TCS Daily

Culture Shock Cuts Both Ways

By Stephen Green - September 1, 2004 12:00 AM

As Venezuela devolves into a Cuba with petrodollars, Americans are again worrying about the undue influence of Latin America on us norteamericanos. Compounding the problem is that, at least according to election observer and amateur carpenter Jimmy Carter, Venezuelan voters gave autocrat Hugo Chavez their seal of approval in last week's election. The aftershocks will be felt from Tierra del Fuego to Canada.

We hear it all the time -- that America needs to close its borders, especially the one which is supposed to keep out the dusky horde from across the Rio Grande. Or more seriously, that at least we need to toughen our immigration laws and enforcement.

Some of the concern is war-related, and it's a valid one. If we don't know who is coming in or what they're bringing with them, then how can we be sure there's no "Suitcase from Allah" sitting unattended in the Los Angeles subway, counting down the minutes to our first-ever nuclear catastrophe? At the least, we need better intelligence on what's crossing our borders (although, as the foiled Y2K attack on Seattle showed, our intelligence is probably better than most worriers realize).

Some of the fear is economic, and that point is probably less valid. Mexicans are crossing our borders to steal our high-wage lettuce-picking jobs? If your big fear is that the price of a bag of pre-washed, pre-cut lettuce might not reach six bucks any time soon, then I suppose that the southern border had better be locked down, vamonos. In the meantime, let's not forget that Canadians have already stolen many of our best-paying jobs in the field of stand-up comedy.

The least-rational fear is the cultural one -- the fear that all those Chaves-loving Latinos will somehow spoil our freedom-loving Anglo culture. From Victor Davis Hanson's respectable Mexifornia to the fevered rants of American nativists, we're told time and again that the influx of South American immigrants is forever altering American culture. Hanson fears (along with the usual tales of crime and unassimilation) that by allowing untold numbers of people in from Down There, we're giving South American dictators a safety valve, and thus subsidizing their existence. Pat Buchanan tells us that Mexicans aren't just stealing our jobs, they're also poisoning our democracy with their casual attitudes towards autocracy and enthusiasm for social-welfare programs.

Both writers forget or ignore two important things:

1. No culture is stable.

2. Culture shock cuts both ways.

Is American culture the same as is was in the 1980s, when the gay rights movement was more a matter of snickering jokes than a real movement? Are we the same as we were in the '70s, when malaise and retreat were our policies at home and abroad? Or the '60s, when rock'n'roll went from fad to mainstream, taking an entire generation with it? Or the '50s, which gave us both Elvis Presley and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit? All of those changes were wrenching, and none of them was due to immigration -- legal or otherwise. Culture changes continuously.

That's not to say that immigration doesn't affect us. But who wouldn't prefer having good Italian food, danceable salsa music and Elizabeth Hurley, over closed borders? Just because your or my odds are slim, of spending an evening eating real Italian and salsa dancing with Hurley, doesn't mean some other lucky American shouldn't get the chance.

More interestingly, and almost completely unreported, is that American culture is permanently reshaping Latin America, too.

American television programs, according to one study, make up over two thirds of programming across Latin America. As early as 1988, American Protestant missionaries were converting 400 Latin Americans from the Catholic Church every hour, according to Bogotá-based writer Penny Lernoux. Today, some studies estimate that up to 20% of Latin America now worships a WASP God -- even if He does roll His r's down there. And those figures will go nowhere but up, with perhaps a third of our Latin neighbors having converted to one Protestant church or another in the next 20 years.

Furthermore, the last 25 years have seen a tremendous influence of American political thought in Latin America. With the sad exceptions of Venezuela and Cuba, democracy, capitalism, and human rights are becoming the rule rather than the exception. The Generals are long gone from power in Argentina. Chile is free from both Allende's Marxism and Pinochet's crude fascism. Not only did the people of Nicaragua vote out the Sandinistas, but they've been holding regular elections there for 15 years now.

While Latinos march north to the United States, American culture is marching in near-triumph all across the Western Hemisphere. Certainly, our borders are porous to immigrants -- but South America's borders are just as permeable to American culture, politics, and missionaries. We're changing them at least as thoroughly as they're changing us. Any vain attempt to close our borders wouldn't just fail; it could retard our positive influences on Latin America's evolution.

The New (Nuevo?) America won't be the one we're used to -- but neither was the old one, or even the America we knew just twenty years ago. Latin America will also continue to change, as we all become increasingly intertwined politically, economically, and culturally. In return for losing some control of a culture we never really controlled in the first place, we get to live with neighbors who, for the most part, are increasingly free and prosperous.

For that, we can all be thankful, and maybe even a little less afraid.

Stephen Green is a TCS contributor. He writes, invests, and enjoys an evening martini with his wife at their home in Colorado Springs. Find more of his writing on, which is updated daily.


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