The Pressure to Assimilate

Emely Chairez, Editor-in-Chief

My parents understood how difficult it was to move from one country to another. They also understood that what made it difficult was moving from one culture and one language to a new culture with a new language. Because of this, my parents wanted me to have an easier life. But in some ways, that did not happen. 


Because I was growing up in a separate country from where my parents grew up, they were afraid that I would become out of touch with my culture. To combat this, my parents made sure to teach me Spanish and to send me to Mexico every summer to be with my family who lived there. 


I have never shied away from my name or my identity. I have always loved being Latina and embracing my Mexican heritage. However, at times embracing who I am was difficult when there was no one else around me who was like me. 


I have always attended predominantly white schools. There was even a time when my family was the only Latino family in our entire town. In my 13 years of education and countless classes, there have only been three classes I have shared with another Latino student. Because nearly all of my peers have been white, I have felt pressured to be like them. I was not embarrassed to be Mexican, I was simply scared of being ridiculed for it.


This pressure is not simply felt by me, but is a common feeling with immigrants and minorities when they arrive or live in the United States. This pressure leads to us feeling like we must assimilate to American culture. 


The Cambridge dictionary states that “people who are or become assimilated in a society become similar to others by learning and using the customs and culture of the new society.” But when someone becomes a part of a new culture they tend to slowly lose pieces of their own cultures and customs.


My whole life I have felt a pressure to dress like my peers, speak like my peers and look like my peers. This pressure manifested itself by altering my behaviors, even subconsciously. I was terrified of being singled out for my culture and for my identity. I was so terrified, I altered the way I spoke. 


My father has a thick Spanish accent when he speaks English and I saw the way people treated him. Those with underlying biases viewed my father as less intelligent and ultimately inferior to them. I’ve observed several situations where when people first meet my father, they speak normally but after hearing his accent, it feels like they begin to speak slower and simplify the language they use. They speak almost as if they were in a conversation with a child or someone they deemed unintelligent. I was scared of experiencing the same treatment, so as a young child, whenever I was around white people I would over-enunciate all my words to make sure I could sound as “white” as possible. I made sure to speak clearly and used an even tone when speaking. 


This has permanently altered the way I speak now. I am always bombarded with comments about how “articulate” I am. Whenever I am in a room full of white Americans, I feel pressured to sound like them and be respected by them. I can do both by over-enunciating my words, making references to only American culture and being mindful of the slang I normally use around my Mexican family. 


People of color in America tend to either consciously or subconsciously weaken parts of their identities that white Americans with underlying biases view as negative in order to be more accepted by them. When I changed the way I spoke I erased a piece of my identity that might be viewed negatively by some in order to avoid being ridiculed. I removed a piece of my identity as a precaution and safety measure. 


But assimilation goes further than language. It can be as simple as students not bringing traditional foods to lunch in order to avoid seeing those around them plug their noses and look disgusted. Assimilation can be seen in the choice of some to not teach their children their language or even refusing to wear traditional attire anymore. 


Growing up, I realized that none of the other girls at my school wore some of the clothes I had. No one had shirts embroidered in traditional Mexican styles. I wore a traditional shirt to school once and I was met with rude stares and hushed whispers. I didn’t want to stand out so I refused to wear my traditional clothing ever again, even when I wasn’t at school. I traded a piece of my culture and identity for social acceptance yet again. 


Assimilation can be incredibly harmful to immigrants and minorities. According to an essay written by Jay Patel for the University of Maryland, “the effects of assimilation range from depression, loss of identity, homesickness and even mental illness.”


American society tends to view any difference or deviation from its norms as inferior. Without this idea, immigrants and minorities would not feel scared of being ridiculed and would in turn not feel any pressure to assimilate to American culture. The damaging effects of assimilation should never have to be felt by anyone. No one should ever have to compromise their identity for respect, kindness and acceptance. Instead of immigrants and minorities adapting to American culture, everyone else should adapt their mindsets and hearts to be more welcoming of other cultures, languages and identities. 


If no one had ever shamed my father for his accent I never would have altered the way I speak. If no one had ever rudely stared at my attire, I wouldn’t have felt ashamed of my traditional clothes. The freedom to express myself and my culture would have improved the way I viewed myself. When I changed who I was for my peers I compromised my identity, in turn making me feel like I had lost who I was.


If instead people would have more compassion towards immigrants and minorities, American society would have the potential to become a place of true acceptance without compromises.