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Generational Status and Mexican American Political Participation: The Benefits and Limitations of Assimilation

Article excerpt

Abstract

The authors investigate self-reported voter turnout and ethnic political activity across four-plus generations of Mexican Americans. Using a 1999 national survey, multivariate results indicate that the likelihood of Mexican American voting increases largely in a monotonic manner across generations while participation in ethnic political activity begins to decline after having one parent born in the United States. These results raise the question of whether disadvantaged ethnic populations necessarily benefit politically from assimilating given that gains in voting that accrue across generations are accompanied by declines in ethnic political activity among later generations.

Keywords

Mexican American, political participation, generation, assimilation

Immigrants and their descendents have an interest in participating politically in the United States because such activity helps them influence governments to address their needs (Dahl 1961; Lieberson 1980; Portes and Rumbaut 1996). Yet, few studies have examined how participation varies across generations beyond the second. Early work on mainly white ethnic voting was focused on party and policy preferences rather than turnout and joining political causes (Dahl 1961; Wilson and Banfield 1964; Wolfinger 1965). Likewise, political participation theories are not designed to explain changes across generation, and assimilation theories are seldom applied to political incorporation. In light of this lacuna, we put forth an approach to explain political participation by Mexican Americans across four-plus generations. We focus on Mexican Americans because they are the largest immigrant population in the United States, making up 30 percent of the foreign-born population in 2005, and because they have greater generational depth than any other Latino or Asian American population. Another advantage of studying Mexican Americans is that their political incorporation experiences may closely mirror those of turn-of-the-century immigrants (Portes and Rumbaut 1996), in part because Mexicans have been present in both immigration waves.

Understanding the link between generation and political participation among Mexican Americans necessitates distinguishing between two types of political acts. The first is voting. Voting is the most frequent form of political activity for all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity. We believe voting will increase generally in a linear manner across generation, flattening as it reaches its ceiling. This expectation is grounded in the resource model and classic assimilation theory. The second type of political participation is involvement in ethnic political acts. Ethnic political acts are inspired specifically by concerns with advancing ethnic political causes, such as boycotting produce to support farm workers or campaigning for a political candidate because the candidate is of Mexican origin. Drawing upon diverse theoretical traditions, we think that generational status will be linked to ethnic political acts in a curvilinear manner: greater among the second or third generation than the first but declining among distant generations. Together, these predications view assimilation processes as both strengthening and weakening the political position of Mexican Americans in that gains in voting that accrue across generations should be accompanied by declines in ethnic political activity among later generations.

We seek to make both theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of racial and ethnic politics. In light of the criticism that the racial/ethnic politics' field lacks broad theories, the theoretical framework we advance weaves together diverse and at times competing perspectives into a cohesive framework. We selectively incorporate aspects of classic and segmented assimilation theories, early work on white ethnic politics, resource and group-consciousness approaches, and sociological theories of protest participation. …