In the mid-1990s, with their nation’s economy mired in a deep recession, large numbers of Mexican laborers came to the United States in search of a better life. But unlike past immigration waves, these living wage workers sought jobs in towns far away from the familiar Southwest and outside large urban centers with existing Latino populations.
Many brought their families and settled in rural manufacturing towns like Dalton, Georgia, the “Carpet Capital of the World,” and in trailer parks set up outside large chicken plants dotting the Atlantic Coast. Some of these small American towns saw their Latino populations double and even triple from one year to the next.
In academic circles, a catchphrase soon emerged to describe this population phenomenon: the “New Latino Diaspora.”
Penn Education Professor Stanton E.F. Wortham was a student in Maine in 1997 when he first learned of the term at an annual conference of the American Anthropological Association. Wortham had been observing the challenges faced by a primary school with one bilingual teacher and about 50 Mexican students. He’d seen the rapid changes these small towns were undergoing, changes that affected both long-standing residents and the Mexican newcomers.
The burden faced by these towns to adequately provide services to the immigrants has been well-documented. What Wortham and his colleagues strive to better understand is how non-Latino residents of New Latino Diaspora communities come to regard their new neighbors, and how the immigrants view their hosts’ reactions.
In cities with long-standing Latino populations, Wortham says, negative stereotypes often are firmly entrenched. But the view of immigrant identity in the newer communities is often very different. His most recent article on the topic, published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly, results from an ongoing, four-year ethnographic study of a Northeastern U.S. town of 30,000 people, where the Latino population jumped an estimated 17 percent between 1990 and 2007.
“For these Mexican immigrants, in this particular location, they seem to get identified in more complex and hybrid ways. A lot of people are thinking of them as hardworking and helping to revitalize the town,” Wortham says. “But in other respects—like their capacity to strike out on their own and be entrepreneurial or to succeed in education—they’re not seen as being in such a great situation.”
This paradox in perception was especially pronounced when long-standing residents compared Asian immigrants to Mexicans. Both groups were thought to be hardworking, uncomplaining and civic minded. In this sense, they are “model minorities.” But the long-standing residents do not expect Mexicans to better themselves through education in the same way as Asian Americans, who are seen as more studious.
“After saying positive things about Mexicans one day, for instance, one teacher claimed that ‘the people who really progressed were the Koreans because ‘they’re big on education,’ Wortham writes in his paper. “Another teacher told us that some of the Mexican students are ‘unmotivated, lazy and have no desire to do work.’”
“It’s not that people don’t develop stereotypes of immigrant groups—they certainly do. But sometimes the stereotypes are more complex than you would think,” Wortham explains.
The data the Penn team collected resulted from hundreds of hours spent observing and volunteering in schools, at community service agencies and in local institutions. The team conducted interviews with community members, teachers, administrators and students from various ethnic groups. Over time, they built trusting relationships with individuals, paving the way for candid conversations.
“It started as a research project for me. But in a situation like this ... you can’t [simply] do nothing—show up, extract the data and go home.” So Wortham and his students and colleagues offered help by translating at parent teacher conferences; running in-service trainings for teachers; and recently getting a grant to produce a directory of preschools written both in English and Spanish.
Today, Wortham says, Latinos represent 15 percent of the U.S. population, making them the largest minority group. Two-thirds are Mexican, or of Mexican origin. Their ability to find success will depend in part on how they are viewed in their new communities. If the next generation of doctors, lawyers and professionals don’t receive the educational support they need, the country as a whole will be worse for it, he says.
“This population is important to the future of the country. ... These people, in some respects, are trying to carry on the old American tradition of immigrants, coming here and working hard so their kids can succeed in school,” Wortham says. “Part of my purpose is to do the research and try and figure out how to help schools do more of what they want to do, which is help these kids learn the subject matter they need to learn and adjust to the various expectations of American society so they can be successful here.”
Originally published on March 25, 2010