Public Thinker: Catherine S. Ramírez on Measuring the Unmeasurable

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“That is the paradox of assimilation … You can be essential—an essential worker—and at the same time excluded from the CARES Act.”

In the best tradition of race and ethnic studies, Catherine S. Ramírez’s work centers the experiences of previously marginalized people, and does so by employing a defiantly interdisciplinary methodology. That is certainly the case with her first book, The Woman in the Zoot Suit (2009), which made pachucas (female zoot suiters) protagonists in a history of Chicana/o rebellion that before had been decidedly male centered. I was therefore thrilled to discover that Ramírez’s latest book takes on assimilation, a concept with a long and vexed history in American culture.

Assimilation: An Alternative History is a tour de force, ranging through sociology, historical case studies, and analyses of popular culture in its efforts to reveal assimilation’s essentially ideological character. Ramírez argues that we misunderstand assimilation when we narrate it as a story of adaptation and integration rather than a story of racial boundary drawing and exclusion. This argument represents a sea change in the way we approach one of the US’s most fundamental myths: the melting pot. I had the chance to read Assimilation and talk about it with Ramírez over Zoom in December 2020. This is an edited version of our lively, wide-ranging conversation.

John Alba Cutler (JAC): At the center of your argument in this book is what you describe as the “paradox of assimilation.” What is the paradox of assimilation? What does it tell us about inequality in US history?


Catherine S. Ramírez (CSR): First, let’s note that the general definition of “assimilation” is a process of absorption or becoming more alike. Next, let’s add the academic definition of “assimilation” (this is a synthesis of many scholars’ definitions) as a boundary crossing: usually the movement from margin to mainstream, from minority to majority. There’s a lot of really excellent scholarship that complicates the idea of assimilation as a boundary crossing; for example, scholarship that talks about how the newcomer can transform the host. (Here I’m thinking of works by, for example, Aristide Zolberg, Tomás Jiménez, Richard Alba, and Victor Nee.)

My definition is slightly different. I define “assimilation” as a relational process, whereby the boundary between unequal groups and between inside and outside blurs and disappears, or, paradoxically, is reinforced. As such, assimilation is a process whereby some people are transformed into insiders while others are rendered outsiders on the inside. So, for me, assimilation is a process of both homogenization and differential inclusion. And that is the paradox of assimilation.

For example, look at the economy. In particular, segments like construction, childcare, eldercare, and agriculture are very dependent on immigrant labor, specifically undocumented immigrant labor. Those undocumented immigrant workers are rejected by the state, but, paradoxically, at the same time they are very well integrated at the level of the market.

We see this in this pandemic: I go into the market and I can still buy apples that have been harvested by agricultural workers, of whom at least half are undocumented. You can be essential—an essential worker—and at the same time excluded from the CARES Act.

I offer the concept of the paradox of assimilation so we can first recognize and then understand the contradictions, hypocrisies, and inequalities with which we live in this country.


JAC: In relation to the way that you unfolded that beautiful definition of “assimilation,” you point out something in the book that had been latent in my own thinking: the weirdness in the way we separate discussions of assimilation and racialization.

One of the aspects of your approach that distinguishes it from prior studies of assimilation is related to this pivot: the way that it centers the experiences of racialized and marginalized groups. African Americans, indigenous peoples, and undocumented people are groups that defy normative narratives of assimilation and inclusion as we understand them in the 21st century. And that focus on figures previously excluded from history results in a different story.

How did you come to take this approach? That is, how did you end up focusing on these marginalized groups of people that we would usually regard as outside of the assimilation paradigm, or not assimilated in some fundamental way?


CSR: My focus on absence isn’t uncommon in cultural and literary studies, and I’m very excited that scholars beyond these fields are reading my book. I have given a couple of talks now to social scientists, mainly sociologists and scholars of migration. I am a humanities scholar and I was influenced by my own teachers. I was very fortunate to work with Norma Alarcón and Judith Butler as a graduate student at Berkeley, and from them I learned about the power and the significance of absence. By “significance,” I mean the meaning as well as the importance of absence.

What my two books, The Woman in the Zoot Suit and Assimilation, have in common is a concern with absence. The big framing question in The Woman in the Zoot Suit is, What does the erasure of Mexican American women from narratives about the zoot subculture—about the Sleepy Lagoon incident and the Zoot Suit Riots—mean for Chicanos and Chicanas, for Chicanxs?

Similarly, with Assimilation, I ask: Who’s been excluded from conversations about assimilation? African Americans, Native Americans, and then people who are not regarded as real or legitimate immigrants or as permanent members of society, people whose very presence in the US is structured around a notion of permanent temporariness: the recipients of Temporary Protected Status, for example, or DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. And then also people who are dismissed as “illegal.” The so-called nonimmigrant and illegal immigrant are unassimilable in the so-called nation of immigrants and laws.

What does it mean to remove these people from these conversations? What does it say about assimilation? I’m concerned with absence, and yet, so many of the social sciences, especially studies of assimilation, are asking different questions: What can be measured? What are the metrics, and how do we measure “integration”?

These are important things to look at; I’m not dismissing them. Social scientists who study assimilation or integration look at things like where people move when they go from the ethnic enclave to the suburbs; language acquisition; who they marry, whether they marry out, exogamy.

These are the metrics that are often used, and they can be seen; they can be measured. I was interested in the opposite: what isn’t readily apparent and that which can’t always be measured.


What Does Assimilation Mean?

By Catherine S. Ramírez

JAC: How did you become interested in assimilation?


CSR: Years before the publication of my first book, The Woman in the Zoot Suit, the seed for studying assimilation was planted when I read Samuel Huntington’s 2004 article, “The Hispanic Challenge.” (Huntington repeated a lot of the concerns he raised in that incendiary article in his subsequent book, Who Are We?) Huntington warned that immigration from Latin America threatened the cultural and political integrity of the US. And he warned that Hispanics were unable and unwilling to assimilate into an inherently Anglo-Protestant US mainstream. As evidence of our inassimilability, he pointed to the persistence of the Spanish language among us.

I was struck not only by his alarmist declarations, facile assumptions, and gross generalizations, chief among them that the US is, always has been, and should remain an Anglo-Protestant monolith. What also really struck me was that I—one of the 40 million Hispanics about whom he was writing at the time—was reading him in English.

As I finished writing The Woman in the Zoot Suit, I couldn’t help but notice how much Huntington sounded like World War II–era cops, teachers, judges, academics, social workers. They insisted that second-generation Mexican American youths—like those I was writing about—were so unassimilable that they were unfit for the responsibilities of democracy. According to their contemporary critics, these zoot suit–clad, slang-talking, jitterbugging second-generation Mexican American youths didn’t embody an alternative Americanness. Instead, they were un- or even anti-American. So much so that their superficial marks of difference—the zoot suit, the ducktail, the calcos [shoes]—had to be removed very violently and in an arresting fashion.

This got me thinking about the outsized role that assimilation has long played in this country. And that made me wonder, What is assimilation, exactly? What are its markers, how is it measured, how has it been defined?


JAC: Right. So how did you approach those questions?


CSR: I immersed myself in scholarship, mostly by sociologists. But also by some anthropologists, political scientists, and US, ethnic, and immigration historians. And I tried to learn as much as I could about assimilation.

At the same time, I was tasked with teaching a class called “Immigration and Assimilation.” Now, I didn’t come up with the title for that class. I inherited it. Even so, one of the effects of this class was that its title nudged me: it made me think, What about assimilation without immigration? Is assimilation always the purview, the domain of immigrants?

This helped me realize that I needed to learn more about what’s known in Native American history as the allotment and assimilation era. Specifically, why is it when we talk about assimilation in this country, we rarely talk about Native Americans? Today we tend to understand assimilation as a product of immigration, and immigrants are assumed to be the antithesis of indigenous, as if you can’t be indigenous and migrant at the same time.


Immigration: What We’ve Done, What We Must Do

By Allison Brownell Tirres

JAC: The stories that we tell about assimilation influence the policies that we make, the space that we make for groups and for individuals, and the degree to which we recognize their full humanity and their right to participate as citizens in our democracy.

One of the threads that runs through the book, as you put it, is that assimilation is “a relational process.” This means that the stories we tell often about one group imply certain stories about other groups. And that this sometimes results in a jockeying for position among minoritized groups.

A really good example of this in your book is the chapter about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was a famous institution of coercive assimilation for Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of people know about Carlisle, but they might not know that much of its educational philosophy was indebted to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), a vocational school for African Americans in Hampton, Virginia, that enrolled some of the first Native American students under the Dawes Act. And they would also be surprised to learn that dozens of Puerto Rican youths were sent to Carlisle after 1898, when the government summarily classified them as “Indians.” So the significance of Indianness, as you show, really gets worked out in relation to Blackness and even an incipient Latinness.

What do you think this historical episode can tell us about the “continued differential inclusion” (as you put it) of Puerto Ricans or any other group in the US today?


CSR: This question gets me thinking about what’s happened in Puerto Rico of late. Last month [November 2020], 52 percent—just over half—of voters in Puerto Rico answered yes to the question, Should Puerto Rico be admitted into the Union as a state?

This is a conversation that’s been happening for a long time; this is probably the sixth referendum on statehood. Based on what I’ve read so far, many of the experts don’t expect this most recent referendum to resolve the issue.

It must be remembered that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico are unable to vote in the US presidential election. Nor are they represented in Congress, even though the island counts approximately 3 million residents, which is way more people than Wyoming or Vermont or the Dakotas combined. Nonetheless, Puerto Ricans on the island lack representation.

The fact that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico are US citizens in name but don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges as some other US citizens—that is another example of differential inclusion.

To rewind even more: the Supreme Court that helped establish Puerto Rico’s relationship to the US as a colony was essentially the same Supreme Court of Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal. This is another manifestation of the paradox of assimilation: you can be included, but it’s a conditional, precarious, and attenuated form of inclusion. We see this with DACA, we see this in the figure of the model minority.

JAC: A different example of relational assimilation is that myth of the model minority. The myth perpetuates what you describe as a “moral economy of deservingness” in a public discourse.

Could you explain what that means? And, moreover, why it is probably a good idea for us to regard that idea critically?


CSR: The moral economy of deservingness is a concept that I take from the work of two sociologists, Sébastien Chauvin and Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas. The moral economy of deservingness refers to a site in which, or a means whereby, social actors demonstrate a particular behavior or adhere to a particular set of values and ideals in exchange for rights, resources, or recognition.

What does that mean? One of the examples that Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas give is that of the empadronamiento [municipal register] in Spain. It used to be, and it may still be the case, that an undocumented immigrant in Spain could adjust their status by going to a municipal office and saying, “I’m here,” and then providing evidence that they’d been there for a certain number of years, perhaps a utility bill or receipts from having paid rent. You demonstrate that you’re a member of the community, have a job, participate in the life of the community, are an upstanding member of it, pay your bills, et cetera. And because of this presence, the immigrant petitions to stay. In exchange for working, paying rent, and not hurting anyone by committing any real crimes, they’re acknowledged as a member of the community.

This is very different from what occurs in the US, which deports people who have spent a lifetime here. You can spend a generation in this country, you can have children and grandchildren who are US citizens, and then be deported simply because of some irregularity of paperwork. I thought: There are other countries that offer other models for adjusting one’s status, for moving from informal to formal inclusion.

The model minority also sheds light on the moral economy of deservingness. The model minority is upheld as a subject that doesn’t rock the boat, that follows the rules. This figure shows that—if one does what one is supposed to do—one will be rewarded with success, with acceptance, however partial or attenuated. This logic of deservingness applies as much to the Cold War–era Japanese American model minority as it does to the 21st-century “Dreamer.”


JAC: What’s so crucial, too, about the way that the model-minority myth was deployed in the 1960s—and you bring this out in the book—is that it was done to contrast with the culture-of-poverty hypothesis. So there’s the implication in this moral economy of deservingness that some people deserve full inclusion and other people don’t. And taken to its logical extreme, that suggests that our rights are not in fact, in the most literal sense, inalienable. That they are alienable.


CSR: Yes.


JAC: By our moral deservingness.


CSR: Yes, that’s a great observation. And the goalpost moves; what counts as “deserving” changes.

For example, in 2020, the Trump administration implemented a wealth test for prospective legal permanent residents, green card holders, often people who aspire to be citizens. Suddenly, prospective legal permanent residents who had used public benefits, like public-housing assistance or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, were considered undeserving of a green card. Although the wealth test targeted prospective legal permanent residents, there are ramifications for other immigrants and their US citizen relatives.

Under this thinking, if you rely on any federal aid, then you become at risk of becoming a public charge. And you are then jeopardizing your chances for getting a green card or perhaps even naturalizing down the road.

The wealth test was something new. There were other changes that affected immigrants, such as welfare reform in ’96. But the wealth test was something that the Trump administration did to move the goalpost in February of last year.


The DREAM Act Was Never Enough

By Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales et al.

JAC: Reading your book, I thought about Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans (2020). She writes:

This book is a work of creative nonfiction rooted in careful reporting, translated into poetry, shared by chosen family, and sometimes hard to read. Maybe you won’t like it. I didn’t write it for you to like it. And I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMers. They are commendable young people, and I truly owe them my life, but they occupy outsize attention in our politics. I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, deliverymen, people who don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts, but I wanted to learn about them as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs.

Is this approach an effective way of pushing back against the moral economy of deservingness? What do we need to do to see all immigrants—undocumented, documented or not—in their full humanity and as inherently deserving of rights and recognition?


CSR: That’s a huge question. And one way to achieve that goal is to produce, read, and talk about more books like The Undocumented Americans.

There’s actually a lot I have to say about this book. I’m going to try to limit my comments. I’m a fan. This is an amazing work.

I teach a class on immigrant storytelling. As you know, the DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, so it’s been 20 years. And shortly after its introduction in Congress, we saw a boom in storytelling, in first-person accounts by undocumented immigrants.

In the beginning, a lot of these accounts were anonymous, or a pseudonym was used. The covers of books about undocumented immigrants were dark or blurry. Even the title of one collection of first-person accounts by undocumented immigrants, Underground Undergrads, connotes secrecy. That book’s cover has a silhouetted figure, behind which you see a building, presumably at UCLA. There’s another book, We ARE Americans. The “ARE” is in caps, and there is a black line going across the eyes and forehead of the brown person on the cover, reminiscent of a photo of a murder victim. This image evokes anonymity, fear, and perhaps even shame.

Then, with the immigration-reform protests in 2006, we saw a shift, with these coming-out narratives. There were three young women who testified before Congress in 2007; Tam Tran was one of them, and she was active at UCLA in the establishment of an organization for undocumented students. She went on to pursue a PhD at Brown, and then she was killed in a car accident. She left this world before anyone was ready for her to leave it. Her testimony before Congress marked a shift from anonymity to coming out.

Then, after Congress failed to act on the DREAM Act again in 2012, we saw another shift in the tone, the tenor of these first-person narratives. What emerged is what the political scientist Sujatha Fernandes has called—in her really good book Curated Stories (2017)—the “dissident Dreamer.”

The Undocumented Americans adds to the body of dissident Dreamer narratives. I would put Alberto Ledesma’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, a graphic memoir from 2017, and Julissa Arce’s My (Underground) American Dream (2016) in that category as well. All three of these works are by college-educated, English-speaking, and now formerly undocumented immigrants. In Villavicencio’s case, she was undocumented when she wrote her book, but since its publication she’s become a green-card holder. I just read about her adjustment in status in a New York Times op-ed that she wrote a couple weeks ago.

Again, Villavicencio, Arce, and Ledesma, like many other dissident Dreamers, were undocumented immigrants who grew up in this country. Their relatively long stays in the US are in part a consequence of the securitization of migration since 2001: Dreamers are people who grew up here as it got harder to regularize and whose parents might have gone back home but didn’t. And so now we Americans are confronted by a generation of English-speaking, educated, undocumented immigrants who are very familiar with US history, with bootstraps narratives, with the putative values and ideals of this so-called nation of immigrants, but who have been shut out. They’re able to wield that knowledge very powerfully, very eloquently, as we can see in books like The Undocumented Americans.


JAC: Right.


CSR: Now, let’s dig deeper into that passage of Villavicencio’s that you read. I love that passage. But it’s interesting, she claims to reject what the poet Yosimar Reyes calls the “citizen’s gaze”: we’re tired of being measured by and against citizens, and with an even more demanding and punitive yardstick than that used for most US citizens. It’s like the white gaze or the male gaze.

Nonetheless, we have to ask: Who is the “you” here? Who is the second person in this passage? “Maybe you won’t like it.” It’s still addressed to us, meaning Americans, including and especially Americans who think they’re sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, but who have a narrow idea of how an undocumented immigrant ought to be (young, grateful, docile, educated, deserving). It’s still an appeal for recognition, acceptance, regularization, and/or naturalization to those of us with the power and privilege of US citizenship, just as the abolition narratives were an appeal to whites.


JAC: The book was included in the books that Barack Obama read this year, the ones that he recommended to all of his followers on Twitter. Now, you situate your book within the current climate of fear and rage generated by the Trump administration’s racist and xenophobic policies. And so, seeing Barack Obama highlight this book—thinking about the deportation regime that his administration oversaw, thinking about the failure of Congress to pass the DREAM Act multiple times, including during his administration—I have to ask a question.

Do you have any hope that a new presidential administration—that is already shaping up to look a lot like the prior presidential administration—will result in the meaningful change that you call for in your book? What would that change even look like?


CSR: I don’t have a lot of hope in the Biden-Harris administration. But that doesn’t mean that we stop pressing them.

I am relieved that Trump was defeated. I’m actually more than relieved, I’m elated. At the same time, I also know that Biden and Harris are pretty middle-of-the-road Democrats, and we will have to push them to try to bring about the changes that are necessary.

One of the first changes that’s necessary is a path to citizenship. Like, a real path, not an obstacle course. A path to citizenship for the undocumented, and not just the Dreamers. For their parents and their siblings, too. Because people are not, we’re not isolated individuals. We have networks, we have connections.

Yes, there are a lot of hurdles. And precisely because my expectations are low, the demands need to be high, intense, strong.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured Image: Catherine S. Ramírez