’t ghettoize the campaign to FB. It provides content through all of the most popular sites available, and they’re also taking their message to mainstream media. Indeed, campaigning with new media should complement, not replace mainstream media. It can be effective, as Judd’s article suggests, to build up contacts for future mobilization, but we should acknowledge its limits as well. I don’t think Cuentame does that yet, and until it does, I’m skeptical about its mobilizing ability.

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Bye Bye Betty. “So long, and thank you for the fish” (ahem, dissertation)

Today’s top story, at least until Obama takes the stage for his first State of the Union Address, is the unveiling of Apple’s iPad, an unfortunate name choice, but it’s Apple, so who cares! Still, I will remember January 27, 2010 as the day when ABC finally canceled Ugly Betty. Yup… it happened. I had been expecting it for months, ever since they moved it to Fridays and then switched it to Thursdays. And the thing is that even though I’m writing my dissertation about Ugly Betty, I’m not sad at all. I mean, maybe I should be, because Betty and I have been through a lot, but I’m not.

The show started off big. It was the most watched new comedy of the 06-07 season. I got drawn into it because it brought together topics I’m really interested in: immigration and its myths, identity construction, and the political economy of television.

By studying Betty, I’ve learned about myths. In fact, I’ve spent too much time familiarizing myself with the myths of American immigration, getting some historical perspective, and becoming, let’s say, a little more philosophical. Now, it has come to the point where, to explain my views about Betty as, essentially, a reproduction of the myth of the melting pot, I feel the need to quote Machiavelli, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Cassirer, and even Plato. And I’ve been asked “what does any of that have to do with Ugly Betty?” All I can say is that, in my mind, it does. In my mind, I see Betty as the little immigrant girl that could because she assimilated, and isn’t that what immigrants are told to do? Isn’t that what Emma Lazarus hoped for? Even Frederick Jackson Turner, who is not someone you think about when you ponder American immigration, believed that immigrants had to assimilate, to go through a crucible of sorts, before they emerged on the other side as full-fledged Americans.

But that was only the first season. After that, the myth faded away. It was better to focus on Betty’s love life, or lack-thereof. Romance fit the schedule a lot better. After all, Betty was opening for Meredith and McDreamy, and block programming is all about keeping it consistent.

When that happened, Betty lost me as a fan. She still had me as a researcher, but my loyalties went elsewhere, to Fringe, and to NCIS, where at least I didn’t feel sold out as much. I still watched, reluctantly, until I just could not stomach it anymore.

Now ABC is saying it wants to give fans a proper send off. They’ll probably have her marry. That’s how original Betty La Fea ended, after all, and it would be fitting for the American Betty to follow suit.

So long Betty, and thank you for the dissertation.

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The USA: Melting pot, Transnational America, or something else?

From: The Melting Pot
“There she lies the great Melting Pot listen Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling There gapes her mouth, the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight Ah what a stirring and a seething Celt and Latin Slav and Teuton Greek and Syrian black and yellow […]. Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God […]. What is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back compared with the glory of America where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!”
Israel Zangwill, 1908.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, 1883.

When it comes to immigration, the words of Israel Zangwill and Emma Lazarus are  the most recognizable symbols of the ideal of the melting pot in the United States. Zangwill, who was a successful British writer, popularized the term by using it as the title of a play about immigrants coming to America. In similar vein, Lazarus wrote the New Colossus to support the building of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which was one of the first things immigrants would see as they sailed into New York. Today, Lazarus’ words are inscribed on that very same pedestal. Furthermore, Irving Berlin composed music inspired by her famous poem:

Conventional wisdom  tells us that the United States is a land of immigrants, but I’m always uncomfortable with conventional wisdom. What can I say? I’ve read way too much critical theory. Way too much Barthes. Therefore, I consider the melting pot as fair game for critical analysis. First of all, like the frontier thesis, the melting pot is a myth; it reduces a very complicated historical process to a slogan, which can be a very effective way of shutting down discussion. Very few people will argue against common sense (why would you?).

However, Randolph Bourne is an exception. In 1916, barely about 8 years after Zangwill’s  The Melting Pot premiered in Washington D.C., Bourne published Transnational America, one of his most influential essays. In it, he argued that the ideal of the melting pot had failed. Immigrants were not melting, as expected, but this was not Bourne’s main criticism. He believed that the melting pot was terminally flawed because it imposed an arbitrary, and rigid, model for Americanization:

Surely we cannot be certain of our spiritual democracy, when, claiming to melt the nations within us to a comprehension of our free and democratic institutions, we fly into panic at the first sign of their own will and tendency. We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place in our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed (Bourne, Transnational America).

The problem, as Bourne saw it, was to claim that  assimilating meant adopting Anglo-Saxon ways of being. This attitude failed to recognize how new arrivals contributed to society. Bourne thought that they were, in fact, re-vitalizing the nation. Furthermore, it was imposition of Anglo-conformity and conservatism, and nothing could come from it but stagnation, mediocrity, and uniformity.

What fascinates me about Bourne is that he struggles with the meaning of Americanism. When Transnational America was published — and I would add, to this day — this is not an unimportant question. Bourne wrote for an audience at the brink of war. It was a divided nation, wrestling between neutrality and an entanglement in WWI. For many Americans, the European immigrant groups who still maintained their customs and culture were a serious risk: they would either drag the nation to war, or betray the nation if it did go to war. Hyphenated Americans — especially German-Americans — became suspect of divided loyalties. This is precisely what Bourne was so incensed about. Divided loyalties? to what? to an English ideal imposed by a ruling class? Bourne found the contention laughable, if not hypocritical:

The truth is that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation than by the ruling Anglo-Saxon descendants in these American States. English snobberies, English religion, English literary styles, English literary reverences and canons, English ethics, English superiorities, have been the cultural food that we have drunk in from our mothers’ breasts […]. The unpopular and dreaded German-American of the present day is a beginning amateur in comparison with those foolish Anglophiles of Boston and New York and Philadelphia (Bourne, Transnational America, I).

To counter the melting pot, Bourne proposes a cosmopolitan ideal. He argues that national culture should not privilege one group over another; it should acknowledge that what makes Americans American comes from within, from the experience of colonizing the nation.

Expanding Bourne’s vision

If Bourne  sounds like Frederick Jackson Turner, I don’t think it is coincidental. Like Turner, Bourne believed that American traditions were a product of a distinctly American experience, which owes its character to the pioneers. Furthermore, Bourne also believed that European immigrants were new blood that America needed to remain vital. Hence, he never mentions anyone else. I do not believe, however, that this diminishes his argument against “Anglo-Saxonizing” (Transnational America), as it is still the predominant model of assimilation. Proponents of this view believe that contemporary American culture is the result of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of the Puritans (Huntington, 2001). This implies that American culture has a static core, that remains pure no matter how much contact it has with outsiders.

The problem with this argument is that cultures are very fluid, and American culture is not an exception. Consequently, the idea of a fixed culture negates how “ever since its infancy, the American society has been mutating and evolving at a pace that is readily observable” (Zelinsky, 2001, p. 128).  Aside from the dramatic political and social changes that the country has experienced over time — i.e. abolition of slavery, the 19th amendment, civil rights, and immigration reform –, there is another  force pushing towards cultural transformation: Cultures tend to hybridize through contact, that is, they borrow from each other, changing constantly in the process.

Happy Trails into the Melting Pot?

As I mentioned before, Bourne’s remarks only considered European immigration. But what about non-Europeans? Are they a part of Transnational America? This is another complicated question because you can’t consider non-European immigration without talking about race and prejudice. Though Bourne addressed prejudice in a broad sense, he did not take racial prejudice into account. Nevertheless, Euro-centric ideals about what is good, proper, and normal have always complicated American views about immigration. Let’s look, for example, at the case of Latinos

In Frances Negron-Muntaner’s article, she focuses on the significance of Jennifer Lopez as a Latina icon. Lopez played the lead in Gregory Nava’s movie Selena, which is the story of a young Tejana singer who died before her time. Selena’s story is about achieving the American dream:

Selena has passed on to sainthood: not only for dying young, but for dying on the way to another, better place; the immigrant fantasies of the seamless plot known as the American dream (Negron-Muntaner, 1997, p. 181).

This is a very common theme in stories about immigrants. They’re stories of upward mobility that re-state limitless opportunity. Nevertheless, Negron-Muntaner suggests it’s not that simple (is anything?). Latinos(as), being very different from the European-American ideal immigrant, contend with racial prejudices that privilege whiteness:

A big culo does not only upset hegemonic (white) notions of beauty and good taste, it is a sign for the dark, incomprehensible excess of “Latino” and other African diaspora cultures. Excess of food (unrestrained), excess of shitting (dirty), and excess of sex (heathen) are its three vital signs. Like hegemonic white perceptions of Latinos, big butts are impractical and dangerous. A big Latin rear end is an invitation to pleasures construed as illicit by puritan ideologies, heteronormativity, and the medical establishment through the three deadly vectors of miscegenation, sodomy, and a high-fat diet (Negron-Muntaner, 1997, p. 189).

John Higham, in his book Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, argues that Americans have always struggled between two traditions when it comes to immigration. The first tradition is nativism, which constantly denounces immigrants as a danger to American society. The second tradition is cosmopolitanism, which proclaims that immigrants benefit society. The nativist tradition also proclaims that there is only one way to be an American, that is, that there is a fixed identity, or a model, that every immigrant needs to follow (or else!). The cosmopolitan tradition, however, wavers between those who feel that assimilation is about adopting American customs and negating those of the old country, and those who feel that the nation is multicultural. Negron’s argument about culos is an indictment of full assimilation.

Negron-Muntaner is about hegemony. Hegemony, as a concept, is linked to Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci defined it as “the winning of consent to unequal class relations, which dominant groups make appear to be natural and fair” (Prono, 2008). Hegemony, in other words, is the imposition of an ideology or a system of beliefs. Hegemony can be exercised through force, or through persuasion. However, in Gramsci’s view, it is far more effective to persuade and collude, than to coerce. Hegemonic ideology is a very widely used concept in the field of critical cultural studies.

So, how does hegemonic ideology work in this case? Negron-Muntaner suggests the dominant concept of beauty as an example. Selena Quintanilla was too curvy, and would have only achieved cross-over success with plastic surgery.

We’ll never know. Selena died several years ago, just as she was about to release her first full length album in English. Jennifer Lopez is another matter. She has achieved cross-over success. And she usually records in English and Spanish.

Where do we stand in terms of immigration?

The melting pot is an enduring American belief, but it is very simplistic. Like a good myth, to borrow from Barthes, it explains the national experience as a generalization. On the other hand, Bourne’s cosmopolitan ideal is equally fraught with contradictions. Bourne was not including the issue of race, class, or economics, and these are important considerations. In fact, such considerations fuel contemporary debates about immigration.

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References

  • Bourne, R. (1916). Transnational America
  • Negron-Muntaner, F. (1997). Jennifer’s Butt. Aztlan, 22(2), pp. 181-194.
  • Prono, L. (2008) “Hegemony”   The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern World.Ed Peter N. Stearns. Oxford University Press, Retrieved 24 September 2009,  from http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t254.e698.
  • Zelinsky, W. (2001). The enigma of ethnicity. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

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