Will 'Transnationalists' Redefine What It Means to Be American?

The United States is often described as a "melting pot" that absorbs immigrants from diverse lands and blends them into something we call Americans. They may be Latin, or Russian, or Italian when they arrive, but given enough time they, or at least their children, become just like the rest of us.

That may have been true in the past, but it is less so today, according to a growing body of research. Modern technology ranging from jet aircraft to the Internet has made it possible for new immigrants to hang on to their past, and what we see is not necessarily what we get.

They are called "transnationals," a new buzzword that has embroiled many experts in controversy. The experts can't even seem to agree on its definition, much less whether it is a good thing.

But few dispute that something very fundamental has changed. It's different from internationalism, which chiefly concerns global commerce, in that transnationals are immigrants, or their offspring, who maintain a very personal relationship with the land and the culture from whence they came.

As their numbers grow many other things will change, including what it means to be a nation.

"The era of nation-state societies successfully keeping themselves distinct has now been eclipsed," sociologists Roger Waldinger and David Fitzgerald of the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded in a recent study.

But that doesn't mean America is any less, just because the country has a growing number of residents who feel loyal to both the United States and the country of their family's origin, says Elizabeth Stone of Fordham University, who has spent decades studying the stories of families who immigrated to this country in search of a new life.

It's a personal issue for her. Her grandparents came from Sicily, and she has found much evidence that they were driven to assimilate in the grand tradition of the melting pot.

"One of the best stories was how my grandmother named the family cats George Washington and Abraham Lincoln," because she wanted to be known as American, Stone says.

"My grandfather died in 1930 when my mother was 12, and he was held up as the model of what not to become," adds Stone, a professor of English and communication at Fordham. "He made my grandmother drop out of night school. He had a bunch of garages he rented out, and he wrote on those garages 'no smok.'"

The message in that is that "if you come here you become an American, you learn English, and you move ahead," she says.

Fast forward to a recent day when Stone sat in her office with three undergraduates -- one Cuban, one Russian, and one Greek -- who had joined with her in a research project on transnationalism. The results of that project were published in the current issue of Family Process.

All three students identified themselves as transnationals, meaning they maintained the language, culture, and ties to their roots, as well as a loyalty to the United States, where they now live. They were mulling over a question when one of them, Jane Lipnitsky, 22, a Russian Jew, whipped out her cell phone.

"My mom will know," she said, and within minutes was talking in Russian to her mother, who was visiting relatives in Russia.

That incident underscored all that has changed in recent years. It's now possible for people to bridge many gaps, both electronically and personally.

This monumental change began with "the jet," Stone says, and expanded into international communications and the Internet.

Stone and her students -- who also included Erica Gomez, the daughter of Cuban emigres, and Despina Hotzoglou, who is from Greece -- interviewed a variety of transnationals for their project. Unlike past immigrants, they or their parents arrived in this country with the expectation of returning to their homeland, if only for a visit, because it is now so much easier to do that.

In the past, many immigrants, including Jewish refugees during World War II, had no "back" to go back to.

The researchers also found that the family stories are different today. Instead of promoting assimilation, they push for the best of both worlds. Children are encouraged to become full-fledged Americans, but they are also taught to remain faithful to their roots.

And today, it's much more possible to do that. Stone herself has made two trips to Sicily in the last year, searching for records and information about her family's distant past.

But sometimes, even today, that can be difficult. Of her Cuban student, Erica Gomez, Stone says: "The Cuba she feels loyal to is the Cuba of her parents imagination. It ceased to exist 40 or 50 years ago."

But the duality in Gomez's life remains real, reinforced by frequent contact with distant relatives who are still in Cuba. She feels both Cuban and American, and Stone says that was true of all the students who participated in the study.

"They're completely American," Stone says. "There's no head scarf, there's no accent, they're American. Except that there's a whole part that's not visible. It's a whole collection of attitudes, and sometimes conflicts, that's not visible.

"But it's not divided loyalties. It's not like a baby with two heads. It's like ambidexterity," Stone says.

Unfortunately, "American provincialism," as she puts it, tends to regard those who are different, or those with other loyalties, as something of a threat, especially nowadays.

"I think you're endangered only if you have someone here who doesn't feel affiliated with this country," she says.

Can we as a nation, and can our cities, feel both American and foreign?

Stone answers that like this: "New York is 52 percent foreign born, but do you see any indication that it is insufficiently American?"

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