Cultural assimilation is a very powerful theme that many people can relate to or identify with. It is complex, composed of features that are heavily influenced by external factors (things we can’t control) such as location/geography, ethnicity, political motives, and societal pressures. It’s also affected by internal or personal factors such as cultural values, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, nationality, and language. Cultural assimilation is a very loaded subject matter for writers to discuss, because it is dynamic and controversial. There are inherently many variables and implications involved, and sometimes it’s the tragic experiences that reveal most about the struggles and ills of what assimilation entails for multicultural and minority populations. Two prominent Latinx authors, Gloria Anzaldua and Piri Thomas, analyze and convey stories about cultural assimilation. While their literary approaches, plots, and context differ, they exhibit similar ideas and values about Chicanx/Latinx cultural assimilation.
Gloria Anzaldua (1942-2004) grew up on the Mexico-Texas border and was an American scholar. She incorporated her life-experiences into her writing, and in one of her literary works titled, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” she examines the borders and conflicts between gender, culture, and language. This short excerpt begins with a clever metaphor about language. She describes a scene at the dentist’s office. Her tongue keeps interfering with the procedure, and the dentist wants to control or tame the wild tongue… her tongue is a representation of her experiences with language and assimilation. She remembers as a young child being punished for speaking Spanish at school, and explains at the Pan American University, Chicano students were required to take two speech classes. Language is an integral part of our identity, and when people are restricted or punished for something so essential, the effects are discriminatory and damaging, “Attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de inocente nos aranco la lengua. Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out” (38). This statement carries with it a strong message, that is no one should be subjected to ridicule or judgment, especially if it infringes upon our identity. As an analogy, you wouldn’t harass someone for wearing a pair of shoes that’s not considered the societal norm, and the same principle should be held regarding our dialects and language. Anzaldua reveals that she speaks a variety of Spanish dialects, however, they are mostly reserved for use at home and work because English is the accepted and primary language in America. Anzaldua uses a very powerful term, linguistic terrorism, to describe these attacks on her language and identity. She also tells us how she faced conflict even when speaking with other Chicanas, “We oppress each other trying to out-Chicano each other, vying to be the ‘real’ Chicanas, to speak like Chicanos” (44). In many ways, it is as if she is walking on eggshells at every turn, not knowing when she would be ridiculed, confronted, or suppressed for expressing her sense of self. Anzaldua emphasizes the linguistic instability that many Chicanxs/Latinxs face, and she retaliates by making it clear to readers that she takes pride in her language; in her ethnic identity.
Anzaldua’s Chicana cultural heritage and personal experiences with “borderland identity” creates a literary piece that showcases the historical stigma, cultural relations, and linguistic struggles of being an ethnic minority. Piri Thomas provides a similar message about cultural assimilation in his work, “Down These Mean Streets – Alien Turf.” Thomas (1928-2011) was born to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. He grew up in the ‘Spanish Harlem’ section of New York City, which was described as violent area with gang activity and racial tensions. In “Alien Turf,” he writes of a childhood experience, and shares his personal struggle of cultural assimilation as a Puerto Rican/Cuban. After his baby brother passed away from an illness, his family relocated from the familiarity and inclusion of their Spanish neighborhood, to the Italian part of the town, where they would be one of the few Spanish speaking families living there. He was put into a new environment in which he was the ethnic minority, and he received verbal and physical harassment from a group kids from his school, “”That’s a dirty fuckin’ lie – bash, I felt Rocky’s fist smack into my mouth – ‘you dirty fuckin’ spic’” (28). He endured this discrimination and harassment for nearly a month before he got seriously injured in an intense confrontation, “I saw his hand grab a fistful of ground asphalt… the gritty stuff hit my face, and I felt the scraping pain make itself a part of my eyes” (34). His eyes had been hit by the liquified clumps of asphalt, and it hardened on his cornea making his predicament very scary and serious. The group of Italian boys knew they had crossed the line and quickly rushed him back to his apartment. Fortunately, his attentive and affectionate parents were there and stayed by his side throughout the ordeal. Thomas’ childhood autobiography and personal experiences speaks to readers on an emotional and spiritual level and brings to light a common struggle of Latinx cultural assimilation.
Thomas was targeted by the Italian boys simply because he was a minority. We have no control over our ethnicity, and to be discriminated for one’s cultural and ethnic identity is completely unjustifiable and unethical. The social and ethnical injustices Thomas endured parallels what Anzaldua encountered in her personal life. Another fundamental theme of cultural assimilation that Anzaldua and Thomas offer is the importance and influence of family. Our families heavily shape our identities, and it is regarded by many, that family is one of the most, if not the most, valued elements in Mexican culture. Anzaldua describes some ways in which she internalizes identification with family, “…woodsmoke perfuming my grandmother’s clothes.” “My sister Hilda’s hot, spicy menudo, chile colorado… My brother Carito barbequing fajitas in the backyard. Even now and 3,000 miles, I can see my mother spicing the ground beef, pork, and venison with chile” (48). It is quite interesting to see how Anzaldua created connections to her family through food. She gives emphasis to food here, because it is part of one’s culture, in it of itself, and it creates stronger family connections and bonds. Her family is a significant element of her identity, because parents raise us according to their cultural beliefs, principles, and traditions. Piri Thomas shares similar values about Chincanx/Latinx family culture and conveys this throughout his narrative. He mention’s his mother’s Christian influence, “’Bendito, Piri, I raise this family in a Christian way. Not to fight. Christ says to turn the other cheek’… I sat down to dinner and listened to Momma talk about Christian living without really hearing her. All I could of was that I hadda go out in that street again” (30-31). He also valued his father’s protection and guidance, “”How do you feel hijo?’ Poppa asked. ’It burns like hell.’ ‘You’ll be okay,’ he said, and as an afterthought added, ‘Don’t curse son’” (37). He was very close with his parents, and when he faced personal conflicts later in life, he thought back to their teachings and reflected on what kind of person his parents raised him to be. We all value and love our families, but in Chicanx/Latinx culture, family holds a special place that is rooted in the foundation of unity and communal values.
Cultural assimilation has been and will continue to be a very important topic of discussion in literature, because it’s a theme that embodies and exemplifies the common struggle amongst multicultural and minority groups. Anzaldua and Piri provide accounts of cultural assimilation through the lens of their Chicanx/Latinx identity. Their stories share similar messages and meanings, as they aim to show through their personal experiences and cultural heritage, the challenges of prejudice assumptions, ethnocentric confrontations, and racial discrimination against their Chicanx/Latinx identity in America. While similar in numerous respects, one transparent distinction between their accounts is that Thomas’ focuses on physical and emotional struggles of assimilation, and Anzaldua discusses the multicultural and linguistic complications of assimilation. To put it in a metaphorical sense: they are criminals of a crime they did not commit and have no control over the judgment society subsequently forces upon them. But they endure and persevere, confident in themselves, and prideful of their culture, history, and heritage. This theme of challenging the boundaries towards assimilation and moving forward with the mindset that nothing can break their ethnic and cultural identity; is a powerful message that both authors dedicate to readers.