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For Whom The Pot Melts: Why Rick Santorum Can't Stomach The Multicultural Salad Bowl

Posted: 09/23/11 08:12 AM ET

Once upon a time in America, the nation was defined and reflected in a culture dominated by Anglo-Saxon assumptions and popular media that reflected and re-enforced that perspective. Once upon a time, Hispanics and other minorities were kept mostly on the margins, geographically contained and easily identified and categorized by their skin color, food, music and language. The process of acculturation was a one-way street and the purported goal of every immigrant was to gradually discard their ethnic heritage and disappear, or melt, into the great cultural cauldron of America.

That America, if it ever really existed, is gone, a historical mirage air brushed by a hazy mist of nostalgia. Still, it is frequently invoked by certain factions who long for an era when plain vanilla ruled and the ubiquity of Dulce de Leche Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Habanero Guacamole tortilla chips was just a twinkle in a savvy marketer's eye .

During the fifth Republican presidential debate earlier this month, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, sought once again to turn back the cultural clock when he suggested that one way the GOP could appeal to Hispanic voters was by making English the official language of the United States. "My father and my grandfather came to this country not speaking a word of English, but it was the greatest gift to my father to have to learn English so he could assimilate into this country," said Santorum, whose father was an Italian immigrant. "We are a melting pot, not a salad bowl, and we need to continue that tradition."

Santorum's aversion to salads, which may or may not extend to other greens and vegetables, is no doubt rooted in the recognition that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority by 2045 and that multicultural populations already make up majorities in some of the biggest U.S. cities and states. Never mind that Hispanics and other immigrant groups have consistently shown a rate of English adoption that matches that of earlier immigrants from Europe and other countries. A joint survey of Latinos by the PEW Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2002 found a high degree of assimilation among American Hispanics, and no measurable difference in their ability to learn and use English. More recently, results from the 2008 American Community Survey showed that the number of people who reported speaking English "very well" in California and Texas had actually increased between 2000 and 2007.

The idea of an American "melting pot," as the symbol of a national smelting or fusing of various races and cultures into a new, national amalgam, dates back as far as 1782 when J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, alluded to the process in his book, Letters from an American Farmer. "What then is the American, this new man?...He becomes an American by being received into the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."

Greatness and change have certainly come, but the notion of the United States as a homogeneous social soup no longer fits the facts. The flaw in the melting pot definition of America is its tacit assumption that acculturation only takes places in one direction, and that the country that newcomers assimilate into is a static, fixed entity. What Santorum and other melting pot metaphorians fail to understand is that the pot, in effect, also melts. Throughout U.S. history, when immigrants have brought the flavors and textures of their homelands into the process of becoming American, the encounter has been mutually beneficial--and mutually transformational. As the newcomers have adapted and grown, so has the very definition of "American" itself. Thus "foreign" sausages and buns brought from Germany and Poland were not just accepted but metabolized into the national culture, eventually becoming the quintessentially American snack food we call hot dogs.

In fact, a close look at the results of the 2010 U.S. Census--which was made available in English, Spanish, simplified Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese and Korean, and promoted through various media in a total of 28 different languages--shows that Hispanics and other multicultural populations are evolving in ways that have nothing in common with pots or salads. The census revealed a steep rise in the percentage of respondents who selected one or more race or ethnicity, reflecting a new form of identity that is contextual, multidimensional and malleable. In an age where social media, instant language translation software and online avatars are melding and blurring the boundaries between race, ethnicity and nationality, people are not so much melting as they are morphing, merging and mashing. Young Americans see no contradiction in being many things at once, and they can reinvent themselves at will, instantly and globally.

As America's Hispanic population becomes increasingly native born, they will expand the ranks of those who reject labels and definitions that no longer describe them. They will speak English, and, if they're lucky, several other languages, too. They will continue to mingle and mix with Asians, African Americans and whites, and they will use technology to explore and express their individual identity and reach out to communicate and collaborate across national and ethnic borders, further redefining not just what it means to be Hispanic, but also what it means to be American. They don't need to melt to know that this country is theirs, too.