13 Nov, 2018

How Food (and Lack Thereof) Is Affecting Hispanic Immigration to the US and America’s Reaction to it

by Dario Fabbri

Despite Mexican migration northward diminishing, in the last few years people from Central America, mostly fleeing food insecurity, have been moving to the United States in troves, adding up to the overall Hispanic American population. Such an increase has caused the assimilation of Latinos into the US society to advance, producing a mixture of different cuisines and food habits. While also inducing the likes of Donald Trump to rant against newcomers and pursue the completion of a wall between the US and Mexico. Main factors of a thorny issue strongly related to food (and lack thereof).

After reaching the apex in 2012, since then the net flow of migration from Mexico, either legal or clandestine, has dwindled. Pew Research Center reckons that from 2009 to 2014 roughly 1 million Mexicans left the United States, while 870,000 Mexicans arrived. Illegal appraisals at the US-Mexico are also down, setting a negative record. Last year over 300,000 people were arrested by the United States Border Patrol, compared to more than 400,000 in 2016, leading to a drop of 24 per cent[1]. The lowest data since 1971. A dramatic decrease totally unrelated to Trump’s election or to him threating to massively curb immigration, both legal and illegal. Or to Trump promising to complete the wall at the border between US and Mexico. Rather, it is a trend strictly linked with Mexico’s surging economy and the ensuing decreasing need for Mexicans to move abroad in search of a better life.

Even though overall data signal a net flow southward, people escaping food shortages in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – also escaping gang violence - have significantly joined migrants moving northward. The number of people appraised in the US and arriving from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras picked up consistently between 2015 and 2016. A stream of migrants mostly drove by increased food insecurity in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, also known as Dry Corridor, a region made up of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Panama and several states of Southern Mexico. Here two uninterrupted years of drought (2015-2016), combined with the El Niño weather phenomenon, destroyed many crop harvests.

As noted in the World Food Program’s report entitled “Food Security and Emigration: Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras”, «Adverse climatic conditions in the Dry Corridor affect food security by curbing agricultural productivity in commercial and subsistence farming as well as agricultural work opportunities. The El Niño drought conditions that started in 2014 caused a significant increase in irregular migration to the USA»[2]. As the report further states, so far Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have proven unable to change farming practices as to cope with worsening water shortages and help people brace for upcoming crises. Here most families being distraught by drought, decreased farming productivity and harvest losses, must deal on their own with overwhelming food insecurity.
Nowadays Central Americans leave their home countries and reach the US-Mexico border mostly for economic reasons. The influx of Central American immigrants have been enlarging the overall American population of Hispanic descent, which has grown dramatically for the past 50 years. More specifically, in the United States citizens of Latino ascendency have increased six times since 1970, being 57.4 million in 2016 and making up almost 18 percent of the entire population[3]. The Latin portion of the American population is predicted to reach nearly 25% by 2045, or over 80 million people, when America will stop being a majority white country.

This massive inflow has stirred a long debate among American intellectuals, pundits and strategists as to whether Hispanics can assimilate into the US society. Assimilation and integration, although often mistakenly regarded as synonyms, are strikingly different concepts. While the former implies for immigrants to become an integral part of the population and to stop being distinct from the rest, the latter only asks for immigrants to adopt language and civil code of the receiving society. Assimilation is always pursued through violence, by forcing newcomers to relinquish their ancestral identity and embrace local mores. While integration entails a much softer approach.

America has always been a country of assimilation. A multiethnic society notwithstanding, the US has never been a multicultural society. Across the pond, only American culture is considered legit; other cultures are simply not tolerated. Here immigrants can only become Americans, no other option is viable and available. And over the decades immigrants have become American through a violent process. Between World War I and World War II the US government opened up roughly 20 concentration camps to make sure Germans (and to a lesser degree Japanese) would become full-fledged Americans.

These days the assimilation process mostly regards Hispanic immigrants. Despite claims to the contrary, surveys on the matter reveal that assimilation is running its course. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center shows that fewer immigrants and higher interracial marriage rates among Hispanics have caused them to identify less as Latinos. While 90 percent of first generation Hispanics consider themselves as much, only around 50 percent of fourth generation Hispanics feel the same. More poignantly, 11 percent of citizens of Hispanic descent do not identify as Latinos and 23 percent of them often claim to be just “American.”

Proof of the ongoing assimilation is the surge of the so-called Tex-Mex cuisine across the United States. Tex-Mex is traditional Mexican fare being modified by Mexican immigrants to the US as to cater to local taste. Today many Tex-Mex dishes didn’t originate from Mexico at all: nachos, margaritas, fajitas, and many more are Tex-Mex recipes only. Tex-Mex cuisine became popular in the mid-1960’s through several fast-food chains spreading the ethnic food around. And its popularity keeps growing. According to IBISworld.com, Tex-Mex restaurant industry increased its profits by 2.9 percent in the U.S. between 2010 and 2015, reaping a $38 billion revenue. A growth largely due to a greater reception of Mexican cuisine into America’s mainstream culture, coupled with a growing immigrant population capable of making its habits look more average and less exotic.

However, to many Americans this growing cultural mingling looks more like a Hispanic conquest than assimilation. The main reason why Trump keeps pursuing his signature campaign pledge of building a wall between the US and Mexico. By insisting on wanting to finance the project, Trump reveals the very reason of the barrier, already existing for a third, unrelated to stemming the immigration flow. Instead of being used to stop migrants from crossing the border – the US needs immigration, despite current hostility expressed by the American public – the wall would be mostly devised to create a diaphragm between Hispanics living in US border States and the adjacent Mexico States, especially between Americans of Mexican descent and their ancestral homeland. If ever completed, the barrier would sport a military dimension, directly linked with the Americanization of Hispanics, as to impede a smooth contact between Hispanic Americans living in the border States and Mexicans residing beyond the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. The very fact that Hispanic Americans have proven able to partially impose their culture onto the US (Tex-Mex cuisine, above all) is now among the main factors fueling a widespread anti-immigration sentiment.

Shape and contours of a migratory phenomenon beginning with food (or lack thereof) and ending with food being created, while tapping onto several ethnic and demographical issues, amidst a highly complex cycle. As food insecurity and the need for better life conditions prod Hispanics to migrate northward, a hybrid culture is being produced in the United States, which now many Americans consider as a sign of a failing assimilation process. Alpha and omega of a purely geopolitical development, being unique in its kind.

[1] Cfr. United States Border Patrol official data, December 2017.

[2] Cfr. Food Security and Emigration: Why people flee and the impact on family members left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, World Food Program, August 2017.

[3] Cfr. U.S. Census Bureau, 2011.