Mexican American integration slow, education stalled, study finds
UCLA report charts Chicano experience over four decades
By Letisia Marquez March 20, 2008
Second-, third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans speak English fluently, and most prefer American music. They are increasingly Protestant, and some may even vote for a Republican candidate.
However, many Mexican Americans in these later generations do not graduate from college, and they continue to live in majority Hispanic neighborhoods. Most marry other Hispanics and think of themselves as "Mexican" or "Mexican American."
Such are the findings from the most comprehensive sociological report ever produced on the integration of Mexican Americans. The UCLA study, released today in a Russell Sage Foundation book titled "Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race," concludes that, unlike the descendants of European immigrants to the United States, Mexican Americans have not fully integrated by the third and fourth generation. The research spans a period of nearly 40 years.
The study's authors, UCLA sociologists Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz, examined various markers of integration among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas, including educational attainment, economic advancement, English and Spanish proficiency, residential integration, intermarriage, ethnic identity and political involvement.
"The study contains some encouraging findings, but many more are troubling," said Telles, a UCLA professor of sociology. "Linguistically, Mexican Americans are assimilating into mainstream quite well, and by the second generation, nearly all Mexican Americans achieve English proficiency."
"However," said Ortiz, a UCLA associate professor of sociology, "institutional barriers, persistent discrimination, punitive immigration policies and a reliance on cheap Mexican labor in the Southwestern states have made integration more difficult for Mexican Americans."
"Generations of Exclusions" revisits the 1970 book "The Mexican American People," which was the first in-depth sociological study of Mexican Americans and became a benchmark for future research. It found little assimilation among Mexican Americans, even those who had lived in the United States for several generations.
The earlier study had been conducted at UCLA in the mid-1960s by Leo Grebler, Joan Moore, and Ralph Guzman. In 1992, construction workers retrofitting the UCLA College Library found boxes containing questionnaires from the original study.
Telles and Ortiz pored over the questionnaires and recognized a unique opportunity to examine how the Mexican American experience had evolved in the decades since the first study. The researchers and their team then reinterviewed nearly 700 original respondents and approximately 800 of their children. The vast majority of the original respondents and all the children are U.S. citizens.
In the foreword to "The Mexican American People," researcher Moore had written that she was optimistic that a subsequent study would find much assimilation among Mexican Americans. Telles and Ortiz, like Moore, were surprised to find that the third and fourth generation in this current study had not achieved more gains, particularly in the educational arena.
Key findings from "Generations of Exclusion" include:
- The educational levels of second-generation Mexican Americans improved dramatically. But the third and fourth generations failed to surpass, and to some extent fell behind, the educational level of the second generation. Moreover, the educational levels of all Mexican Americans still lag behind the national average.
- Mexican Americans attained higher levels of education when they knew professionals as children, when their parents were more educated and when their parents were more involved in school and church activities. Those who attended Catholic schools were much better educated than those who attended public schools.
- Economic status improved from the first to second generation but stalled in the third and fourth generation. Earnings, occupational status and homeownership were still alarmingly low for later generations. Low levels of schooling among Mexican Americans were the main reason for lower income, occupational status and other indicators of socioeconomic status.
- All Mexican Americans were English-proficient by the second generation. Spanish proficiency declined from the first to the fourth generation, showing that the loss of Spanish was inevitable. However, Spanish declined only gradually, and approximately 36 percent of the fourth generation spoke Spanish fluently.
- First-generation Mexican Americans were about 90 percent Catholic. By the fourth generation, only 58 percent were Catholic.
- Intermarriage increased with each generation. Only 10 percent of immigrants were intermarried. In the third generation, 17 percent were married to non-Hispanics, as were 38 percent in the fourth generation.
- Adult Mexican Americans in the third and fourth generation lived in more segregated neighborhoods than they did as youths. This was due to the high number of Latinos and immigrants moving into these neighborhoods, the researchers said.
- Most Mexican Americans identified as "Mexican" or "Mexican American," even into the fourth generation. Only about 10 percent identified as "American." Moreover, many Mexican Americans felt their ethnicity was very important and many said they would like to pass it along to their children.
- Third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans supported less restrictive immigration policies than the general population and generally supported bilingual education and affirmative action.
- In the 1996 presidential election, 93 percent of first-generation Mexican Americans voted Democratic. The percentage of Democratic voters declined in each subsequent generation. By the fourth generation, 74 percent voted Democratic.
Telles and Ortiz noted that some Mexican Americans were able to move into the mainstream more easily than other minorities. Mexican immigrants who came to the United States as children and the children of immigrants tended to show the most progress, perhaps spurred by optimism and an untainted view of the American Dream.
"A disproportionate number, though, continue to occupy the lower ranks of the American class structure," the sociologists said. "Certainly, later-generation Mexican Americans and European Americans overlap in their class distributions. The difference is that the bulk of Mexican Americans are in lower class sectors but only a relatively small part of the European American population is similarly positioned."
More than any other factor, Telles and Ortiz said, education accounted for the slow assimilation of Mexican Americans in most social dimensions. The low educational levels of Mexican Americans have impeded most other types of integration.
"Their limited schooling locks many of them into a future of low socioeconomic status," they said. "Low levels of education also predict lower rates of intermarriage, a weaker American identity, and a lower likelihood of registering to vote and voting."
Telles and Ortiz believe that a "Marshall Plan" that invests heavily in public school education will address the issues that disadvantage many Mexican American students.
"For Mexican Americans, the payoff can only come by giving them the same quality and quantity of education as whites receive," they said. "The problem is not the unwillingness of Mexican Americans to adopt Americans values and culture but the failure of societal institutions, particularly public schools, to successfully integrate them as they did the descendants of European immigrants."
The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the Ford, Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Haynes foundations; the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center; and various UC and UCLA sources.
The book can be ordered by calling the Russell Sage Foundation at (800) 524-6401 or visiting www.rsage.org.