Healthy People Inquiry

Young Immigrants

Coming of age in a new land is an American story. Children who bridge two cultures — their parents’ homeland and their adopted country — struggle to find a transnational identity and to succeed.

Coming of age in a new land is an American story. Children who bridge two cultures — their parents’ homeland and their adopted country — struggle to find a transnational identity and to succeed. In a child’s mind, memories of friends, familiar play places and sounds compete with a strange world and unintelligible language. In school, peers dress differently and may ignore or make fun of a newcomer. It’s a common experience, no matter a child’s previous social status, ethnicity or place of origin.

For Mexican children coming to Oregon with their families, the journey often includes farm labor, worries about legal status and adjustment to a cold climate. A team of Oregon State University and University of Oregon researchers has now collected some of their stories in a new report, “One-and-a-Half Generation Mexican Youth in Oregon: Pursuing the Mobility Dream,” due to be published in the Latino Research Review, a journal at the State University of New York at Albany.

“It’s really difficult for us to be the first in the family to go to college. We have to learn English, learn the American way of how professors expect you to behave and do in school. You have to deal with everyday discrimination and prejudice.”
Student participant in mobility study

The authors — Erlinda Gonzales-Berry (chair, Department of Ethnic Studies), Marcela Mendoza (University of Oregon) and Dwaine Plaza (associate professor, Department of Sociology) — interviewed a dozen Oregon State University students who were 7 to 15 years old when they left friends and family behind to start a new life in el Norte. The youths’ parents, undocumented farmworkers, legalized their status through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The researchers’ goal was to identify the barriers — personal, social and economic — that keep many of these youths from fully contributing to their new homeland.

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The late 20th century increase in Mexican immigration resulted in a 144 percent rise in Oregon’s Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000. The authors analyze the youths’ experiences in the context of this history and of acculturation theory, which relates identity development to crossing cultural divides. They conclude with recommendations for public policies aimed at increasing the chance that children in similar circumstances will be successful in their new country.

While the report protects students’ identities, it describes memories of home and stories about crossing the border, going to school and the crucial support of families and peers in adjusting to college life. Common themes stand out: nostalgia for childhood, dependence on families, struggles with language and prejudice and alienation in high school.

At OSU, these students found support through OSU’s cultural centers, especially El Centro Cultural César Chávez, as well as the Migrant Education Program and the Minority Education Office. Several reported that involvement in MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), a nationwide student movement, transformed their lives.

The students’ experiences have important lessons for policymakers. “Given the growing number of Latino/Hispanic school children in the Oregon school system today,” the authors conclude, “policymakers and educators need to think about how to equip them with the tools and strategies for successful integration rather than having them experience downward assimilation in the future.”

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.