All ethnic groups experience a tension between the old world and the new world. First generation immigrant parents, for example, are distressed when their children prefer social activities among their schoolmates over family gatherings. The children are angry because these obligatory family events occur every weekend. Daughters say their parents are over-protective; parents say their daughters have succumbed to the worst of U.S. culture.
Sam Quiñones profiles Chicago restaurateur Carlos Ascención Salinas in Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream (University of New Mexico Press, 2007). Salinas arrived here nearly 40 years ago. He took a job in one of the restaurants of a regional pancake chain. He saved some of his earnings and he studied his workplace. Salinas eventually opened his own taquería, and then a few more. Salinas also assisted many other Mexican-Americans to start their own business. Today, Chicago features hundreds of these family-operated taquerías. There is one, for example, out the back door and then just across the alley from my home and then a dozen more within another four blocks.
Along the way Salinas and others had to sort out what was healthy in his old world culture and what was of no use in the U.S. In Quiñones’ excellent book, Salinas repeats a version of the oft-told crab story. The fisherman, it seems, had no lid on his bait bucket. Another angler comes by: “Aren’t you afraid the bait will escape?” “No,” replies the first. “These are Mexican crabs. Whenever one gets too high in the bucket, the others drag it down.” (This story, by the way, has been told about Italian crabs, Pilipino crabs and even Catholic crabs.)
To be a success in business, explains Salinas, it wasn’t enough to learn about food distributors or about wage and hour regulations. He had to learn the soft arts; how to work in a pluralistic environment. In Mexico there is envidia, a jealousy embedded in the culture. There is an expectation that one gains status by trash-talking anyone who is further ahead. Envidia can even include sabotage. Salinas knew that envious behavior had to give way to cooperation for success in the U.S.
Quiñones tells us that Salinas preached teamwork “without envy and backbiting.” He shared his knowledge and made loans to others interested in starting a business. The loans “weren’t that important,” says Salinas. It was “recognizing the strength of unity, this support, backing each other up, this confidence we all need… We have to break the pattern of those famous crabs.”
Not everything from the old world should be forsaken upon arrival in the U.S. Research shows that parochialism actually aids assimilation. A strong family network gives children a nourishing harbor in our individualistic, often rootless culture. The seemingly old world ethnic family has resources more valuable than those in a superficial culture that is fixated on the vacuous Kardashians and the talent-deficient Miley Cyrus.
Every ethnic family struggles with this: What belongs to private life but is not useful in conducting public life? What is healthy in the home-based culture and what is dysfunctional there? Sorting through these matters is difficult. It helps to have a business leader like Salinas, perhaps a considerate foreman, maybe an Anglo pastor in one’s Mexican-American parish (or in a Polish-American parish), maybe an involved teacher. Thousands upon thousands of immigrants to our country have made a way from poverty to success by using one culture to create the next.
Droel edits a free newsletter about faith and work: NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629