Published on July 13th, 2013 | by Apuntes LJ


On Assimilation, Social Mobility, and Ethnic Identity

An Interview with Sociologist Tomás Jiménez 

About Tomás Jiménez
Tomas_R_Jimenez_Color Photograph Author Resized Cropped Tomás Jiménez, a native of Santa Clara, California, is an Assistant Professor of sociology at Stanford University. He holds a BS in sociology from Santa Clara University and AM and PhD degrees in sociology from Harvard University. Dr. Jiménez’s  research and writing focus on immigration, assimilation, social mobility, and ethnic and racial identity. He is the author of “Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity” (University of California Press, 2010), which was recently awarded the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Latinos/as Section 2011 Distinguished Book Award.
Dr. Jiménez lives with his wife and two children in Stanford, California.

Apuntes: Tell us about early life experiences or events that were formative or impacting.

TJ: I grew up in Santa Clara, right in the middle of Silicon Valley. My father is from Mexico. My mother is the granddaughter of Italian immigrants. There are a few things in my background that explain how I ended up here, and how I ended up as a sociologist, studying the things that I study. One was growing up in a house where the immigrant experience, the immigrant narrative, was a part of daily life. I was very fortunate in that there were generations that came before me that worked very hard so I could grow up in a mixed middle and working class community. There were very few Latinos where I lived, but I was around a lot of Latinos because of my parents’ networks.

The immigrant narrative was very prominent in our household. My father would talk about his experiences as a migrant farmworker. He was undocumented when he came, and he was deported when he was a child. There were times when they were homeless, and those stories were part of dinner table conversations at our house. I have two older brothers. We really were quite engaged.

My mom similarly grew up in an immigrant household. Her mother died when she was very young, so she grew up with a single father and was mostly raised by her immigrant grandparents. She grew up speaking Italian.

There were a lot of ways in which my mom and dad connected, in terms of their families. They have been married for 47 years, and their marriage is strong because they share the experience of having grown up in an immigrant household. They brought that into our household when I was growing up.

So being a mixed kid (as it turns out, there are a lot of kids who are half-Mexican, as I learned later when I became a sociologist: Mexicans have a very high intermarriage rate), growing up with different languages in my household, growing up with different types of food, and interfacing with the larger ethnic community in many different ways were my formative experiences.

Apuntes: Did you travel much as a youth?

TJ: We would go to Mexico quite a bit. My dad is a professor of Latino and Latin American/ Chicano literature at Santa Clara University, and also a writer. When I was eight years old, we spent a summer in Mexico City, where my father was teaching. That was an incredible experience for an eight-year-old, living in one of the world’s great cities, just the scale of it. I had spent my whole life in suburban Silicon Valley, and then coming face to face with the many Mexican experiences, including tremendous poverty, and seeing the incredible diversity within Mexico was very formative. When you are in Mexico City, you see the work of the great artists, and if you were in the universities, as I was through my father, you would meet professors and writers. Even at that age I had an appreciation for the diversity among Mexicans.

Apuntes: You did your undergraduate work at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution. Why did you go there?

TJ: Why did I go there? Well, there are a few reasons. It was the only school I applied to and that wasn’t because I was being lazy. Santa Clara has rolling admissions, so I found out I got into Santa Clara in early December. I was an athlete my whole life, and sports were very important to me.  I played shortstop in high school and I could play baseball at Santa Clara, which had a very good baseball team. I was an attractive recruit to them because my father is a professor there, so they didn’t need to give me a scholarship (my tuition was covered as part of my father’s benefits package).

Apuntes: Did religion play a part?

TJ: Yes, to some degree. I grew up Catholic. And I grew up around the Jesuits. The Jesuits offer a particular flavor of Catholicism, with a strong emphasis on social justice. And that was attractive to me. The opportunity to be engaged in an academic environment while thinking that what I learned in the classroom and the research the professors were doing all related to a larger world and would have an impact beyond the walls of the university was something that I appreciated. Santa Clara is a small school and I got lots of attention. The teaching is fantastic, I got great mentorship there.

Apuntes: What was it like being a Latino in Santa Clara University?

Easy. It’s a place with a fairly sizable Latino population, especially for a private school. And of course my father is a very prominent figure on campus, especially for Latino students. I hung around with the baseball players, and there were a few Latinos among them. But I felt very comfortable moving between worlds, I know that it’s common for people to say that about themselves, but I really did. I had a strong connection to the multicultural center, which is equivalent to the Centro Latino that we have here [at Stanford]. But I didn’t feel like that was the extent of my social circle. If anything felt difficult about being Latino, it was the assumption people made about how connected I was to my Latino roots, especially given my father’s prominence on campus. But my father has never been someone who believes in cloistering: being Latino has been an important part of who he is, it is part of his professional identity, his personal identity. Growing up in a household with parents of different backgrounds, we were encouraged to be proud of who we were but also open to developing other parts of our identities.

Apuntes: At which point did you decide to become a sociologist?

TJ: Very early. Going into college, I wanted to be either an academic or work in the front office of a professional sports organization. But during my freshman year at Santa Clara, Cornel West, the great philosopher and theologian, came and gave a talk, and I was just floored. I was completely captivated and I remember thinking: “I want to be able to have that insight.” Now that I’ve been in academia for a while, I doubt I will ever have that kind of insight, but we all need something to aspire to. So I started talking to my professors about what it would take to be a professor, and I learned that it would require getting a PhD, so I started doing independent research with a professor named Alma Garcia, a Mexican American woman and Latina feminist who had a tremendous influence in my life. And she is the one that really guided me to graduate school.

Apuntes: And you ended up at Harvard. Did you have any assimilation problems in the East Coast?

TJ: Yes. It had less to do with ethnic identity than with regional identity. There is a regional character there that is not welcoming. When it started to get cold in Boston, and you had to deal with locals who were not the friendliest of people, I remember thinking “Why would anyone live here when you could live in California?”

Apuntes: But I would think, why would anyone go to college anywhere else?

TJ: Exactly.  After a while I began to appreciate Boston. I learned that it had its own things to offer, and once I stopped expecting it to be like California, I started enjoying it. Given the topics that I am interested in, I think it was very beneficial for me to live out of California, and out of places where there is a large Mexican population.

Apuntes: At which point did you get married?

TJ: I got married in 2005. I got my PhD in June of 2005, got married a month later, and started a new job a month after that. It was a very busy summer. I married (and am still married to) the woman I had been dating for six years. We went to high school together in San Jose, but we didn’t start dating until graduate school.

Apuntes: Would you mind telling us her ethnicity? (Doing our own sociological research here.)

TJ: No, I would not. She is also half-Mexican. Her mother is Mexican, her father Irish. And so there is a way that we connected, being, and I say this as a term of endearment, half-breeds. We connected on that front.

Apuntes:  I read somewhere that Latina women don’t intermarry as much as Latino men do.

TJ: Actually, the difference is small. Black men out-marry more than black women. Asian women out-marry much more than Asian men, but among Latinos, both men and women out-marry at similar rates. If there is a difference, it is 1 or 2 percentage points. The intermarriage rates are incredibly high given the size of the population. By the third generation, about one in three out-marry, and that’s in places where there is a huge Latino population. In Los Angeles, if you were to pick your marriage partner out of a hat, at random, there is a better than 50 percent chance you would marry a Latino. And still the intermarriage rates are pretty high.

Apuntes:  Tell us what a sociologist does.

TJ: Sociologists do a little bit of everything, which is a benefit but also makes it a bit difficult, because it is ill-defined. A sociologist, if you want a textbook definition, studies the processes by which social patterns are created, maintained, and changed. And that makes it a very broad field of study.

Apuntes:  Why is it useful? Why do sociological research?

TJ: There are people whose approach to sociology is to try to develop fundamental concepts and theories to explain what people do; one might call that a theory-driven approach: using the world to understand sociology. Others, like me, use sociology to understand the world. So I had a lot of questions that emerged from personal experiences, questions about ethnic and racial identity, immigrant integration, assimilation, incorporation, intermarriage, and the process of migration. And through the courses I took early on at Santa Clara, I concluded that sociology was the best tool to figure out how my experience fit in the world. The thing I love about sociology, and I think this is true for a lot of people who become sociologists, is that what brought me to sociology was something very personal. What I have taken away is much more universal. For me, the big “light-bulb” moment or series of moments was when I realized that the kind of questions I had, which were rooted in my experiences, happened to be very relevant in the field of sociology, very relevant to millions of people all over the world, not just to me.

Apuntes: Would you say the focus is on documenting what is or what has been, or is there also an effort to influence what might be?  

TJ:  Some strongly believe that sociology is a science, and that the job of sociologists is to document what is, to theorize based on particular sets of data and stop there. Personally, I think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to influence what is, not just to document it. I have tried to do that by engaging in public debates, writing lots and lots of op-eds, giving public lectures in places where academics typically don’t go. Some sociologists let their work remain only in academic journals or books. I think, especially given what I study, immigration, that there is a huge benefit to disseminating what we are learning about immigration, about the process by which immigrants integrate, to people at large. Making the results of our research better known, we can clarify a lot of misconceptions.

Replenished Ethnicity Jimenez

Apuntes: Your research focuses on immigration, assimilation, social mobility, and ethnic and racial identity. Do you bring any special insight to your work because you are a Latino?

TJ: I think so. The kinds of questions that I ask are motivated by my experience as a Latino and partly by my experience being mixed and growing up in a particular household. One of the defining characteristics of the Latino population is its tremendous internal diversity. My first major research project, my dissertation, examined one particular dimension of that diversity, the generational diversity. Among Mexicans, in particular, there has been a long history of migration, people of many generations. That question originally came out of my personal experience, growing up around Latinos, knowing people even within my own family. If you go to a family reunion or a BBQ, you can experience that diversity: there are the aunts and uncles who have been incredibly successful in business and education, and then there are some cousins who are just getting out of jail, along with others who fit somewhere in the middle. So my research choices came out of a particular insight, living as a Latino.

Apuntes: Let me just ask you some very basic questions, especially on the topics you are an expert on. Immigration: is it continuous, sporadic, cyclic, do economic conditions foster it?

TJ:  Well, yes, yes, yes, and yes. As I have found through my research on the Mexican-origin population, its uniqueness relative to other immigrant groups is that Mexican immigration has remained relatively constant for a hundred years. Other immigrant groups have had waves of immigration that took place over a relatively short period of time.  But Mexican immigration began in about 1910, and with the exception of brief periods in the 1930’s and from 2007 to now, it has been relatively constant and very heavy in the last thirty years or so. That generates a type of internal diversity that you don’t see among other populations.

Now, is immigration continuous? Some people are beginning to question that. I wrote a whole book on the immigrant replenishment, this idea that immigrants keep coming and what that does to racial and ethnic identity. Just about the time I published the book, it was reported that for the first time in 40 years, Mexican immigration is at net zero: there are as many Mexican immigrants coming as there are leaving. Some argue this is due to economic conditions in the United States, which leads to an anti-immigrant sentiment, and that this is a cyclical phenomenon. But then there are also changes in Mexico: there is a growing middle class, as well as a change in what was a culture of migration

There was a culture of migration that had developed over generations. If you were a male growing up in a rural area in Mexico, when you got to a certain age, you migrated to the United States. That became a sort of expectation. That might be changing. Most of that insight is based on a very long article written in The New York Times, so I don’t think we have good systematic data on whether there has been a change in the culture, and whether opportunities for Mexicans entering the middle class in Mexico are distributed widely enough that they would slow down migration.

Apuntes: I am wondering if these studies could have universal applicability? Does it relate to Turks going to Germany? Colombians going to Venezuela?

TJ: Absolutely. Mexicans are not the only population that has seen its immigrant population replenished by new immigrants all the time. Even in the United States, Filipinos have a very long history of immigration. The Filipinos who came here and are part of the 20th Century are very much like Mexicans. They worked in the fields, they worked alongside Mexicans. That’s why you see a very large intermarriage rate between Mexicans and Filipinos. Filipinos that come now are much more highly educated. The Chinese have a very long history of immigration but nothing on the scale of Mexicans. If you go to Chicago, the Polish population in Chicago is incredibly diverse because you have people who came here in the early part of the 20th century, others who were coming in as post-World War II refugees, and then you have people who came in later escaping communism, and still others who came post-communism. So yes, the sociological research on Mexican immigration absolutely has wide applicability.

Apuntes: As for assimilation, I understand that assimilation used to be understood as trying to emulate white Americans, but that definition is changing?

TJ: As a social scientific concept, assimilation has never been exclusively about one population absorbing another, or absorbing the other population and bleaching out anything that came from the old country. What assimilation means is the decline of an ethnic difference. How that ethnic difference declines is another question. But assimilation is essentially two or more groups becoming alike. If you go back to the original definition written by Robert Park in the early 1920s, he never says it’s about everyone becoming white, or about ethnic populations losing their ethnic traditions or becoming bleached. He says it’s about two or more populations becoming more similar. What we are finding as we look back over history is that as immigrant groups assimilate into a mainstream, they change the very definition of the mainstream. And I think there are good reasons to think that is happening again here.

The recent research that I have been doing in Silicon Valley examines what I call the host population. These are people who are US born, from US-born parents, and I am interested in how they adjust to the fact that there are all these immigrants now. And one of the very major findings of my research is that for that population, there is nothing weird about immigrants, or the children of immigrants. There is nothing strange about having friends that speak another language or come from another land, whose parents cook food that produces strange smells in the household. It has become a defining feature of living in metropolitan America. Whether you are immigrant, children of immigrants, or whether your family came over five generations ago, the immigrant experience is totally pervasive.

Apuntes:  There was some research about achievement levels, about how being the smart kid is no longer being the white kid.

TJ: Absolutely. My research in Cupertino, California, where the immigrants are very highly skilled, shows that their children do incredibly well in school. And the schools are populated mostly by Asian and white students in that area. “Asian-ness” has come to represent intelligence and high achievement, so there has to be a group that represents the opposite, and in Cupertino that group is the white kids. And so, that contact between an immigrant population and a host population is changing the meaning and the status of particular categories. Acting “white” may mean doing well and being successful in many places in America. But in Cupertino, acting “white” means you are slacking off, it means you are more likely to party, dabble in drugs, play sports. Now, the white kids are doing just fine by most standards, except by the standard in Cupertino. And the standard is set by an immigrant population of Asian origin. And this is not me imposing these ideas on the people who live there. This is me spending lots of time, and talking to lots of people, and these are their words. Achievement is explicitly expressed in racial terms. Kids will say to each other, “are you acting white or Asian this weekend?” which means “are you studying or are you just chilling out?”

Apuntes: And that takes me to social mobility. What is it mostly associated with? Education? Hard work? Race?

TJ: All of those things, it is hard to separate them. There is a belief, popularized by the media, that Mexicans, and Latinos more generally, show a third-generation decline. That is, the first generation of immigrants, many from a low socio-economic origin, come here and work hard. The second generation does much better than their parents. And the general belief is that the third generation does worse than the second. And that finding is actually a massive misreading of the data.  I want to put this out there, because there are so many, particularly commentators, who push this idea that is a total misreading of the data.

 If you look at the data, there is a very consistent pattern whereby each generation born in the United States does better than their parents. People get confused because there is such a mix of immigrant generations in the United States among Mexicans and Latinos, which leads to erroneous comparisons. If you look at how people do relative to their parents, there is a very consistent pattern of upward mobility. Not to the degree you would find in people of European origin, but you will find a consistent pattern of upward, if slow, progress across generations.

What is the slow progress associated with? It is related to the background of the parents, that’s a big part of it. I think it is also related to the quality of schools. It is also related to race: people are told repeatedly that because they are of a particular background, they are not supposed to be smart, and some end up believing it. There is a student doing research in one of the local high schools, and one of her subjects is a very smart girl who does well in school. Yet this girl is constantly told explicitly by her peers, “You are Mexican, you are not supposed to be in this class.” And it is very easy to internalize that idea, especially when the feedback is coming from lots of different places.

The other factor that I think impacts social mobility is legal status. Arguably, more than anything, legal status is a chain that shackles immigrants and the children of immigrants to a stake of immobility. If you want to do something for the Latino population (three-quarters of unauthorized immigrants are Latino), you should push for legalization. We know now that independent of other effects, being unauthorized has a detrimental impact on the ability of immigrants to learn English, earn better wages, participate politically. Those are obvious effects. What may not be so obvious is the impact on their US-born children. They get penalized for their parents’ legal status.

Apuntes: Let me ask you about ethnic identity. We know Latinos identify with their country of origin. One of the goals of Apuntes is to have us all identify as Latinos (people of Latin-American descent who live in the United States) rather than Mexican-Americans or Cuban-Americans. Do you think that’s an attainable goal?

TJ:  The “Latino” identity is something that people embrace in particular circumstances. Every four years, when presidential candidates travel around the country, you get groups calling themselves “Latinos for McCain,” or “Latinos for Obama,” or “Latinos for Romney” (although there were few of those). Some Latinos take advantage of that moniker because it makes people pay attention to them. There are advocacy organizations in Washington DC that tell us we are all “Latinos,” and we buy that to some degree, but we also know that there are different experiences that make up what it means to be Latino.

I actually think that the push to make us all one brand of “Latinos” is very elite driven. There is a sociologist at UC Berkeley named Cristina Mora, who is writing a book about the origin of the “Hispanic” category. The book is about how Univision, the US Census, and the National Council of La Raza joined forces to create this vision you are talking about and literally created the category and got us to try to buy into the idea that there was this thing called “Latino.” To some degree we buy into it. It is to the benefit of advertisers, politicians, and to some extent also to the benefit of the community. But in terms of individual identity, I think that is something people evoke selectively. So if you are living in East Palo Alto, or in Richmond, or other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area where there are large Guatemalan, or Salvadoran, or Mexican populations, to those kids, being Guatemalan, or Salvadoran, or Mexican means something distinctive. It’s also the case that because non-Latinos often paint the entire population with the same brush, we think of ourselves as a single group.

Apuntes: Let me end with a few words about your teaching. Any particular reason why you are at Stanford?

TJ: Well, there are lots of reasons why Stanford. I started teaching at UC San Diego, which is a wonderful place for the kinds of things I am interested in; fantastic faculty studying immigration. I chose to come to Stanford partly because, intellectually, Stanford has a visionary notion of Ethnic Studies. It is not the kind of cloistered notion where there is big distinction between Latino studies and Asian-American studies and Native-American studies; those things exist, but there is a Center of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (and my hiring came partly through that center) that envisions this very comparative notion. We talked earlier about the fact that immigrant replenishment might have applied to lots of folks, and the intellectual model of the Center of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity is based on the fact that there are lots of particular experiences that have broader application, and that by talking across these kinds of experiences, we can better understand the nature of race and ethnicity and its relevance to mobility, to migration, and to the arts, literature, music, health, and so on. I like that model.

Stanford is a place where you feel you can do anything. There is a sense of entitlement, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There is a broader belief that we are the people to do all the things that should be done. The institution has the resources to allow you to do that.

Another thing that attracted me to Stanford, and this became much clearer after I got here, is that it is not a rich-kid institution. It is an elite institution, but I think it is more serious about diversity than any of its peer institutions. Stanford attracts students who mostly come from immigrant backgrounds; many of them are first-generation college students. Stanford takes that diversity seriously: it’s not just ethnic and racial diversity, it’s the class diversity within different ethnic and racial groups, and I like that. I think it affects the quality of the student experience, and it certainly affects me as a professor. It makes being around the students much more enjoyable, and it makes discussions in classes much more interesting. The students are all extraordinary across the board. I am absolutely spoiled. Every one of the students in my classroom were in the top 1% of their high schools. But I think Stanford does a great job of fostering, is serious about it, and throws a lot of resources at diversity. I think, as an institution, and Stanford has always been a historic institution, that is at the forefront. And so I am proud of being at Stanford for those reasons.

Apuntes: What is the balance between research and teaching?

TJ: My approach is to not separate them as much as other people might. A lot of people think, well, today I teach, and tomorrow I do research and writing. Perhaps because I was an athlete for most of my life, I borrow a saying from Willie Mays, the great outfielder of the Giants, who boiled down his approach to baseball like this: “They throw the ball, I hit it. They hit the ball, I catch it.” I have a similar approach to my work. I think in academia what we do professionally is we learn things and we teach things. Those are the only two things we do. And so when I am doing my research, when I am out gathering data, my mindset is that I am just learning things from other people. And when I am writing or if I am in my classroom, I am just teaching what I learned. And so the difference between teaching in a classroom and writing to me is the difference between the delivery mechanism. When I am a writer, I put on my hat as a teacher. I ask myself, how can I teach the reader what I have learned? And when I am in the classroom I put on the same hat, but I am doing it a different way. There is actually intellectual benefit to that, in that I have to constantly think about how I can take complex ideas and simplify them to relate them to a large audience. I think that’s important. Too many of us write in such a way or teach in such a way so as to show everyone how much we know, as opposed to what we have learned. And we hide ideas behind convoluted language that we think sounds smart, but doesn’t. Clear writing is actually smart writing.



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