Volume III, Number 1, Spring 2007

"The Clash of American Civilizations: The U.S. and the Latino Peril" by Éva Eszter Szabó

Éva Eszter Szabó is Assistant Professor at the Department of American Studies, School of English and American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University (formerly at the Department of English, Berzsenyi Dániel College, Szombathely). Email: evae@t-online.hu

Immigration, the very engine of U.S. ethnic, racial and cultural diversity, has on various occasions presented the society of the United States with enthnocultural challenges. U.S. immigration history is replete with examples of perceived threats to the so-called core WASP culture, the social conditions, and racial purity of America. Time and again, the ability to assimilate the newcomers has been questioned by the different generations of the native-born when they saw the influx of large groups of aliens through the Golden Door.

For instance, the massive influx of the destitute, famine-stricken Irish between the 1840s and 1860s and the Catholic challenge they represented brought about fears of a Papist invasion. The “No Irish need apply” notes soon appeared on the doors of stores and workshops in need of working hands. The much less numerous, yet highly concentrated presence of the Chinese arriving between the 1850s and 1880s led to riots and lynchings in California. The threat to social peace and the warnings of the Yellow Peril were eventually translated into federal action with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which paved the way to such comprehensive restrictionist legislation as the Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917 and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924. But the Eastern and Southern Europeans, more specifically the Southern Italians, the Russian and Polish Jews, and the Austro-Hungarians, did not fare better regarding their reception either. The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that witnessed an unprecedented surge in immigration from these nationalities strengthened the eugenic movement and restrictionist tendencies in general. Politicians and social scientists fearing the introduction of inferior races often referred to the Balkanization of America, a term that embodied the fear of the impact of the dismal conditions and the un-American values represented by these cultures. The victory of the restrictionists with the quota laws of the 1920s based on the national origins principle had completed the work of those social forces that wanted to spare the United States from continuous ethnocultural challenges by openly preferring Western and Northern European immigration. It was not until 1965 that the quota system had been finally placed on an equal basis for all nationalities.1

The turn of the 20th and 21st centuries has not been devoid of fears generated by the continuous and massive influx of a new, yet old, group of immigrants. This time it is the Latino peril, the Latinization or Hispanization of the U.S. that has been exercising American society as evidenced by Samuel P. Huntington’s latest book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. Before the book came out, Huntington, the co-founder of Foreign Policy, had published a lengthy article containing the major points of his book on the pages of the magazine. I happened to be in Mexico City at the time—early spring of 2004 that was—at the prestigious research institute, Instituto Mora, where one morning a Mexican colleague asked me with a mixture of excitement and indignation in her voice: “Have you heard? Huntington is coming out with a new book in which he puts forward anti-Mexican and anti-immigration views. There is quite a scandal erupting about it in Mexico.” The excitement was understandable. Huntington, Harvard’s leading conservative political scientist and chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, is well-known for his provocative book first published in 1996, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, in which he argued that in the post-Cold War world culture would replace ideology as the principle cause of conflict. The book had turned into a best seller in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001. Who Are We? was expected to have a similarly deep impact. Newsweek described the new book as one in which the author of The Clash of Civilizations, “the conservative Cassandra looks at American society through the same cultural prism and discerns an internal clash of civilizations: the new war is between the country’s white majority and its burgeoning Hispanic population” (Contreras 42). As Huntington himself sees it, the most serious challenge to America’s traditional Anglo-Protestant identity and cultural values comes from the massive and continuing immigration from Latin America, more specifically from Mexico (Foreign Policy 32). He summarizes the Hispanic challenge in the following way:

The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves—from Los Angeles to Miami—and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril” (Foreign Policy 30).

Though Huntington could hardly be called a xenophobe or a racist, some of the arguments he puts forward sound highly alarming, even threatening. If massive immigration continues, he claims, “the cultural division between Hispanics and Anglos could replace the racial division between blacks and whites as the most serious cleavage in U.S. society” (Foreign Policy 40).
Troubled by the expansion of bilingualism and the increasing omnipresence of Spanish in many parts of the United States, he asserts that “[t]here is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” (Huntington, Who Are We? 256).

Even outsiders are taken aback by the flood of anxiety expressed in the scholar’s views, but the very arguments the author presents show the embedded nature of ethnocultural and racial challenges in American society, challenges that this heterogeneous society has been able to cope with throughout its history. Despite the sectional crisis, the Civil War, segregation, and racial tensions appearing from time to time, the black and white racial division has failed to tear the nation apart. Labeling Anglo and Latino differences “cultural” is somewhat hypocritical given the fact that Latinos are a mixed race, an aspect carefully avoided by Huntington. Similarly, the complex value system represented by the hard-to-define American dream is difficult to imagine as language dependent, when millions of immigrants speaking and dreaming in hundreds of languages have been in search of that dream and contributed to building it once they stepped ashore in the country of their choice. Anyway, does it depend on the language what you dream?

Reactions to the Foreign Policy article and the book coming out in May 2004 were strong in both Mexico and the U.S. On the pages of the most influential Mexico City newspaper, Reforma, Mexico’s premier novelist, Carlos Fuentes, went as far as to call the American political scientist a racist and expressed his indignation at the professor’s “stigmatizing of the Spanish language as a practically subversive factor of division” (qtd. in Contreras 42). Conservative U.S. columnist David Brooks of The New York Times was particularly troubled by Huntington’s “Kulturkampf scenario”, pointing out that “[t]he mentality that binds us is not well described by the words ‘Anglo’ and ‘Protestant’. […] There are no significant differences between Mexican-American lifestyles and other American lifestyles” (qtd. in Contreras 42). U.S. Latino journalists writing in Newsweek2 emphasized: “Some say Hispanics are forming their own cultural havens. To others, they are simply the new mainstream” (43). This is especially true for big business “in an era when Latino celebrities like J. Lo and Ricky Martin vie for top billing with Britney Spears and Brad Pitt”. Marketing-directors no longer seem to differentiate Hispanic culture from U.S. mainstream culture. “Hispanic culture is American culture at this point” (qtd. in Contreras 44).

Susanne Jonas, professor of Latin American Studies at the University of California denounced Huntington’s views for reviving racializing and resorting to cultural anti-immigrant arguments, particularly so against Mexicans (Jonas and Tactaquin 70). The New York Times book review gave the impression that the book was a perfect example of locking the stable after the horse had bolted. “Many of its arguments feel like leftovers from the 1980’s and 90’s, when debates about multiculturalism and core curriculums were all the rage; an era that feels strangely distant given the 9/11 surge of patriotism” (Kakutani 2), which was observed among Latinos just as much as among Anglos, whoever they include. Presently, Latinos make up the largest U.S. minority of some 40 million, and bilingualism is a fact of life in many sections of the U.S. All this has been in the making in the past forty years and is far from being a new phenomenon. “Who Are We? may want to be provocative the way The Clash of Civilizations was, but in the end it simply rehashes a lot of familiar debates about immigration, religion and WASP culture, while injecting it with a bellicose tone” (Kakutani 3).

In fact, it is this bellicose, anxious tone and abundance of warnings amidst the lack of viable suggestions that constitute the most questionable aspect of the book. As Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister between 2000 and 2003, put it, “[t]he most serious defect in Huntington’s theory is that he characterizes [continued Latino/Mexican immigration, their insufficient assimilation, and the Latinization of the US] as undesirable, but offers no solution, thereby allowing his argument to be manipulated by racist or nativist advocates, which Huntington is not” (45).

Nonetheless, Castañeda drew attention to that what The New York Times book review considers a highly polemic book—full of gross generalizations, perplexing contradictions, and decidedly subjective analysis (Kakutani 1-3)—does reveal a serious concern for the U.S. as a country and a deep affection for it. Huntington’s apprehensions should not be dismissed or underestimated (45). Though in my reading the very premise of the professor’s book is not true, since just as the opening up of the Americas was not only the merit of the Anglos, the core culture of the United States is not Anglo alone, there is an impressive attribute to this piece of work: a fervent love for one’s country. Whether we agree or disagree with his approach, we must acknowledge the fact that Huntington does have a definite idea of what makes the American nation. Presently, the challenge for U.S. society—non-Latinos and Latinos alike—is to come up with a new definition of nation that is not limited by and points beyond the Anglo-Protestant value system.

From a historian’s point of view, the anxiety that the new Latino immigration and the growing Latino communities bring about in non-Latino Americans is rooted in the eternal ambivalence that the society of the United States has always manifested towards immigration. Political scientist Wayne Cornelius confirms that currently opinion polls attest to the fact that the general public does recognize the economic benefits of Latino newcomers since they typically fill low-wage, low-skill jobs shunned by natives. “Indeed, the demand for Latino immigrant labor has become so deeply embedded in the U.S. economy and society that it is now largely de-coupled from the business cycle;” that is, the demand for these migrants’ labor “has become structural in character” (167). At the same time, however, mainstream society is highly concerned about the potential of Latino immigration to alter the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic balance within their respective communities. Negative feelings are much less economy or labor related than one would expect. Anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiments are instead enthnocultural in character, but interestingly enough, they lack an open component of race. As compared with the classic period of American nativism between the 1850s and 1920s feeding on a mixture of racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance, the current anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiments based on ethnocultural reservations rarely have explicit racial or xenophobic manifestations (Cornelius 178). Huntington’s book is a good example in this respect, even if some of his critics explain it otherwise.

True, the increase in Latino immigration starting out in the 1960s coincided with the successes of the civil rights movement3 and the cult of multiculturalism pervasive since the 1970s. But also, the groups pertaining to this new wave of immigrants are so diverse and complex that they defy easy categorization. In the past decade or so, the statistical yearbooks of the Census Bureau4 has kept reminding us that Hispanic/Latino is an ethnic, not a racial designation. Since Hispanics/Latinos can be of any race, the categories white, black, Asian, and American Indian are not mutually exclusive. This fact gave rise to such terms as non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and so on. To make things even more complicated, due to the high degree of mestizaje or interracial mixture that characterizes this group, they can be any one of these categories and all the possible combination of these. Social scientists, the Anglo majority, and Latinos themselves often present considerable indecisiveness about the racial identity of the group. I remember a group of Texan Anglo housewives at a party in Dallas in 1994 commenting to me that they preferred Hispanics to blacks since the former were white, hard-working, and devoted to their families and religion. A retired Anglo couple in Sun City, Arizona, felt it important to point out to me as we were talking about Hispanics’ indigenous traits that Hispanics were nonetheless white. As for Latino self-identification, social scientists Carlos Muñoz, Jr. and Charles Henry (a Latino and a black by the way) point out the following:

Most Latinos do not identify themselves as nonwhite as evidenced by the popularization of the term “Hispanic.” […] Most Latino politicians have historically promoted a white identity for Latinos and this has contributed to a lack of interest in building “rainbow” coalitions. In addition, the complexity of the Latino racial identity has made it difficult to mobilize Latinos along the lines of one racial political consciousness as has been the case with blacks (qtd. in Skerry 10).

Nevertheless the authors emphasize that “the racial complexity notwithstanding, the majority of Latinos are nonwhite” and they should be perceived as “people of color” (qtd. in Skerry 10).

Yet, categorizing Latinos as racially nonwhite may conflict significantly with how they identify themselves. Latinos do not necessarily perceive themselves as “people of color”; and even more interestingly, nor are they so perceived by blacks (Skerry 16, 370). In 1990, when asked about their racial self-identification by the U.S. Census Bureau, 50.6 percent of Mexican Americans identified themselves as ‘white’5 (Skerry 16-17). Another illustrative example comes from from my personal experience in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic displays the most fantastic degree of complexity in this respect. Dominicans, an anthropologically peculiar nation consisting of mulattos predominantly, tend to think of themselves as white. In their Dominican ID cards their complexion is designated as “color indio” or Indian color, while upon entering the United States they face being considered black as a rule. Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry has made similar observations about Mexicans and the confusion surrounding their racial identity. As he comments, a fair-complexioned Chicano can go one way or another and this fact is not lost on blacks, whose experience is that “Latinos can walk the Anglo walk and can talk the Anglo talk”, and therefore “Latinos can’t make up their mind whether they are a minority”. Since Latinos can go both ways in racial terms, they can be regarded a racial minority or/and an ethnic group at the same time (10).

Thus the basic anti-immigrant and anti-Latino claim, as illustrated by the Huntington book too, is ethnocultural; namely, that the US is experiencing an immigrant integration crisis because Latinos, and more specifically Mexicans, are holding on to their home countries’ language and culture, with language retention especially seen as a sign of the unwillingness and failure to assimilate. Moreover, with some 40 million Latinos in the U.S., out of whom some 22 million are of Mexican origin, they are now numerous enough to transform or dilute what Huntington calls the Anglo-Protestant core culture of the United States (Cornelius 177-178). Anxieties of this kind are reinforced by such media news as the one from 1992,6 when salsa had outsold ketchup in the national market for the very first time (Skidmore and Smith 422). Mexicans in particular provoke special concern not only because of their numbers, but also due to the history of U.S. conquest of the Southwest taken from Mexico by force in 1848. Some believe that the resentment over the loss of half of Mexico’s territory, Mexican Americans’ regional concentration and growing numbers accompanied by the retention of their language and culture make this ethnic group a prime candidate for separatism. The ultimate nightmare of the U.S. Southwest reuniting with Mexico or the specter of a “Chicano Quebec in the Southwest” has been raised by, for instance, mainstream U.S. historian David Kennedy (67-68) and Huntington himself in both The Clash of Civilizations (chapter 8) and Who Are We? (230).

However, an important aspect of this ethnocultural objection present ever since the 1980s is that it does not translate into significant federal action, for example, in the field of immigration control. High politics and big business—concerned with issues of national security, economic growth, and the national interest in general—have been as much aware of the similarities as the differences between the two Americas and their peoples. From the early 1800s, the U.S. belief in the common values and destiny of the Americas—under the leadership of the U.S., though with growing emphasis on partnership over time—have remained unchallenged. Currently, the U.S.’s spearheading the movement to establish the Free Trade Area of the Americas with Miami as the headquarters is one of the best examples of this trend. The Pan American ideal, the consequences of the leading role the United States had acquired in the Americas, the geopolitical and strategic considerations that over the past two centuries have turned the United States just as much a Caribbean as a Atlantic nation are largely ignored by Huntington in his book. U.S. governments may have taken Latin America for granted most of the time, but ever since the pronunciation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 the special relationship and the community of interest between the two Americas have been the point of reference in dealing with international issues, Western Hemisphere immigration and U.S. Latinos. The words of President Reagan from 1982 summarize this as follows:

[W]e share a common destiny. We, the peoples of the Americas, have much more in common than geographical proximity. For over 400 years our peoples have shared the dangers and dreams of building a new world. From colonialism to nationhood, our common quest has been for freedom. Most of our forebears came to this hemisphere seeking a better life for themselves. They came in search of opportunity and, yes, in search of God. Virtually all descendents of the land and immigrants alike have had to fight for independence. Having gained it, they’ve had to fight to retain it. There were times when we even fought each other. Gradually, however, the nations of the hemisphere developed a set of common principles and institutions that provided the basis for mutual protection (1). […] In the commitment to freedom and independence, the peoples of this hemisphere are one. In this profound sense, we are all Americans. Our principles are rooted in self-government and nonintervention. The Western Hemisphere does not belong to any one of us—we belong to the Western Hemisphere. We are brothers historically as well as geographically (6).

The idea of a common destiny of the two Americas was already present at the birth of inter-American relations well before the establishment of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948. The shared geographical space and insulation from Europe, the shared heritage of the explorations, the colonial past, slavery, and the struggle for independence, the shared values of Christianity, Western culture and a predominantly European immigration into the United States and Latin America, and the shared goal of establishing representative government gave rise to the belief that the national interests and political systems of the Latin states would be modeled after those of the U.S. High politics and big business know that the migration connection can further U.S. interests in the Americas, and U.S. Latinos can be an asset in this respect by strengthening further the position of the United States in continental matters.

In fact, Latinos are made in the U.S.A. Outside the U.S., there are Mexicans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Chileans, Brazilians, and so on, or Central Americans, Caribbeans, and South Americans, or Latin Americans, Hispanic Americans, Ibero-Americans, non-Latino Latin Americans, Indo-Americans, Afro-Latin Americans just to mention a few ways of grouping the heterogeneous peoples of the lands south of the U.S. The Latino identity as emerging in the United States is a product of Americanization. Latino immigrants and their communities in the U.S. are truly American—in both the continental and ethnocultural sense of the word.

As Skerry underlines, “the change that Latino and especially Mexican immigration and their mushrooming communities entail are substantial. But the integration of newcomers into American society has never been smooth and automatic” (377). Just as earlier in U.S. history, Contreras concludes, “[m]illions of Latinos are assimilating while they are also putting down their own distinctive stamp on what assimilation will signify for future generations” (45). The U.S. transforms its new residents and is being transformed by them at the very same time. The core culture built by earlier immigrant flows and their descendents is being supplemented, not destroyed by the culture of the newcomers. The core is being enriched, not replaced, but of course, this process does imply change, and change can and does produce anxiety in an era of heightened ethnocultural challenges.


1 At the time, “all nationalities” referred to immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, a term that excluded the Americas, i.e., the Western Hemisphere. Because of foreign political considerations and the idea of Pan Americanism, the Americas had been exempted from the national origins quota system upon its introduction in the 1920s. Actually, it was not until 1978 that a global ceiling based on uniform criteria had been applied to immigration into the United States from both hemispheres.

2 Such as Joseph Contreras, Jennifer Ordoñez, and Arian Campo-Flores.

3 Think of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

4 See for instance U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. 1990 Statistical Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991; or from the Census 2000 check out “QT-P6. Race Alone or in Combination and Hispanic or Latino: 2000.” See U.S. Census Bureau, American FactFinder, 2000. Online: http://factfinder.census.gov (November 20, 2004.)

5 1.2% identified themselves as blacks and 48.2% chose “other race”.

6 In Cornelius the same event is dated in 1997 (178).

Works Cited

  • Castañeda, Jorge. “Needed: A New Model.” Newsweek, (March 22, 2004): 45.
  • Contreras, Joseph. “Two Americas? A Massive Wave of Hispanic Immigration Is Raising Questions about Identity and Integration.” Newsweek, (March 22, 2004): 42-45.
  • Cornelius, Wayne A. “Ambivalent Reception: Mass Public Responses to the ‘New’ Latino Immigration to the United States.” Latinos. Remaking America. Eds. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Mariela M. Páez. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. 165-189.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  • —-. “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy, (March/April 2004): 30-45.
  • —-. Who Are We? The Challenge to America’s National Identity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  • Jonas, Susanne, and Catherine Tactaquin. “Latino Immigrant Rights in the Shadow of the National Security State: Responses to Domestic Preemptive Strikes.” Social Justice 31/1-2, (2004): 67-91.
  • Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of The Times; An Identity Crisis for Norman Rockwell America.” The New York Times on the Web, May 28, 2004. Online: http://www.nytimes.com (November 20, 2004).
  • Kennedy, David M. “Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?” Atlantic Monthly 278/5, (November 1996): 52-68.
  • Reagan, Ronald. “Caribbean Basin Initiative.” Current Policy 370, (February 24, 1982).
  • Skerry, Peter. Mexican Americans. The Ambivalent Minority. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Skidmore, Thomas E. and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • U.S. Census Bureau, American FactFinder, 2000. Online: http://factfinder.census.gov (November 20, 2004.)
  • U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. 1990 Statistical Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991.