Latinos do assimilate, Mr. Brokaw

Latinos do assimilate, Mr. Brokaw
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This past weekend, I was asked to comment on Tom Brokaw’s "Meet the Press" remarks about Latinos needing to do a better job assimilating. The remark was offensive, off the mark and does not reflect the reality of the majority of Latinos in this country. 

As expected, there was a fury of backlash from many who understood Brokaw’s comments to be not just out of touch, but also feeding the false narrative that Latinos do not want to integrate into American society, giving those already hell-bent on demonizing Latinos ammunition to continue to do so. 


In today’s heated and dysfunctional politics and rhetoric, with a president whose motivation to construct a wall is built on misguided and false perceptions and stereotypes of Latinos, Brokaw’s comments feed into that corrosive, fabricated and untruthful storyline.

Brokaw has since apologized, but the incident sparks a broader conversation and necessary dialogue in order to put negative and denigrating stereotypes to rest.

As an immigrant from Colombia and a naturalized U.S. citizen, I am extremely proud to be an American. I am also extremely proud of my Colombian/Latino heritage. I believe it has given me a sense of self, knowledge of a rich culture, bilingual ability that has boosted my career and my personal life and an overall broader understanding of what it means to be American in a complex global community. 

My first language is Spanish. I thank my parents every day that when we moved to the United States, they made it a rule to never speak English at home. They knew we would learn it in school and with our new friends. My mother even spent her days during the summer teaching each of us an hour a day of reading and writing in Spanish. 

But guess what? That has never debilitated my ability to assimilate. I got a 4.0 in my high school AP English class, and I speak on television in English and Spanish.

In fact, studies show that children who learn a different language when they are in their formative years, do better socially, are more empathetic and averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests. 

My children are growing up in a bilingual household. I have never spoken a word of English to them, nor them to me, even as they speak English to their father and to each other. They are completely bilingual, which I have no doubt will give them an edge in life, school and their careers. 

But one of the reasons why Brokaw’s comments were so wrong, hurtful and ignorant, is because assimilation wasn’t always a choice. 

There is a whole generation of Latinos who grew up in the 1950s and 60s in the Southwest, who were beaten or scolded and who were discriminated against if they spoke Spanish in school or in public. 

As such, their Mexican immigrant parents made them speak only English, even at home. As a result, and to their chagrin today, they lost their native language and assimilated almost by force to survive. 

Luckily, today, we are all free to speak whatever language we want in our homes, and yes, even in public. It does not mean we or our children have not assimilated. It simply means we are exercising our right to enjoy pride in our culture and heritage, expand our horizons and show others what it means to be American in an America that does not have an official language. 

Do not get me wrong. I believe wholeheartedly that all Latinos need to learn English if they don’t speak it. It is the only way to get ahead and live a full, productive life in this country. 

But there are definitely some exceptions. Some of our abuelos and abuelas (grandfathers and grandmothers) may have come here with a third-grade education and worked menial jobs to provide for their kids. While the grandparents may not have gotten the chance to learn English, they would always encourage and expect their kids and grandkids to learn it. 

Miami's Latino population is often used as an example of a community that has failed to assimilate. I go to Miami quite often. Yes, many people speak Spanish in public and to each other at their places of employment. That does not mean they don’t know how to speak English or that they are not assimilating. 

It means that for them, the beauty of this country is that they can be themselves, celebrate their culture, language, history, music, family and friends and still be as American as folks who have been here for generations. 

I have never heard of Latino parents who did not want their children to learn English. This is why I had such a visceral reaction to Tom Brokaw’s comments. His remarks left the impression that he thought Latinos were not assimilating and didn’t want to; neither of which are true. 

Two recent Pew Hispanic studies show just that. One states that use of Spanish is actually declining in major U.S. metropolitan areas and another shows that Latino identity fades across generations


Brokaw’s comments also point to a huge failure of many mainstream media networks: to include more Latinos on their prominent Sunday show panels. Kudos to Yamiche Alcindor, who pushed back on Brokaw’s words, but it would have been better had a Latino or Latina been able to respond from personal knowledge and experience. 

I was proud that when I was asked about it on CNN, I was asked about it by a fellow Latina who has her own weekend show, CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera. 

So, mis amigos, don’t fear us, learn from us as we want to learn from you. Learn another language. Learn Arabic or Mandarin, two important languages in global business, diplomacy and trade. Learning a second language will just make you smarter!

Maria Cardona is a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a Democratic strategist and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.