My Assimilation

Written by Alvaro Sosa

A Place To Play Marbles

The first thing I noticed when I came into this country was the landscape, how everything seemed to be covered in cement, so much so that I looked around for a patch of dirt, but the only place I could find was the small circular patch surrounding the sycamore trees in my street.

I remember being concerned about whether I was going to be able to find a place to play marbles with all my new friends, for you need to dig the hole, and draw circles on the floor to play marbles.

I could just imagine how Ishi, the last of the Yahi people of the Deer Creek region, must have felt when he saw his first major populated U.S city, going from living in a rural environment to an industrialized city abundant with cars and trains. I was eleven years old when I was driven thousands of miles away from my home in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico to California. The only people I knew here were my mom, my brother and our grandmother, who came with us to assure we didn’t get in trouble or follow the wrong path because she knew my mom worked all day, leaving us alone unsupervised.

Assimilation is when one ethnic group absorbs another, so that the cultural traits of the assimilated group become indistinguishable. I didn’t realize the toll assimilation had on me physically and emotionally. I was never conscious of the effects until now that I am older. Compared to the kind of forced assimilation that the Native American People went through, mine was merely a matter of a few little adjustments to a new culture, such as learning the language and not being able to play marbles again.

Separation From Culture and Unassimilated Elders

The suffering of atrocities, violent demoralizing segregation, and near complete genocide that the Native American People underwent could only be understood by those who underwent that pain. The only real major obstacles I was aware of during my assimilation processes were leaving all my friends and the rest of my family behind who I have not seen since, the drastic lifestyle changes, and ranking in the bottom of my classes because I lacked understanding of the English language. In Mexico I was the second top honor student of my elementary school. Assimilation caused me, just like I have learned it caused the Native American people, to separate themselves from their culture and older unassimilated relatives. It inevitably puts the assimilated in a middle ground where they don’t know exactly where they belong.

“Indians As Indians Have No Place In The American Nation”

During the time that Indians were put into the reservations from 1810 through 1871, according to Professor Pandey, of UC Santa Cruz, the United States went to great lengths to try and get the Indians to assimilate to the white culture. Perhaps the U.S. government understood their religion was a land based one, and that it would create trouble having the American Indians wanting to practice their religion, if the government's goal was segregating them in one place away from where they couldn’t “bother” them. They knew a rapid cultural assimilation of the Native Americans would be the only way they could live together with them.

More so than their parents, Native American children were the main targets of the religious and educational institutions. Professor Pandey told us that Thomas Jefferson said that “Indians as Indians have no place in the American Nation”. This sums up the approach the white man took towards the Indians. They wanted Native Americans to learn how to farm, and cultivate their land the white man’s way. Virgil Wayco mentions in his autobiography, A Zuni Life: A Pueblo Indian in Two Worlds, how they taught the boys how to farm at school. The new culture clashes were harder for the adults of the tribes, the government wanted them to stop relying on hunting, which was something they had been doing their entire lives. They wanted them to become self-sustaining, but only through farming.

Teachers Made No Real Effort To Learn The Children’s Language

My mother came to the United States when she was in her twenties, and having only gone to school up to the second grade in elementary school in Mexico, it wasn’t easy for her to go back to school here especially since she needed to fend for herself and get a job to send money back home to support us. She has been working for a hotel as a housekeeping woman for over 20 years, and her English is still very poor. Children, being the flexible and cooperative learners that they are, were all put into schools taught in English.

I had to go take a test to see what my skill levels were in math, science, and English, so they could base my class placement off of these tests. I was very good at math and science when I was a boy, and so I was placed accordingly.

I failed those classes miserably because I didn’t understand what the teacher was talking about, because as Virgil Wayco commented in his book A Zuni Life, the teachers made no real efforts to learn the children's language, “the effort was suppose to be all on our part”.

I struggled with the language barrier for about four years, until I realized I was starting to grasp it.

No More Lunch At Aunt Mari’s House

Another thing that really impacted me just as it impacted Virgil was the food. I remember back in Mexico, eating lunch was my favorite part of the day. I lived in my grandmother’s house with my aunt and brother, but everyone would go over to my aunt Mari’s house to eat lunch. All my uncles had already gotten home from work, and the kids out of school, and we would all sit together and eat a very warm and delicious home cooked meal, be it fish, beef or chicken, but always with rice, beans and chile.

What I also missed greatly were my friends, for we use to play almost everyday a variety of games such as soccer, hide and go seek, tag or pretend fighting all until about 11 or 12 at night. Here I expected to meet a lot of American kids to play with, and I was excited for the fact that I was going to have American friends, but the reality was that the only time I was able to play with other kids was at school. After school was over, it was back up to las torres as my brother and me used to call our apartment in the fourth floor of the building. I would come home, and since my grandma was too old to go to the grocery store on her own, we all ate what my mom bought us.

My mom never having actually raised children herself would try to please our desires when we went shopping, and would buy us frozen pizza, sugary cereals, bread, and ham. Bread and ham were our new staple food. The “delicious” new food, combined with the new super Nintendo video game system I got for my birthday kept me indoors most of the time. My mother would tell us the neighborhood wasn’t safe for us to go out, because there were druggies and gangsters. She was right, on multiple occasions on our early morning walk to school we saw police blocking the streets because they were searching for evidence because someone had been stabbed or shot in the middle of the night. In Mexico the elders would tell us to be careful and not to wonder off too far because there were kidnappers and “bandits” that could harm us, but nothing ever happened in our town.

I remember feeling very depressed, and I wanted to go back to Mexico, but I knew it wasn’t possible and that my brother and I were here to stay.

A Bull Rider Like My Uncle

I have learned through this short study of Native American Indians in Native Peoples of North America at University of California, that in war, physical force is used to take over land, but assimilation is then used to take over the people, specifically their bond. I came to a shameful realization just this quarter when learning about “white privilege” and remembered that while in Mexico when I was little all I aspired to be in life was a bull rider like my uncle, for I thought he was the coolest person to ever exist, and I wanted to be like him from the way he dressed with this big belt buckle, mustache, white jeans, alligator boots, and cowboy hat, to his braveness.

Then I remembered maybe ten years later when I was about to graduate from junior high, here in the U.S, I didn’t want to invite my father to come to the graduation because I knew he would be wearing his boots, cowboy hat, white jeans, mustache, and big belt buckle. All my friend’s dads were going to be wearing ties and suits and I was ashamed that my father would look so different. I realized how much I had separated myself from my culture and up to this point it went as a subconscious undetected realization. I can still speak fluent Spanish, but I do notice that some words have escaped my vocabulary, and in conversations I just substitute them with English words.

“The Only Thing Melting Is The God Damn Pot!”

Overall I do realize that if it were not for this big move my mom decided for me, and the rather “successful” assimilation, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My mom had to leave Mexico because she knew there were more opportunities here, for herself and for my bother and me, and there sure are. I feel very fortunate to be here, and I thank my mom and grandma for all their support. I know I would be suffering from extreme poverty, just like my mom was, if I had stayed in Mexico. My only critique is that the society claims there is this melting pot theory where all cultures get along together in peace and harmony, but in reality Professor Pandey put it best when he said that “the only thing melting is the god damn pot!”

Works Cited:
Pandey, Triloki N. "Native Peoples of North America." Lecture. California, Santa Cruz. Oct. 2011. Lecture.
Prucha, Francis P. The Indian In American Society: From the Revolutionary War to the Present. Berkeley: University of California P, 1984.
Wyaco, Virgil, J. A. Jones, and Carroll L. Riley. A Zuni Life: A Pueblo Indian in Two Worlds. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico P, 1998.

Alvaro Sosa is a senior undergraduate student at the University of California Santa Cruz. He studies Psychology with specific interests in social behavior, and education. He was born in Santa Ana California, and raised in Mexico for the first ten years of his life before being brought to the U.S. Presently; he devotes his time to participatory action research involving elementary children in his community. His interests derive from his experience as a first generation college student, and his goals and ambitions are those of social justice, community involvement, and promoting diversity in higher education.

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