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Evolving Identities: A Focus on Immigrant Communities

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Coral A. Walker

March 4, 2010


Dalke & Grobstein

Webpaper #2


Evolving Identities: A Focus on Immigrant Stories


               Our identities are influenced and formed by external forces, what makes people so uneasy about this? Throughout our recent discussions there has been this apparent eminent fear of how external forces affect our choices and our individuality. Personally, I completely welcome and am put at ease with the idea that our identities are subject to external forces. After all don’t our friends’ actions affect our own, hence the meaning of peer pressure. Humans are inherently social beings; we need societies and social interactions to prosper. The image of a newly arrived immigrant crosses my mind, imagine being that lost and confused individual, not knowing the language, the setting, the cultural and social cues, and lacking any form of social network. Immigrants are forced to quickly adapt to their new environment, in the US the silent motto tends to be, ‘Sink or Swim’. In other words their identity is fully dictated and subject to the external forces of the new cultural setting as well as their pre-existing cultural identity. Currently there is has been a dramatic change in demographics which has affected politics as well as the economy. Now the demographic is a lot more diverse and many more individuals are recent immigrants and minorities, evolving how we define being an American. Early generations of immigrants accepted the need to quickly assimilate and eliminate their previous identity, hence the idea of the US being a melting pot, a variety of identities melting together and becoming one. Recently there has been an evolutionary change towards an open-mindedness and acceptance of multiple and complimentary identities. Our identities are strongly influenced by external forces, it evolves according to our surroundings, and much like an immigrant’s identity evolves to represent their new situation.

               The immigration wave into the US during the 1800’s-early 1900’s, was one in search of the “American Dream”, but to acquire that dream one must be American. Most of these immigrants quickly negated their background and previous identities, and attempted to assimilate as quickly as possible. The term assimilate refers to integrating into a new culture or society, to the extreme that what previously existed is covered up and forgotten. These generations assimilate and adapted to their current situation, it was a means of survival, these individuals needed to camouflage with the rest of society to be able to survive and thrive. In general this form of adaptation was used as a survival mechanism, to become part of the greater society and not be the ones ostracized and belittled by the larger community. In Laurie Olsen’s book Made in America, a case study a high school in California with a high and diverse population of immigrants; some of the students discuss an event they have classified as “taking off the turban”. The idea is quite literal; a family that had been ostracized and insulted by the larger community, to the point where the male figures in the family took off the turban, as a step to assimilate into the greater American community. These individuals are portraying an evolutionary stance, they are adapting to their surroundings as a means of survival, and those that don’t it in are less likely to be accepted and thrive in the rest of society. The immigrants are evolving their identity as they see fit.

               The current immigrant status is a bit different, there is somewhat of a greater acceptance towards diversity in general. More individuals are becoming accepting and welcoming the idea of multiracialism, multiculturalism, multilingualism, etc. This diversity is becoming a reality that must be accepted, it is representative of our current community, and globalization. To some extent those that find themselves in the limbo of multiple or diverse identities are more likely to survive because they can quickly adapt and interpret the new surroundings and believes, it allows for a greater sense of open-mindedness which is necessary in the age of globalization. Immigrants are still heavily ostracized in the US, but this mentality is slowly evolving to an acceptance of diversity. Many theorists no longer refer to the US as a melting pot of different identities that make up one but rather as a salad bowl made up of different identities that are their own. In Olsen’s book some students use the negative term “white washed”, in relation to the immigrant students that have assimilated and have lost their previous identity, it is seen as a form of “selling-out” and not being representatives of one’s background. Rebecca Freeman did a similar case study in North Philadelphia in a predominately Puerto Rican community, she discovered that many of the students spoke English and were ashamed are there mediocre or non-existing Spanish, they saw it as not being true to themselves. One of the students, Claudia, spoke about being ashamed that she could not successfully communicate or bond with her family, she was negating a part of herself, and rather than being ashamed of her background, she was ashamed that she could not relate or represent it. Claudia like many other immigrants made it her priority to learn about her family background and about her identity, becoming proud and representing both of her identities. This shows an evolutionary struggle to be multicultural and multilingual, as a means to survive both in the social as well as familial hemisphere.

               Identities are influenced by the forces that surround us, we evolve with our surroundings, and it is inevitable. This evolutionary change is especially visible in immigrant communities, because they have been removed from the comfort zone to an new and undiscovered area, and they are forced to choose between assimilating or acculturating and blending two cultures and identities together. This evolutionary process has progressed from the common belief that one could only be true to one identity, to the now common belief that one can encompass more than one cultural identity and as globalization becomes a more common theme in our daily life. The immigrant identity is no longer a melting pot, but rather a salad bowl of unique pieces working together. Assimilation is no longer the only means of survival because the acceptance of diversity has emerged.  

Works Cited

Freeman, Rebecca D. "Part II: Exploring Language Ideologies in North Philadelphia."

Building on Community Bilingualism. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Pub., 2004. 87-147. Print.


Olsen, Laurie. Made in America: Immigrant Students in Our Public Schools. New York: New, 1997. Print.


Salomone, Rosemary C. "Chapter 4: Language, Identity, and Belonging." True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. 68-97. Print.