Bilingualism, Undocumented Immigrants, and the American Dream (part 2 of 2)


Ana Garcia shares an experience of many first and second-generation immigrant teenagers. She studies and makes good grades, even catching the attention of her English teacher Mr. Guzman, who encourages her to apply to universities. Ana gets accepted to Columbia University, and many in her community celebrate with Ana as she prepares for life in New York City with the chance to study with some of the most brilliant professors. Everyone except for her mother, Carmen. Carmen is educated as well, and longs to teach her daughter how to sew, be a supportive wife, and take care of a house. She becomes anxious when Ana develops a romantic relationship with Jimmy, a Caucasian, upper-middle class boy at their suburban high school. Everything that Carmen knows from her upbringing in Mexico clashes with everything Ana learns and experiences in Los Angeles:

The 2002 Sundance Film Festival award-winning Real Women Have Curves takes viewers to the barrios of east Los Angeles, where Carmen (played by Lupe Oliveres) and Raul (Jorge Cervera Jr.) attempt to create an improved life by immigrating to California from Mexico. Though they’ve lived in the United States for some time (Ana, their oldest, is a senior in high school), they’ve had challenges establishing themselves professionally, as much of their income depends on Carmen’s sister’s sewing factory. The film focuses on the tension between Carmen and Ana (America Ferrera in her on-screen debut), which results in Carmen challenging many of her daughter’s educational, professional, and relational decisions. Ana explores the convergence of both cultures, working at the sewing factory with her aunts during the summer while also pursuing her academic gifts (with the help of Mr. Guzman, played brilliantly by George Lopez) and exploring her sexuality. Real Women Have Curves is not just Ana’s story; it narrates the evolution of the Garcia family as they struggle to collaborate national (Mexican, in this case) and American cultural norms and expectations.


Dr. Meifen Wei, psychology professor at Iowa State University, and Stephanie Carrera explored relationships similar to Ana and Carmen in their research project ““Bicultural Competence, Acculturative Family Distancing, and Future Depression in Latino/a College Students”, published in July’s Journal of Counseling Psychology. Their subjects, Latino/a university students, grew up in immigrant families: at least one parent (and numerous immediate family members) were born outside the U.S., English was spoken second, if at all, and families defined clear, if not somewhat rigid, expectations for mother and father, male and female. Wei and Carrera observed the differentiation process (the ability of a teenager/young adult to live interdependently from their families of origin) of these teenagers. Keep in mind, differentiation supports the values of the larger Western culture–independence, personal achievement–and may come in conflict with the values of Latino (and other collectivist) cultures–the group before the individual, cohesion.

Depression of young adults is often linked to challenges with differentiation. Ana, for instance, wants to go to college out-of-state but meets strong resistance from their family of origin, who “encourage” their child to stay closer. (The “encouraging” process may be rationally driven–out of state tuition tacks on an additional 40-50% of an already expensive collegiate experience, or emotionally driven–the parent frequently reminds the teenager how much they’ll be missed or how things won’t be the same without them, a message tinged with a bit of guilt. Ideally, the encouraging process is strictly rational, but is realistically usually an emotion-driven process.) Ana’s decision to go to Columbia carries a risk: mom’s disappointment and the coinciding criticism/reminders of her disappointment. However, her decision to go to Columbia was also a differentiated one, as her decision was not controlled/affected by either the emotional process of her mother or the desire to upset her mother. Had Ana decided to blow off Columbia to stay in Los Angeles for the sake of her mother’s happiness, perhaps she’d experience lower self-esteem, higher regrets, and a greater risk for more serious risks of depression.

A parent launching their teenager out of their home and into adulthood is emotionally challenging enough. Imagine that you’re sending your teenager/young adult into a community of “other” that doesn’t share your values, your language, the prioritization of religion or community. The difficulty of an immigrant family launching their child increases exponentially due to differences in their culture and American culture.

As stated in part one, Wei and Carrera discovered that immigrant families with bicultural paradigms, exploring and validating two cultural groups without sacrificing the beliefs and values of their original culture, had a greater likelihood of launching healthy, confident teenagers into university, while students whose parents/families struggled with accepting the practices of both cultures were at greater risk for depressive symptoms. They refer to the research of Teresa LaFromboise, professor of sociology at Stanford, who has spent much of her career exploring the resilience strategies of immigrant families. Successful families, “biculturally competent“, to use LaFromboise’s terms, meld the cultural norms and expectations of their countries of origin with their immigrant nation in six ways:

1) They have sufficient understanding of both community’s values and beliefs. For example, these families may intentionally spend an equal amount of time pursuing individual and familial goals. They identify and practice family values from both communities.

2) They have positive attitudes toward both groups. These families spend quality time with members of both community groups and give family members the ability to explore relationships with people in both groups. They also seem to experience limited social injustices, either interpersonal or systemic.

3) They believe that they can participate in two groups without losing one’s cultural identity. The New York Times reports that approximately 1.2 million Hispanic Americans re-identified themselves as White or some other race between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Nate Cohn provides some interesting explanations for this trend. Bicultural families still identify themselves through their country of origin, even as they participate in a diversity of cultural experiences.

4) They are bilingual. Spanish may still be the primary language at home, but English is widely used. Older generations agree to learn English, either through ESL education or watching English-language forms of media, and identify clear rules around language. Some families prefer speaking at home while speaking English in social situations, for instance. Much has been written about the anxieties of children who have to interpret for their uni-lingual parents.

5) They have flexible social and gender roles. Stereotypically, Latina mothers are responsible for housekeeping and child-rearing duties, while Latino fathers contribute through working and establishing some kind of statesmanlike authority. The male is overtly powerful, while the female covertly. Bicultural families establish a greater equality amongst adult partners concerning work roles, providing their children with a diversity of ways to explore their masculinity/femininity.

6) They initiate and create social networks in both culture groups. Perhaps their family’s athletic pursuits are with a multicultural population, while they choose to practice religion with a Latino community. Bicultural families also step outside of their extended families to create these social networks.


Creating a bicultural paradigm for immigrant families involves entire communities. Racism, sexism, and systemic injustices prevent these families from succeeding not only during their acculturation process, but also in launching a generation of healthy, self-confident second- and third-generation immigrants. The process around undocumented immigration and naturalization seems to result in the same. Though documentation doesn’t necessarily result in greater financial gains, families may have a challenging time creating diverse social networks, cultural experiences, and positive attitudes towards their host country if they fear deportation or feel compelled to keep their naturalization status secretive.

Politically speaking, I’m not sure what the solution is to the problems around the Texas-Mexico border. On the one hand, we could create a slightly more attainable naturalization process by funding English and government courses and more organizations (for-profit and non-profit) that provide professional skills to the unemployed. We definitely need to eradicate stop-and-search and other profiling practices that overtly perpetuate the idea of “other”.  On the other hand, does a steady increase of immigration result in a limited amount of resources for a nation already struggling to find employment and healthy food options for a sizable portion of our population? I do think that participating with immigrant communities in creating bicultural families will increase the success of the acculturation process and the self-esteem of generations of immigrant families.


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