Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger


The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation

Alejandro Portes (Author), Rubén G. Rumbaut (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 430 pages
ISBN: 9780520228481
May 2001
$33.95, £23.95
One out of five Americans, more than 55 million people, are first-or second-generation immigrants. This landmark study, the most comprehensive to date, probes all aspects of the new immigrant second generation's lives, exploring their immense potential to transform American society for better or worse. Whether this new generation reinvigorates the nation or deepens its social problems depends on the social and economic trajectories of this still young population. In Legacies, Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut—two of the leading figures in the field—provide a close look at this rising second generation, including their patterns of acculturation, family and school life, language, identity, experiences of discrimination, self-esteem, ambition, and achievement.

Based on the largest research study of its kind, Legacies combines vivid vignettes with a wealth of survey and school data. Accessible, engaging, and indispensable for any consideration of the changing face of American society, this book presents a wide range of real-life stories of immigrant families—from Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, the Philippines, China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—now living in Miami and San Diego, two of the areas most heavily affected by the new immigration. The authors explore the world of second-generation youth, looking at patterns of parent-child conflict and cohesion within immigrant families, the role of peer groups and school subcultures, the factors that affect the children's academic achievement, and much more.

A companion volume to Legacies, entitled Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, was published by California in Fall 2001. Edited by the authors of Legacies, this book will bring together some of the country's leading scholars of immigration and ethnicity to provide a close look at this rising second generation.

A Copublication with the Russell Sage Foundation
List of Tables and Figures

1. Twelve Stories
Miami Stories
MarÌa de los Angeles and Yvette Santana: August 1993
Melanie Fernandez-Rey: September 1993
Aristide Maillol: August 1993
Armando and Luis Hern·ndez: July 1995
Mary Patterson: February 1995
EfrÈn Montejo: May 1994
San Diego Stories
Jorge, Olga, Miguel Angel, and Estela Cardozo: January 1994
Quy Nguyen: December 1987
Bennie and Jennifer Montoya: October 1995
Sophy Keng: November 1987 - June 1988
Yolanda and Carlos Muñoz: March 1994
Boua Cha: 1988 - 1990

2. The New Americans: An Overview
Immigration Yesterday and Today
The Size and Concentration of the Second Generation
Studying the New Second Generation: The Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study
The New Second Generation at a Glance
Census Results
CILS Results

3. Not Everyone Is Chosen: Segmented Assimilation and Its Determinants
How Immigrants Are Received: Modes of Incorporation and Their Consequences
Acculturation and Role Reversal
Where They Grow Up: Challenges to Second-Generation Adaptation
Labor Markets
Confronting the Challenge: Immigrant Social Capital
Parental Status, Family Structure, and Gender
The Immigrant Community

4. Making It in America
Early Adaptation and Achievement
General Trends
Nationality and Achievement
Determinants of Parental Economic Achievement
Interaction Effects
Nationality and Family Composition

5. In Their Own Eyes: Immigrant Outlooks on America
Aura Lila MarÌn, Cuban, 53, Single Mother (1994)
Pao Yang, Laotian Hmong, 57, Father (1995)
Community and Pride

6. Lost in Translation:
Language and the New Second Generation
Bilingualism: Yesterday and Today
Shadow Boxing: Myth and Reality of Language Acculturation
General Trends
National Differences
Forced-March Acculturation
What Makes a Bilingual?
A Game of Mirrors: Language Instruction and Types of Acculturation

7. Defining the Situation: The Ethnic Identities of Children of Immigrants
Sites of Belonging: The Complex Allegiances of Children of Immigrants
Developing a Self
Past Research
Who Am I? Patterns of Ethnic Self-Identification
Ethnic Identity Shifts
Stability and Salience
Ethnic Self-Identities by National Origin
Where Do I Come From? Nation, Family, and Identity
Correlates of Self-Identities
Family Status, Composition, and Language
The Influence of Parental Self-Identities
Region, Schools, and Discrimination
The Race Question
Determinants of Ethnic and Racial Identities
Conclusion: From Translation Artists to Living Paradoxes

8. The Crucible Within: Family, Schools, and the Psychology of the Second Generation
San Diego Families
Family Cohesion, Conflict, and Change
School Environments and Peer Groups
Psychological Well-Being: Self-Esteem and Depressive Affect
School Engagement and Effort
Educational Expectations
Determinants of Psychosocial Outcomes
Self-Esteem and Depression

9. School Achievement and Failure
Early Educational Achievement
Preliminary Results
Determinants of Early Achievement
Educational Achievement in Late Adolescence
Grades in Senior High School
Change over Time
Dropping Out of School
Two Achievement Paradoxes
Southeast Asians
Cuban Americans

10. Conclusion: Mainstream Ideologies and the Long-Term Prospects of Immigrant Communities
Two Mainstream Ideologies
A Third Way: Selective Acculturation and Bilingualism
The Mexican Case
Theoretical Reprise
Time and Acculturation
Reactive Ethnicity and Its Aftermath

Appendix A. Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study:
Follow-up Questionnaire
Appendix B. Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study: Parental Questionnaire
Appendix C. Variables Used in Multivariate Analyses: Chapters 6 to 9
Alejandro Portes is Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and Director of the Center for Migration and Development, Woodrow Wilson School for Public Affairs. He is the coauthor of City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (California, 1993) and Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States (California, 1985). Portes is the 2010 recipient of the W.E.B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association. Rubén G. Rumbaut is Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University. He is coauthor, with Alejandro Portes, of Immigrant America: A Portrait (California, 1996), and the coeditor of Immigration Research for a New Century: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (2000) and Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in America(1996).
"If Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were alive at the dawn of the 21st Century Legacies is the first book they would have to read to understand just what is at stake in the new immigration. This elegant book--theoretically precise, empirically robust, and analytically savvy--will become the standard by which all subsequent scholarship on the sociology of immigration will be measured. I am buying an extra copy today to send to the new President of the United States."—Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, Professor and Co-Director,The Harvard Immigration Projects, Harvard University

"Legacies is an indispensable guide to understanding how the children of today's immigrants will become the Americans of the 21st Century. For both scholars and the public, it should be essential reading, for it explains why today's approaches to ethnic incorporation will not only fail, but will backfire, yielding a second generation that is less assimilated than it might otherwise be."—Doug Massey, co-author of Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium

"Using a unique storehouse of information, and telling a story with analytic precision and grace, Portes and Rumbaut provide a glimpse into the future that is now. Legacies is an important book, one that should be widely and carefully read."—Roger Waldinger, author of Still the Promised City? African Americans and New Immigrants in PostIndustrial New York

"Legacies demonstrates that there is more than one immigrant experience, and more than one second generation. It is a path-setting study, because the diversity among the most recent newcomers, and the varied ties and discontinuities between them and their children, will be the key to understanding race and ethnic relations in this country in the 21st Century."—John Logan, co-author of Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place

"Portes and Rumbaut allow the diverse voices of the new second-generation immigrants to speak, both in vignettes of their life stories and in clear analytical accounts of their schooling, attitudes, and identities. The authors provide a compelling analysis that is both inspiring and troubling."—Charles Hirschman, co-editor of The Handbook of International Migration

"Legacies is itself a legacy--of one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken to study the integration of the children of immigrants in a nation that styles itself as the nation of immigrants. Portes and Rumbaut have now donated the wealth of insights gained from this project to our common weal, and no one who cares about the American future can afford to ignore what they have to say. It deserves to be read and discussed not only by scholars but also by policymakers and the general public."—Richard Alba, author of Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America

"An extraordinary analysis of a contemporary condition that has not yet been fully recognized by our policymakers and commentators: The millions of second generation immigrants who will be a major part of our future. Portes and Rumbaut show the importance of developing intelligent policy."—Saskia Sassen, author of Guests and Aliens

Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award, American Sociological Association

Excerpt from

Chapter 1

Twelve Stories

The following stories are real. The names are fictitious, but the places where they took place and the nationality of the participants are true. They provide a glimpse of the life of immigrant families in the United States today as it takes place in two of its main gateway cities. Both cities where the stories occurred--Miami and San Diego--have been thoroughly transformed by contemporary immigration but in ways more complex than meet the eye. That complexity is due, at least in part, to the very diverse flows of foreigners coming to each place and the distinct ways in which they have adapted to their new environment. These stories serve to illustrate that extraordinary diversity, and they will be used in later chapters to help frame and interpret general statistical results.

In part for this reason, we attempt no a priori organization of the narratives other than by the place where they took place. If the reader does not get past this first chapter, we at least want to leave with him or her a durable impression of who the newcomers to U.S. shores are, how varied are their attempts to make sense of their new reality, and what are the principal challenges facing their American-raised children.

Miami Stories

Marí de los Angeles and Yvette Santana: August 1993

When Marí de los Angeles, Yvette's Cuban mother, arrived in New York's Kennedy Airport in the 1970s, she experienced no trouble at all. [note 1] Cubans were welcome at the time, and the immigration authorities gave her and her family their residency permit--the green card--on the spot. The troubles started after the family moved to Chicago. At first they lived among immigrants, but when Marí de los Angeles's father saved the money to buy a home in the suburbs, their new neighbors and her classmates did not take kindly to their presence. Blond and fair skinned, Marí de los Angeles meshed well in her new surroundings until she opened her mouth and heavily accented English poured forth. "'Spic,' the kids called me. They used to yell, 'Spic, get out of here, go back to where you belong.' Once, a boy asked how come I was Cuban when I wasn't black. Another wanted to know whether I had always been white or had turned white after coming to the United States. . . . They were so ignorant." Marí de los Angeles married a young Cuban printer, Fermí, in Chicago, and Yvette was born there. The family could not "go home" as her neighbors had urged, but it did the next best thing, which was to leave Chicago for Miami. There, Fermí pooled their savings to set up a printing shop, and Marí de los Angeles went to work for a local bank. Neither had a college education, but the family was on a clear upward path. By 1993, their combined earnings exceeded $50,000, and the house they had bought was neat, comfortable, and in a good part of town.

All of this had its effects on Yvette. In school, she has never been called names, never been taunted with ethnic slurs. Unlike her mother in Chicago, she speaks English fluently; more important, however, many of her teachers and most of her peers are also Cuban American. In this secure environment, Yvette has had time to drift. She wears smart clothes but wants jewelry and, at 16, a car. She does not see the need for college since jobs are plentiful for a bilingual girl like her in stores and offices close to home. Marí de los Angeles says: "We are not really poor, but there are things I can't give her because they are too expensive. . . . Besides, that's not the way we were raised." The lack of motivation in her assimilated daughter is a cause of sorrow since she recalls all too well her own difficult path to get where she is. "Yvette may be able to get an office job through our Cuban friends, a receptionist or secretary maybe. She is lazy in her studies. She does not have the drive to become a professional."

Melanie Ferná September 1993

Milagros is Melanie's mother by a previous marriage. She is currently living with Roberto, who has four children of his own. Roberto and Milagros are Nicaraguans who came to the United States in 1986, escaping the Sandinista revolution. They are not married but have been living together for eight years and share their rented two-bedroom apartment with four of their children. Two boys sleep in the living room. Melanie and her half-sister Marcela share one of the bedrooms. Despite the cramped quarters, the apartment is tidy and features new furniture. Like many Nicaraguans, Milagros and Roberto have experienced rapid downward mobility in the United States. In Nicaragua, Milagros worked as a manager in an insurance company, and Roberto ran his own farm after getting a degree in agronomy. In Miami, Milagros has only advanced as far as a waitress job at Denny's. She is now a cocktail waitress working for $6.00 an hour plus tips. He has been a busboy and now works delivering pizzas for $4.50 an hour without benefits.

The problem they face is their uncertain legal status. For years they have had a work permit but no guarantee of permanent residence. This made it impossible for the couple to obtain jobs commensurate with their education or to seek assistance in learning English. They simply worked at whatever jobs they could find, hoping for an end to their uncertain status. Milagros finally received approval of her request for permanent residency but is still awaiting her card to arrive and make it official. Roberto's status is still up in the air.

In the meantime, Melanie has gone from grade to grade, growing fluent in English, gradually forgetting her home Spanish, and dreaming of a brilliant American life. Her modest circumstances seem to spur her ambition. She gets excellent grades and is determined to go to college. This is Milagros's greatest cause of anguish because neither she nor Roberto has the means to pay for a college education. In the legal limbo where they live, there are no means to obtain outside assistance, and even with the new green card, prospects are dim. As Milagros puts it, "When children don't want to continue studying, that's one thing; you don't worry too much. But to be unable to support your own child when she clearly has the ambition, it breaks your heart." Alone in her room, Melanie plugs away at her homework and dreams her dreams. She has recently become a member of her school's cheerleading team. Her life becomes ever more American, oblivious of the tenuous hold of her family in their new country.

Mary Patterson: February 1995

Mary Patterson had a dilemma. Being black, she was treated in most places as part of the American black population. Clerks followed her in stores to prevent her from shoplifting. Whites from whom she asked a service or bought something added that extra measure of curtness to the transaction--all of this despite her family's home in Coral Gables (an affluent section of Miami) and the achievements of her parents, both successful professionals from Trinidad. When white people knew she was West Indian, their demeanor changed. "Ah, you are Jamaican, hard-working people. Good English, too," they would say. Never mind that Trinidad and Jamaica are different countries. Mary consciously sought to project her image as second-generation Trinidadian--or, at least, West Indian--by carrying a key chain with the name and map of her parents' country and by caring for her attire and body language. In a busy world, few people paid attention to such details, and she continued enduring the same aggravations. Mary noticed, however, that when Patricia, her mother, spoke, the situation changed instantly. Patricia uses firm, well-modulated, heavily British-accented English--the English that she learned as a child in Trinidad. Having grown up in American schools, Mary speaks American English to which she has added local black inflections. She did this deliberately, searching for acceptance among her black school peers in junior high.

But now, approaching high school graduation and seeking a job to help pay for college, the situation is different. That West Indian identity must be conveyed to employers. It must be there, up front, as her best defense against standard white racism. Mary's solution was eminently practical: She has been taking lessons from her mother, seeking to regain an island accent. "My mother is so self-assured. She stands tall everywhere . . . at work, when shopping in the stores. I need some of that," Mary says. While she considers herself American, the question of language is just too important to be left to itself. "Blacks in this country carry a lot of baggage, like the way they dress and speak. I respect them, but I don't have to carry that load. I'm an immigrant." Despite discrimination, Mary is determined to succeed. She plans to surpass her mother, who is head nurse at a local hospital, by attending medical school.

San Diego Stories

Jorge, Olga, Miguel Angel, and Estela Cardozo: January 1994

Jorge and Olga Cardozo and their two teenage children, Miguel Angel and Estela, live in a small house they recently bought in south central San Diego. The neighborhood, populated by Mexican immigrants like themselves and African Americans, is poor and run down, with several vacant lots filled with tumbleweeds; a boarded-up crack house is across the alley from the Cardozo home. Drug dealers hang out on corners down the block from the Mexicans, close to a seedy commercial district. The Cardozos used to give bread to the crack addicts on the street as part of their evangelical outreach to the poor, but now they, too, have boarded up the windows that face the crack house to avoid seeing anything going on there.

Mr. Cardozo and his family entered the country illegally 14 years ago in the trunk of a car. He had failed in his first attempt to cross on foot and was hospitalized afterwards. Their original goal was to make enough money to buy a house in their hometown of Michoacá smiling, the Cardozos say they accomplished the first part of their goal--they bought the house--but are still here. They became legal permanent residents under the 1986 federal amnesty for illegal immigrants. Jorge works as a busboy in a tourist restaurant, a job he got through a Mexican friend and has held for 10 years. Olga works at a small Chinese-owned laundry, ironing clothes. They are poor but extremely proud of their son, Miguel Angel, expecting him to become a civil engineer. Miguel Angel gets good grades in school, was recently elected to the honor society, and is recognized by his teachers as a serious student.

Living in a combat zone of a neighborhood, the family has withdrawn from it. The parents speak very little English. The mother's friends are a mix of Latin Americans, almost all drawn from her church--Olga became a devout Pentecostal after coming to the United States--but the father has only Mexican friends, as does their son. Miguel Angel stays home, playing video games and attending to his school work, rather than risk going outside and getting harassed by gangs. He told a painful story of riding the new bike his parents had given him and being surrounded by gang members who tried to steal it from him. They ripped off a gold chain instead, but ever since he keeps his bike locked up inside the house and does not use it.

Miguel Angel is angrier about experiences of anti-Mexican prejudice he has had in school and elsewhere. The family used to live in an apartment building where Jorge was a resident manager yet was frequently abused by the tenants. One day Miguel Angel's mother came home and found him speechless with rage. He said he could not stand seeing his father insulted so and that he would get a gun and shoot the neighbors. This event led Olga to insist that they move. His father wants Miguel Angel "to be better than [him]" and not work all day and come home exhausted. "No one wants to wash dishes, that's the truth," he says, but he is proud that his family has never been on public assistance. Olga worries that her son does not want to go to church and sometimes talks back loudly; she also worries about Miguel Angel's younger sister, Estela, who is more rebellious and dresses gang style. Miguel Angel, for his part, continues to plan on becoming an engineer, but his biggest worry is economic. Sometimes, he says, it seems that his parents work just to pay the bills and never help him get ahead.

Bennie and Jennifer Montoya: October 1995

The Montoyas live in a predominantly Filipino, middle-class neighborhood in San Diego with their four U.S.-born children and Mrs. Montoya's elderly mother. Their home is well furnished, with a huge television set in the living room. The two oldest children, Bennie and Jennifer, attend different high schools in the San Diego area--but not the one that is closest to their home. Mrs. Montoya says that the neighborhood school is "the worst place to send a child right now," due to the poor quality of the teaching and administrative staff. So the kids have to travel long distances to get to other schools.

The parents both hail from Manila. Mrs. Montoya is a registered nurse--she trained in the Philippines--and works at a local hospital. Mr. Montoya is employed as a manufacturing technician; unlike his wife, he did not finish college, but he says that education is very important. "The Filipino way is to have a good education for [the] kids. The kids can then help their parents. They show the world that they are good parents." Still, he seems ambivalent in his career expectations for the children. He wants them to get good grades in school but does not encourage Bennie (a senior) or Jennifer (a junior) to seek to attend a top university or to go to college outside the San Diego area.

Mrs. Montoya says that her daughter Jennifer has the usual problems of wanting to socialize more, and her grades suffer as a result. "There are gangs anywhere you go, there's drugs anywhere you go, you teach your kids to do what's right and hope that they find good friends, that's all you can really do." Jennifer minimizes those concerns: At her current high school, she said, the kids break down along social lines (socialites, brains, dropouts) rather than ethnic lines, but her junior high was majority Filipino, and social life was shaped by Filipino "gangs," organized by where they lived. "At the time everybody was like 'clique-ing' together; it was totally like a bunch of kids saying, 'We're together now and we'll be called so-and-so.'"

Mr. Montoya is dissatisfied with Bennie's academic performance, which has deteriorated lately despite their efforts to send him to a better school--"I would like that A, if possible." Bennie's GPA in ninth grade was 3.2, but in his junior year he managed only a C average. According to Mr. Montoya, an inability to communicate is one of the difficulties he has with his son. Another problem is "the materialism of the youth in this country. Sometimes Bennie has an attitude, the way he dresses, the expensive things he wants."

Bennie and Jennifer have lost much of their ability to speak the parents' (and grandmother's) native tongue, Tagalog. Ironically, Bennie is now taking Spanish at school even though a Tagalog class was also offered. But Bennie is not motivated and recently received a D in that class. When asked why Bennie cannot speak Tagalog well, his father replies: "They're embarrassed to speak it because they think we're making fun of them." Bennie shrugged and said simply, matter-of-factly, "I do all the customs."

Sophy Keng: November 1987-June 1988

Sophy Keng, an 18-year-old Cambodian girl, had just turned 6 when Phnom Penh fell in 1975 and her life was turned upside down. [note 4] The apartment complex where she now lives is rundown, but numerous Cambodian children are happily running about. Although the complex is shabby, the inside of Sophy's apartment is neat. Despite the obvious poverty of the place, a corner of the living room boasts a stereo system, a color TV set, and pictures of Sophy's roommate and her children.

Sophy's father was of mixed Vietnamese, Chinese, and Khmer ancestry, and her mother was of Thai and Khmer background. In 1974 her father, a soldier, disappeared and was not heard from again. Her mother had been a clerk in Cambodia with about a seventh-grade education. After the Khmer Rouge came, her mother and two siblings were sent along with Sophy to a small village in Cambodia where they stayed until 1979. However, during this time Sophy was separated from her family and forced to work on a farm from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. She was fed only gruel, which consisted of a little rice and water: "Everybody got skinny." One day she was lonely for her mother and left the farm without permission to go see her. When she returned, she was beaten with a branch so severely that she still bears the scars on her back. She witnessed killings and feared for her own life. She recalls the horror of being called out of bed one night and taken to a field with sharp stakes sticking out of holes in the ground. There she saw babies thrown up in the air and impaled to death as they fell onto those stakes.

In 1979, her family fled to Thailand, where they lived in several refugee camps until the early 1980s, when they were resettled in San Diego and sponsored by an American family. When Sophy lived with her mother in San Diego, as she did until recently, her mother received supplemental security income (SSI) cash assistance from the welfare department. But her mother was distraught and had difficulty taking care of her family. Sophy and her younger brother had received cash assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Her older sister stayed in school for a year but dropped out. Her brother was supposed to be in the eighth grade, but at the time we met with Sophy, he was missing after having run away from home. While in high school, Sophy was married unofficially in the Cambodian fashion, got pregnant, and bore a son. Her "husband" has since disappeared. After her baby was born, Sophy moved in with her girlfriend. She doesn't want to move back to her mother's apartment. "At home it's lonely; nobody visits me there." Her mother sends her $100 per month, and her friend helps her out when she can. She is thinking of applying for AFDC herself, but she doesn't know how that is done. She does recall seeing the social worker when she was pregnant but hasn't seen one since then.

She likes school and would like to finish high school. But it's very difficult now with the baby. Her mother is not a reliable resource, so she is often unable to find a baby-sitter during school days, causing Sophy to stay home and thus resulting in school absences. She claims she got good grades before the baby (A's and B's), but this semester it's been all F's. When asked about her career goals, she selected "clerk" because her mother was one and so was her grandfather. But other than this, she has no idea about future occupations. About her adoptive country, she says: "How could I be American? I black skin, black eyes, black hair." She expresses this very emphatically and insisted on defining American in racial terms. When asked about how she has been treated by Americans, she eluded the question but later repeated that "my English not good enough and my skin color black." She speaks Khmer most of the time, though her girlfriend does speak English, and she is seen by the black assistant manager of the apartment complex as the tenant who can speak English best. Sophy is distraught and confused about both her past and her future. Life is something that has happened to Sophy, and she experiences it as largely outside her control.

Excerpt from

Chapter 8

The Crucible Within

Family, Schools, and the Psychology of the Second Generation
I wish I knew some other way to render the mental life of the immigrant child of reasoning age. . . . What the child thinks and feels is a reflection of the hopes, desires, and purposes of the parents who brought him overseas, no matter how precocious and independent the child may be.
--Mary Antin, The Promised Land, pp. 198
In his coming-of-age memoir The Rice Room: Growing up Chinese-American, Ben Fong-Torres recalls a childhood spent in the rice room behind his family's Chinese restaurant, working with his siblings in the family business while attending both public and Chinese school, learning Chinese calligraphy while yearning for all things American:

[My parents] wanted me to do only two things: get the best grades possible and help out at the Bamboo Hut. . . . We were raised on work. Sometimes it got unhealthy, so that we felt guilty staying away from the restaurant one weekend, forcing more work onto Mom or a sister or brother. Our thinking--at least mine--got so twisted that I not only accepted the obligations of our family but even wanted them at the same time that I was fighting for freedom. 'What kind of son,' I'd ask myself in a demanding tone, 'would desert his parents?' [note 1]
Pushed to earn high grades, assist his father in the restaurant, and date Chinese girls rather than "foreign devils," second son Ben was pulled instead into the rock 'n' roll culture. It is a familiar story. A major theme in the psychology of the second generation is that children of immigrants perceive that they are a main, if not the main, reason for the immigration of their parents. Seeing the sacrifices made by parents, ostensibly on their behalf, not a small amount of guilt tinges the children's sense of obligation--a dynamic that, in turn, can give parents a degree of psychological leverage. This is a theme that recurs again and again in our interviews, as it does in Fong-Torres's account here and in Caroline Hwang's sense in the previous chapter of being not indebted but "indentured" to her parents' hopes for her.

Alongside this common feature of second-generation adaptation, there is another side: that of Irvin Child's "rebel" reaction of embarrassment and resentment, of role reversal and dissonant acculturation--a dynamic that gives the children, in turn, a measure of psychological leverage over their parents. Historian Marcus Lee Hansen describes this other facet of generational relations, what he calls "the psychology of the second generation," eloquently: Forget it all! Forget the language that had given them an accent that their schoolmates loved to mock. Forget the family and community customs that the sons of the Yankees and often the Yankees themselves had delighted to ridicule. Forget everyone and everything that antedated the moment when the foreign-born father first stepped upon American soil. . . . The participants in any great historic event or development never tire of talking about what they saw. Their sons, however, tire of listening and are as anxious to forget as their parents are to remember. [note 2]

Immigrant families must contend with the generational gaps and the stress of acculturation. It is a complex process, full of fault lines and reducible neither to the motto of "obey it all" nor to its opposite, "forget it all." At the heart of it are the relationship between immigrant parents and their children and the contradictions that are often engendered in the process of seeking to fulfill the hopes and desires of both. In Chapter 5, we examined the parents' own definitions of their situation, fears, and hopes. Here, we focus attention on the children's perceptions of their families, as part of our continuing analysis of the psychology of the second generation, leading to their own aspirations and self-esteem.

As we have seen, intergenerational relations in immigrant families are managed and shaped within divergent contexts of incorporation and within divergent sets of resources and vulnerabilities. Still, even after taking into account the objective circumstances within which they are coming of age, there is substantial variance in the children's intergenerational and subjective responses. Just as ethnic and racial identities vary significantly but along patterned lines as seen in Chapter 7, we seek to examine here how family orientations and various dimensions of psychological well-being vary by nationality, family status and composition, and patterns of language adaptation. That mix of psychosocial factors--in particular self-esteem and ambition--will be used, in turn, as predictors of educational achievement in the following chapter. Prior to the presentation of numerical results, however, we present four stories drawn from our fieldwork in San Diego and illustrative of the forms that daily relations between immigrant parents and their children can take.

San Diego Families

Within a few miles of each other in San Diego's sprawling inner city live some of the most impoverished immigrant families in the region, including southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and undocumented immigrants from Mexico. At the time of our interviews in the mid-1990s, most of the refugees were receiving some mix of cash and noncash public assistance, while most of the Mexican families were ineligible and did not. All clustered in co-ethnic neighborhoods, although some remained very isolated from their compatriots. Given their location, their children typically attended the same handful of area high schools. Still, despite their common poverty and the evident similarity in their families' objective circumstances, the youths' motivation for achievement and the manner in which they made subjective sense of their situations and their own selves varied. Consider the following cases: [note 3]

  • Mrs. Chea lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment with her four youngest children in a complex inhabited entirely by Cambodians. The father has long been absent; her four oldest children are now married and living outside the home. The family spent seven years in refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled to the United States. A teacher who befriended the family has had a major influence on her youngest daughter Ranny, now a junior in high school who aspires to become a teacher as well, despite her middling GPA. But her mother, who seems anxious about her children growing up and leaving the home, is against her daughter going away to college. Girls who leave the home before getting married are perceived to be in some kind of trouble; besides, she says, it is customary for the youngest daughter to stay at home and take care of her mother. While the family speaks Khmer in the house, Mrs. Chea feels that Ranny is losing her ability to speak it well because she spends more time in school than at home. Her daughter, for her part, says that "when I'm at home I act Cambodian; at school I act American." She adds that she has had to develop a dual personality to cope with the conflict between her mother's desire for her to stay close to home and maintain her cultural traditions, and her own aspirations in school and in the wider society.
  • In an ethnically mixed, working-class neighborhood in southeast San Diego lives Mr. Namvong and his wife and all nine of their children. He had been an air force pilot in Laos during the war but then was imprisoned in a "re-education camp" for more than a decade before the family arrived in the United States in the late 1980s. The parents are unemployed, receive SSI from the government, and worry about their family's financial situation in the future (the children over 18 have already been cut off public assistance). But their son Khamphay is doing very well in high school, having received straight A's in his last report card and planning on taking advanced placement courses in his senior year. He speaks Lao at home with his large family as well as with his friends at school. The family regularly attends a Buddhist temple nearby, which is also a center of social life for local Laotians. Mr. Namvong encourages his children to read aloud to him from Lao newspapers and magazines, of which there are many in the home, but also to be "flexible" in adapting to America, which he sees as their permanent home. "We are Lao American," he says. He wants Khamphay to become an engineer and feels confident that his son can achieve this goal.
  • Alberto Dí goes to the same high school as Khamphay. He lives with his mother and father and an older sister in a small wooden house that the family rents in a poor, mostly African American neighborhood shared uneasily with a scattering of Mexican families. His father, who works as a gardener, came alone years before from Jalisco and labored as a farm worker until he was able to secure his legal residency. Mrs. Dí and Alberto joined him thereafter, but they are still in the process of getting their green cards. His mother said of Alberto that because he doesn't have his papers, "no cree que é tiene valor"--his illegal status undercuts his sense of self-worth. Still, both parents are supportive of his aspirations and would like him to finish college and to be more than his parents. "Si é le echa ganas, puede lograr lo má"--if he has the desire, he can achieve anything--said Mr. Dí, adding that, in terms of future jobs, he wished for his son "cualquiera menos cortar zacate como yo"--anything but cutting grass like me. But Alberto is becoming dispirited; he feels the economic pressure on the family. Until recently he was working nights, and his schooling suffered. In our first survey Alberto aspired to be an engineer; now he has downsized his hopes and says he wants to be a small-motor mechanic. Both Alberto and his older sister have been assaulted walking to and from school and also at school. Once he was robbed on the trolley. His sister said that another time a group of black girls "grabbed me and took me to the bridge and pulled a knife on me and were calling me names." After that incident the school said they would provide bus transportation for them. The parents said they "worry about drugs and gangs, because it's much easier here than in Mexico to get caught up in these dangers." Yet they can do little about it. They do not have the income to move to a better area and no one to turn to.
  • The family discourse is very different in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ngo, who live with three of their teenage daughters in an integrated working-class neighborhood a few miles to the north. Four older children had already moved out of the household and are doing well, three of them attending different campuses of the University of California. Neither Mr. Ngo nor his wife have worked since arriving in the United States in the mid-1980s; they live on government assistance, which Mr. Ngo describes as "retirement." However, that assistance has enabled them to focus on organizing family life around the education of their children. A strict disciplinarian, Mr. Ngo is a proud man who carries himself like the military officer he was in South Vietnam. He speaks virtually no English--his wife a little more--and in the home only Vietnamese is spoken. They have high aspirations for their daughters and want them to go into the medical field "without forcing them"--although the daughters report getting a lot of pressure on that score. They are otherwise expected to continue living with their parents until they are married, following Vietnamese custom. Mr. Ngo feels that American schools are too open and the laws are too lenient.
The family has heard of affluent Vietnamese who are sending their children to postnormalization Vietnam for the summers to "vaccinate them against Americanization" and give them a boost with their Vietnamese language skills, but the Ngos do not have the means to pay for their daughters' travel; they make do instead with what they have. Posted by the parents around the house are handmade signs in Vietnamese with rules or aphorisms; the mother explained that they don't like to nag the kids, so in this way the rules are always present without having to be spoken. Samples are "If you don't salt a fish, it will rot" (a variation on "Spare the rod, spoil the child"); "First come manners, then comes education"; and "If you talk back, you are doomed forever." The kids laugh as they translate these, especially the last one, and say that all the children in the family are stubborn and make their own rules. But the parents say that the "sole purpose of their lives" is to raise their daughters and are totally dedicated to that goal.

Family Cohesion, Conflict, and Change

The 5,262 young people we interviewed in 1992 lived in households in which over 25,000 persons resided, of whom 98 percent were family members. In terms of their relationship to the respondents, these included over 9,000 parents and stepparents; over 9,000 brothers and sisters (not counting many older siblings who had already moved out of the household); over 1,000 grandparents; and over 1,000 aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives. While the average household comprised only the nuclear family, as noted in Chapter 4, household size ranged from as few as 2 or 3 people to more than 15 persons. Noting the variety of these family forms and arrangements, our focus here will be on the nature of the relations between second-generation adolescents and their parents as the complement of the parental outlooks examined in Chapter 5, with an emphasis on how these relations bear on family solidarity and children's psychological well-being and aspirations.

Table 8.1 presents a summary of several objective and subjective indices of family composition, cohesion and conflict broken down by national origin, parental socioeconomic status, and the children's type of language adaptation. In the years between the initial and follow-up surveys, substantial changes took place in some of these families, including the parents' divorce or separation (11 percent of the sample), remarriage (8 percent), or even the death of a parent (3 percent). Stressful family life events occurring during the previous three years were measured by a summated index of seven types of such events reported by our respondents. These included the divorce, separation, remarriage or death of a parent; a parent's job loss (reported by almost 24 percent of the sample); a family member being the victim of crime (22 percent); a sibling dropping out of school (nearly 8 percent); or a serious illness or disability suffered by the respondent (7 percent). Almost half of our sample (49 percent) reported experiencing no such disruption in their families during the previous three years, a third reported one such event, and nearly a fifth (18 percent) experienced two or more such negative life change events.

In addition to this objective indicator of family stability, Table 8.1 provides information on four subjective dimensions of parent-child relationships: family cohesion, parent-child conflict, embarrassment over parents' ways, and attitudes of familial obligation. These psychosocial indices provide a means to examine the inner workings of immigrant families. Earlier we suggested that systematic differences can exist among families and groups along a continuum ranging from situations where parental authority is fully preserved to those where it is thoroughly undermined by generational gaps in acculturation--particularly in English knowledge and the extent to which second-generation youth retain their parents' language. This is the basis for the typology of consonant, selective, and dissonant acculturation. In empirical terms these types should be reflected in the degree of intergenerational cohesion or conflict between parents and children, the extent to which these youths report being embarrassed by their parents' ways or attached to them by filial duty.

Family cohesion was measured by a scale composed of three items administered in the follow-up survey: "Family togetherness is important," "Family members feel close to each other," and "Family members like to spend free time with each other." To each item, respondents were asked to record how frequently each sentence applied to their own family, on a scale from 1 (never) to 5 (always). The data in Table 8.1 indicate the percent of youths who scored high on this scale (mean scores above 4.0).

Parent-child conflict is a scale composed of four items also administered during the follow-up survey and identified through factor analysis as forming a single factor: "My parents and I often argue because we don't share the same goals"; "My parents are usually not very interested in what I say"; "My parents do not like me very much"; and "[I] get in trouble because my way of doing things is different from that of my parents." These are scored on a scale from 1 to 4, with mean scores above 2.0 reflecting a high degree of conflict, as indicated in Table 8.1. [note 4] The parent-child conflict index represents a follow-up extension and refinement of the single-item measure of dissonant acculturation used in Chapter 6 as a correlate of language adaptation. Not surprisingly, family cohesion and intergenerational conflict are negatively related (r 5 2.41) although they represent different dimensions of family dynamics. Similarly, the single item measuring embarrassment with parents' cultural ways is positively correlated with parent-child conflict (.28) and negatively with family cohesion (2.22).

Factor analyses of a separate battery of attitudinal items also identified a three-item familism scale. [note 5] The three items, answered on a four-point scale, were "One should find a job near his or her parents even if it means losing a better job somewhere else"; "When someone has a serious problem, only relatives can help"; and "In helping a person get a job, it is always better to choose a relative rather than a friend." The same questions were asked in both surveys. Table 8.1 shows the percent of respondents who scored high (mean scores above 2.0) on this measure in the second survey. This scale is weakly correlated with family cohesion (.08) but not with generational conflict or embarrassment, suggesting that it constitutes a different psychosocial dimension altogether.

Several points are worth highlighting from results presented in Table 8.1. Asian-origin families are less likely to experience family change events over time; Hmong and Cambodian refugees are the main exceptions, in part as a result of a greater proportion of widowed mothers. Among Latin Americans, the most advantaged in this regard are middle-class Cubans whose children attend private schools in Miami. Without exception, Latin American nationalities have the most cohesive families as well as the lowest levels of parent-child conflict. Most Latin groups also have lower proportions of youths who report being embarrassed by their parents, with the lowest (14 percent) found among two groups of modest socioeconomic status--Mexicans and Dominicans.

We saw in Chapter 6 that a Latin background was a strong predictor of bilingualism, indicative not only of the significant advantage of Spanish speakers but also of its likely association with a selective form of acculturation. High levels of cohesion and low levels of intergenerational conflict among Latin families in Table 8.1 confirm this finding. By contrast, all Asian, European/Canadian, and black Caribbean groups fall below the average in their reported levels of family cohesion. Nearly all Asian and black Caribbean groups also score above the sample average in terms of reported intergenerational conflict. Lowest family cohesion was found among Haitians and Cambodians, and highest parent-child conflict was found among the Hmong, Haitian, and Cambodian families. Those same three groups--along with Chinese and other Asians--also showed the highest percentage of youths reporting feeling embarrassed by their parents.

Recall from Chapter 6 that children from these nationalities were likely to abandon their parental languages and, hence, were least represented among fluent bilinguals. The association between parental language loss and dissonant acculturation advanced in that chapter is confirmed by these results. This relationship gains further support when we relate our measures of family cohesion and parent-child conflict directly to language types. As shown in the bottom rows of Table 8.1, fluent bilinguals are the least likely to report persistent conflict with their parents and the most likely to indicate high levels of family cohesion. Along with more recent arrivals in the foreign language-dominant category, they are also the least embarrassed by their parents' ways. By contrast, and in agreement with earlier results, English monolinguals and limited bilinguals exhibit the strongest tendencies toward dissonant acculturation.

The familism scale clearly measures a different dimension indicative of more traditional family attachments. It is negatively associated with SES and English acquisition. Fluent bilinguals are among the least likely to score high in this measure. Children who display the strongest attachment to traditional family obligations are Mexican Americans and offspring of southeast Asian refugees. Most other nationalities tend to steer away from these traditional orientations and toward more individualistic forms. [note 6]

Figure 8.1 presents graphically the relationships between our family orientation indices and length of U.S. residence as an indicator of general acculturation. Family cohesion and familism are highest among the most recent arrivals. The latter relationship is particularly strong, indicating the prevalence of traditional family orientations among recent immigrants. Acculturation weakens these family values and leads toward more individual-centered orientations. By contrast, there is no observable relation between length of U.S. residence and parent-child conflict. This result suggests that it is not acculturation per se but the form that it takes that leads to different degrees of estrangement between immigrants and their children.

School Environments and Peer Groups

Until completing their formal schooling, children and adolescents spend more time in schools than in any other setting outside their homes. As such, schools play a critical role in their development, shaping what they learn as well as their motivation and aspirations to learn. Indeed, for children of immigrants, American public schools since the last century have served as quintessential agencies of acculturation. It is in school settings that immigrant youths come most directly in contact with their native peers--whether as role models or close friends, as distant members of exclusionary cliques, and as sources of discrimination or of peer acceptance.

Table 8.2 presents a set of selected characteristics of the schools attended by CILS respondents, as they perceived them at the time of the 1995-1996 survey. The School Condition Index consists of four items, scored on a four-point scale: "I don't feel safe at this school"; "There are many gangs in school"; "Fights occur between different racial or ethnic groups"; and "Disruptions by other students get in the way of my learning." Table 8.2 shows the percent reporting a high sense of unsafe conditions at school (mean scores above 2.0) as well as the percent reporting the presence of gangs, frequent fights between ethnic or racial groups, and drugs at school. [note 7] The Teaching Quality Index is another composite, scored 1 to 4, and formed by the following items: "The teaching in my school is good"; "Teachers are interested in students"; "Students are graded fairly"; and "Discipline is fair." Table 8.2 shows the percentages reporting a high quality of teaching (mean scores above 3.0.) [note 8]

Overall, 3 out of 10 students (29.5 percent) reported a high degree of unsafe and disruptive conditions at their school. In particular, 4 out of 10 perceived that there were many gangs and frequent fights between racial-ethnic groups. These results support the high concern for dangerous school conditions voiced by parents of our respondents in Chapter 5. Even the rank order of nationalities reporting or experiencing these conditions is similar. Thus, students of Laotian and Cambodian origin reported by far the most unsafe conditions, including a high prevalence of gang activity and violent fights, followed by the Vietnamese--all in San Diego high schools. At the other extreme are Cuban students in Miami private schools, who experienced by far the safest learning environment as well as the highest quality of teaching. These differences reflect, in part, the importance of parental socioeconomic resources and access to the type of schools that such resources can make available.

As Table 8.2 documents, different types of peer groups are closely associated with school conditions. Youths whose close friends plan to attend college tend to be enrolled in safer schools and report a significantly higher quality of teaching. Conversely, as Figure 8.2 also illustrates, students who reported that many of their close friends had dropped out of school attended institutions perceived as much more unsafe and plagued by interracial fights. This association is predictable as it points to the higher probability of dropping out from poorer schools and the lesser chance to find peers with firm college plans in these environments.

Reported exposure to illegal drugs at school yields several noteworthy results. Students were asked how many times in the current year someone offered to sell them drugs at school. While the question is discreet and does not ask about personal drug use, it is indicative of an atmo-sphere where drugs and the drug trade are present. A fourth of the sample (26.5 percent) reported at least one or more such incidents with drug sellers. Among national-origin groups, Colombians in Miami reported by far the most frequent exposure (43 percent)--confirming the fears about drugs expressed by Mr. Restrepo, the Colombian father profiled in Chapter 4.

In this instance, parental socioeconomic status again plays a significant role but ironically, in a negative sense: As Table 8.2 shows, the higher the family SES, the more likely it is that students have been approached to buy illegal drugs. This anomalous association is weak, but it suggests that even high-status children are not insulated form the pervasive influence of the drug trade. Indeed, it may be their greater wealth that turns them into more attractive targets to purveyors. Be that as it may, the data also show a stronger relationship between the presence of drugs at school and the number of peers who have given up on education. That is, the greater the level of exposure to the drug scene, the more likely a respondent's close friends are to have dropped out of school and the fewer the number who are planning to attend college. [note 9]

Psychological Well-Being: Self-Esteem and Depressive Affect

Over the course of the study, we examined two key aspects of the children's psychological well-being: self-esteem and depressive affect. To measure the first, we administered the 10-item Rosenberg Global Self-Esteem Scale to the students in both surveys. [note 10] It is scored on a scale from 1 to 4. To measure depressive symptoms, we used the 4-item Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression (CES-D) short-form scale. Respondents were asked how often during the past week they "felt sad," "could not get going," "did not feel like eating," and "felt depressed." Responses were scored from 1 to 4 on a scale from "rarely (less than once a week)" to "most of the time." The two measures get at different cognitive and affective dimensions of psychological well-being, although they are inversely related: The correlation between self-esteem and depression was 2.392 in the 1992 survey and 2.445 in 1995- 1996. [note 11] The correlation of self-esteem scores from one survey to the other was .456; that of depression scores .338, indicating significant change in these measures over the three years.

Table 8.3 summarizes the principal results. Nearly half of the total sample (47.8 percent) showed high self-esteem (mean scores above 3.5) in the follow-up survey, an increase of 10 percentage points over the level measured three years earlier. By contrast, nearly a third of the sample exhibited a relatively high level of depressive symptoms (defined as CES-D mean scores above 2.0), about the same proportion as was observed in junior high school. The data show significant differences by national origin. All groups, without exception, went up in self-esteem in the span between both CILS surveys, showing normal and positive developmental adjustment in the movement from early to late adolescence. As Table 8.3 spells out, groups with the highest levels of self-esteem were Cubans and other Latin Americans (with the notable exception of Mexicans), West Indians, and Europeans/Canadians. Those with the lowest self-esteem scores were the children of southeast Asian refugees--Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong, and Cambodians. The same rank order was not observed for depressive symptoms, however. Cubans in private school and the Europeans/Canadians fared best in this respect (with only about a fifth reporting high depression scores), followed by almost all of the other groups.

There is a marked divergence by gender with respect to psychological profiles. While the advantage in self-esteem by the latest survey was only marginally higher for males over females, there remained a sharp gender difference in depressive symptoms. Over a third of the females (36.5 percent) reported high depression scores, compared to less than a fourth of the males--a difference that remained essentially the same over time. [note 12] Family change, family cohesion, and conflict also correlated with both psychological measures. The greater the number of stressful family life-change events experienced by respondents in the years between the original and follow-up surveys, the lower their self-esteem and the higher the level of depression.

Differences in psychological well-being are still wider between respondents in low-conflict versus high-conflict families, underscoring the psychological costs of dissonant acculturation. This finding has both theoretical and practical implications because it shows that intergenerational dissonance not only reduces parental control but is also linked to a diminished sense of self-worth and well-being among children. If this conclusion is correct, effects of acculturative dissonance should also be reflected in strong relationships between measures of psychological well-being and types of language adaptation. This is just what the results in the bottom rows of Table 8.3 show. These findings confirm those presented in Chapter 6 indicating that fluent bilinguals tend to have significantly better psychological profiles, while limited bilinguals--a common product of forced language acculturation--have the worst. Nonconflictual family relations, parental language preservation, and positive psychological outcomes thus come together in a coherent whole, indicating the benefits of selective acculturation.

Finally, school environments and experiences also show strong associations with these psychological outcomes. Students attending schools reported as unsafe and plagued with gangs reported significantly lower self-esteem and higher depressive symptoms. The reverse pattern is seen with regard to students' perceptions of school quality: higher psychological well-being is correlated with good teaching and a fair and supportive learning climate. Figure 8.3 illustrates some of these relationships with respect to self-esteem outcomes.

School Engagement and Effort

Lia Thao, a Hmong senior at Hoover High School in San Diego's central city, lives with her parents and five siblings in a small apartment near her school. As her family is very poor, she has found jobs at a local restaurant and as a classroom aide to help ends meet. Despite those demands, she spends hours on homework each night, and with the second-highest GPA among Hoover seniors, she plans to attend the University of California as a premed student. For her achievements, she gives credit to her family, especially her father, who fought in the war in Laos and now delivers produce. "One of the things he taught me is that a pen is heavier than a sword." [note 13]

School success and failure are influenced by a complex of objective and subjective factors, but among the most fundamental are those that involve the youths' motivation to learn and their willingness to expend the requisite effort to achieve educational goals. Indeed, the evidence from the research literature indicates that high academic expectations successfully predict subsequent educational performance and occupational choice. [note 14] Table 8.4 presents two preliminary indicators from our longitudinal data: a measure of school engagement and the number of hours spent daily on homework. School engagement is operationalized as responses to an attitudinal item asking how important grades are to the student. High engagement is defined as responses of "very important" in both surveys. Schoolwork discipline is measured by the percent who reported that they spent over two hours daily on homework in both surveys--an indicator of persistent effort well above the national average of one hour or less among all public high school students.

Table 8.4 breaks down these indicators by nationality and other key variables. Over half of CILS's follow-up sample reported high school engagement, and about one-fourth put a serious level of effort in their schoolwork. As with other psychosocial indicators, there are significant differences by nationality. Haitians and Latin Americans show the lowest levels of school engagement, and West Indians plus all Asian groups show the highest. On schoolwork, intergroup differences become much wider, with all Asian groups putting in at least twice the amount of time on homework as Latin Americans, Europeans/Canadians, and others. Hmong students averaged almost three hours of reported homework per day, a pattern that Lia Thao's story helps illustrate. All other Asian groups came close to this figure, while only about one-sixth of Cubans, Colombians, Dominicans, and Mexicans devoted two or more hours daily to school homework. [note 15]

Notice the disjuncture between the association of national origin with dissonant/selective acculturation and school engagement and effort. In general, Latin children exhibit the highest levels of fluent bilingualism, high levels of family cohesion, and low intergenerational conflict. These positive outcomes do not translate, however, into extraordinary school effort but are associated instead with a more relaxed attitude toward schoolwork. By contrast, Asian-origin children, despite greater difficulties in retaining their parental languages and higher levels of intergenerational conflict, are strongly driven to succeed in school. In their case, different dynamics seem to be at play, guiding their orientation toward achievement.

It is likely that in this case, selective acculturation is manifested less in fluent bilingualism than in the intergenerational transmission of a strong achievement drive. It is also possible that many of the reported discrepancies with parents have to do with the latter's extraordinary pressure on children to achieve, a pattern rendered plausible by many of our qualitative interviews. In any case, these results reveal a broad divergence in intergenerational relations and individual drive by national origin. We will see in the following section how these dynamics play themselves out in the development of educational expectations, and in the following chapter we will examine their bearing on actual academic achievement.

As with full bilingualism, discussed in Chapter 6, gender has a significant relationship to school engagement and discipline, with girls showing significantly higher levels of interest and work effort. These results are in line with our theoretical discussion in Chapter 3 concerning expected gender differences in adaptation. Acculturation, as indexed by length of U.S. residence, relates to these variables in a by-now-predictable pattern, namely, to reduce engagement and effort. Thus, the longer a child of immigrants has lived in this country, the lower the importance he or she attributes to school grades and the more his or her schoolwork habits approach the (low) average of the general student population. The achievement drive common among many immigrant children, especially those of Asian origin, declines steadily over time. Figure 8.4 illustrates this notable relationship between school engagement and the advance of the acculturation process.

Educational Expectations

A second and still more central aspect of subjective drive consists of the aspirations and expectations that children have for their future. These dimensions have been shown to affect positively and consistently subsequent educational and occupational achievement. This causal relation has been identified both in national samples and among specific ethnic minorities. [note 16] Aspirations and expectations are not the same thing. Aspirations refer to desired levels of future performance (what people want to happen); expectations are beliefs about a probable future state of affairs (what people think will happen). Aspirations are less realistic than expectations, since what people subjectively desire typically exceeds what they rationally expect. As such, expectations constitute the fundamental blocks on which future behavioral choices are made. [note 17]

In both surveys we asked respondents about their educational aspirations--"What is the highest level of education you would like to achieve?"--as well as their expectations--"And realistically speaking, what is the highest level of education that you think you will get?" Each of these items was scored 1 to 5 ("less than high school," "finish high school," "some college," "finish college," and "finish a graduate degree"). Table 8.5 summarizes the results for students who in 1995-1996 aspired to an advanced degree and those who realistically expected to earn such a degree. As the table shows, the percentage aspiring to an advanced degree (66.5 percent) is much higher than the percentage who realistically expected to attain it (44 percent)--although both figures reflect a very high overall level of ambition.

Further, the data point to the resilience of aspirations and expectations over time. For the sample as a whole, these variables remained virtually identical from junior high to the end of high school. For the sample as a whole, the proportion aspiring to an advanced degree changed less than 1 percent during this period (67.0 to 66.5), and expectations changed less than 2 percent. Similarly small changes occur when these variables are broken down by gender, parental SES, and national origin, with exceptions noted as follows.

In both surveys, significant differences in aspirations and expectations emerged among nationalities. The most ambitious groups were Cubans in bilingual private schools in Miami and Chinese and other Asians (mostly Japanese, Koreans, and Indians). Along with the Vietnamese, these were the groups that showed the most significant increases in educational expectations over time. Realistic expectations for an advanced degree increased by 9 percent among Cuban and Vietnamese students and by a remarkable 15 percent among Chinese and other Asians. At the bottom of the distribution were Dominicans, Mexicans, Laotians, and Cambodians.

The Hmong, who come from the poorest immigrant group in the country, are perhaps the most poignant example of the gulf that can open between educational aspirations and realities. We just saw in the previous section how Hmong-origin students display the highest level of schoolwork effort. In their own perceptions, however, this is not enough: While 54 percent of Hmong youths aspired to an advanced degree, a minuscule 6 percent realistically expected that they would be able to attain it. That figure actually reflects a decline of 6 percent since junior high school. The Hmong, along with other second-generation southeast Asians, thus exhibit a notable combination of subjective traits characterized by high school discipline and engagement along with poor self-esteem and a pessimistic view of their future chances in life. The question remains of how these contradictory trends affect their actual educational achievement.

Predictably, advanced career goals increase with family socioeconomic status, the differentials across status categories becoming wider in the youths' expectations of what they will actually achieve. Female students aim much higher than males, with half of the females expecting to earn an advanced degree. Although not shown in Table 8.5, these gender differentials are reflected in occupational aspirations as well. The difference is most telling with respect to aspirations to become physicians--the top-status career choice of 18 percent of the sample in the latest survey. Across almost all nationalities, female students voiced this career aspiration significantly more often than males. This is in line with our analysis in Chapter 3 that points to distinct gender complexes, in which females combine higher goals and school effort with persistent lower levels of psychological well-being.

The importance of patterns of acculturation is again made clear by the next three breakdowns in the table. Dissonant acculturation reduces ambition, and consonant or selective acculturation increases it. Thus, both educational aspirations and expectations rise significantly with family cohesion and decline with parent-child conflict. As seen in Chapter 6, high educational expectations are most common among fluent bilinguals. Along the same lines, the importance of parental goals on children's own ambition is evident in the bottom rows of Table 8.5. Only 28.8 percent of students whose parents held less than college aspirations for them aspired to an advanced degree; the figure increases to a remarkable 85 percent among those who saw their parents as having high goals for them.

The relationship between educational expectations and other psychosocial dimensions examined previously is illustrated in Figure 8.5. For the sample as a whole, self-esteem and educational expectations are strongly and positively correlated; the same is true with indicators of school engagement and effort. Thus, at the bivariate level, a series of mutually supportive relations emerges that is generally congruent with our initial theoretical framework. Consonant/selective acculturation, including fluent bilingualism, relate positively to key psychosocial outcomes. These subjective variables, including self-esteem and ambition, in turn relate strongly to each other, suggesting a "virtuous cycle" of cumulative development. The opposite downward cycle is associated with acculturative dissonance. This general trend registers some notable exceptions by gender and by southeast Asian nationalities, as discussed previously. We examine next how these diverse factors come together as actual determinants of psychological well-being and ambition.

. . . . Conclusion

We began to develop a taste for the American good teenage life and soon Island was old hat, man . . . By the end of a couple of years, we had more than adjusted. And, of course, as soon as we had, Mami and Papi got all worried that they were going to lose their girls to America. . . The next decision was obvious--we four girls would be sent summers to the Island so we won't lose touch with la familia.
--Julia Alvarez, How the Garcí Girls Lost their Accent
To avoid losing her daughter Thuy to America, Mrs. Huyhn sings karaoke in Vietnamese with her. Mrs. Huyhn was a seamstress in Vietnam, but she now lives alone with Thuy in San Diego. Their source of income is "a check that comes in the mail." Although a single parent and at a loss in her new world, she struggles indefatigably to push her girl ahead. She buys the Vietnamese karaoke videos and decorates her otherwise bare living room with photos of Thuy and mementos of her achievements. Exceptionally, Thuy has managed to retain her Vietnamese, which she speaks daily with her mother. One of the living room plaques recognizes Thuy for achieving the highest GPA in her school during the preceding year. Like the Ngo family, described in a story at the beginning of this chapter, Mrs. Huyhn does not have the means to send Thuy back to Vietnam during the summers. Unlike the Ngos, she does not bombard her daughter with written proverbs from the old country but has instead turned her tiny apartment into a shrine to her daughter and her ancestral past. The karaoke sessions are paying off: Thuy wants to be a gynecologist, and her high grades position her well for a scholarship; she is firmly set on achieving this goal.

As we complete our tour of the psychology of the second generation, two apparently contradictory trends stand out. The first is the lawfulness of the process of adaptation as successive outcomes build on each other, leading to predictable consequences. Hence, parental success in opening the doors to the American middle class translates into higher educational ambitions among children and greater confidence in reaching these goals. Higher parental status and unbroken families support fluent bilingualism and other manifestations of selective acculturation that, in turn, increase self-esteem, reinforce aspirations, and lower psychological distress. A favorable mode of incorporation and early academic achievement in school also set the grounds for an optimistic outlook on the future.

But amidst these predictable trends, we also discern other paradoxical outcomes that involve both individuals and collectivities. [note 25] At the collective level, certain nationalities manifest unexpected results that are at times incompatible with their known histories. The low self-esteem of Filipinos fits into this category, as it endures after taking family characteristics into account and cannot be attributed to a negative context of reception. The humble aspirations of Mexican Americans are a reflection of the negative incorporation of their parents but are noteworthy because they persist regardless of parental achievement, language preservation, or type of acculturation. This is a telling demonstration of the power of social context.

At the individual level, there are surprising stories of children's lack of ambition despite parental achievement and, conversely, of willpower and determination in the face of adverse circumstances. The case of Yvette Santana (Chapter 1) is an example of the first outcome, and those of Aristide Maillol (Chapter 1), Roberto Santos (Chapter 4), and Thuy Huyhn represent noteworthy instances of the second. Throughout, we have relied on these individual cases both to help guide the analysis and to emphasize variability and exceptions to statistical averages. For the Garcí sisters, for example, traveling to the Dominican Republic in the summers was the usual thing to do, as their parents sought to slow down their acculturation to America, but they could not know that their experience was exceptional. [notve 26]

Most immigrant parents cannot or will not send their children back home. They rely instead on the strength of their community or of their family to help preserve some connection with the old country and, through these, some semblance of parental authority. They take their children to church or temple, surround them with relatives, pepper them with proverbs in the home language, and sing karaoke with them in an effort to stem dissonant acculturation. The successive outcomes documented in our data, though predictable on the average, clearly show the manifold results that such efforts produce and the divergent ways in which children adapt to the chances and challenges of their situation.

Save 20%

Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more