The myth of Hispanic family values

Heather Mac Donald has a short piece at NRO today in which she shatters the belief that Hispanic immigrants are somehow enriching our society with their wonderful “conservative” values. This may be a good moment to reprint part two of an updated version of my 1997 pamphlet, Huddled Clichés: Exposing the Fraudulent Arguments That Have Opened America’s Borders to the World, which focuses on the family values argument. Part one of the updated version was published as a standalone article entitled “Exposing the Open-Borders Arguments” at FrontPage Magazine in 2004, but the editors rejected parts two through four.

Exposing the Open-Borders Arguments
Part Two: False Parallels with Other Cultures

Lawrence Auster

In their attempt to make immigration seem like an unmixed blessing, immigration advocates will often identify some trait of a foreign culture that seems to correspond with some highly valued American trait, thus proving that immigrants from that culture will “strengthen” America. But more often than not, these cultural correspondences are merely verbal correspondences—indeterminate phrases that may mean entirely different things in different cultures.

For example, the pro-immigrationists often say that because Hispanic and Asian immigrants have “good family values,” such immigrants are “good for America.” In fact, the family ethos of many Hispanics is markedly different from that of the traditional European or American family, not to mention the increasingly disordered American family of today. As Latin America expert Lawrence Harrison has argued, the Latin American family, notwithstanding its recognized strengths (or perhaps as a result of them), is characterized by a closed loyalty within the family circle, a lack of trust toward those outside it, and nonparticipation in civic life. This behavior pattern, known as “amoral familism,” has been a major factor in the unhappy political history of Latin America. Confucian cultures are also marked by extreme patriarchal authority (extreme even by the supposedly patriarchal standards of traditional Western culture), deeply institutionalized habits of corruption, and an absence of civic mindedness. By contrast, the traditional American family, as Toqueville famously remarked, was the seedbed of good citizenship in a society based on ordered freedom. Thus to say that an immigrant group has “good family values” tells us precisely nothing about that group’s compatibility with America.

The strength and stability of their families also tells us nothing about a people’s cultural level. As Hispanic scholar Juan F. Lara told the New York Times, the peasant background and low educational attainment of Mexican immigrants endangers the survival of California’s civic and cultural institutions: “What is threatened here is intellectual life, the arts, museums, symphonies. How can you talk about preserving open space and establishing museums with a large undereducated underclass?” Mexicans and other Hispanics also tend to be very different from European Americans in their attitudes toward such social values as education, the environment, and public order, not to mention driving habits. Even if they have strong families, many Hispanics do not have American/Western cultural norms.

Which brings us to a basic logical problem with the “immigrants are strengthening our values” argument. Even if Hispanics did have stronger families, what does that do for us? If the European-American majority have weaker family values than Mexican immigrants, then the Mexicans can only maintain their family values so long as they don’t assimilate into the majority culture, in which case their family values only benefit themselves. To the extent that Mexicans do assimilate into our rootless and increasingly disordered society, they rapidly lose those good values. “In Mexico,” says Hispanic scholar Dennis Hayes-Bautista, “the common folk wisdom is that if you want to see a family go to wrack and ruin, have them spend ten years living in the United States. At the end of ten years, the husband and wife are divorced; the teenage kids are into gangs, rock and roll, and drugs; the little kids won’t even participate in the church any more.” Generally, family structure among Hispanics erodes by the third generation, with corresponding increase of welfare.[1] As people become acclimated in the United States, says Elena Pell of the Aspira Association, the percentage of single-parent Hispanic families is increasing, just as in other groups. The factors in this family breakdown are economic pressures requiring both parents to work; children breaking away from their parents’ traditional mores; dissolution of the extended family; and adoption of American-style individualism.[2]

That Mexicans are adopting American-style individualism should not be seen as something to celebrate. Individualism no longer means what it once did, the achievement of personal and familial autonomy combined with a measure of civic responsibility. It now denotes radical individualism—a total liberation from moral norms. Young Hispanics coming from village cultures, where behavior is controlled in traditional ways by the community, arrive in today’s morally chaotic America and lose their bearings. Many who might have been law-abiding at home become criminals, join gangs, or just join the general slovenliness. What good does that do us—and what good does it do them? If we truly admire their values as we claim, we ought to leave the Mexicans where they are so that they will not be corrupted by our decadent culture which destroys family values quicker than paper in sulfuric acid. Clearly, if we want to improve the family stability of Americans, we have to do it ourselves, not depend on immigrants from foreign cultures to do it for us.

The family values argument for immigration is analogous to the South African belief that a man can be cured of the AIDS virus by having sexual intercourse with a young girl.[3] Of course the man does not rid himself of the virus through this magical operation, but he does infect the girl. In the same way, America does not magically heal itself of its moral ills by interacting with lots of “virtuous” immigrants, but many immigrants certainly catch our sicknesses.

While Hayes-Bautista criticizes America for its bad influence on Hispanics, he nevertheless insists that Hispanics are good for America. In an interview with the conservative newsletter The Family in America, he says that Hispanics “tend to smoke less than Anglos and blacks, drink much less, and use drugs much, much less.” The only Latino drug babies, he says, are born to U.S.-born Latinas, not to immigrants, and immigrant Hispanic women are much more likely to be married than U.S.-born Hispanic women.[4] But Hayes-Bautista’s remarks, by which he intended to bolster support for immigration, only confirm what I have already said—that the immigrants’ traditional values tend to be dissipated once they settle here. Where, then, is the gain to America?

Hayes-Bautista points out that Hispanics in California are twice as likely as Anglos to have an intact nuclear family, and he expresses regret that Anglos don’t “learn” from the Hispanics about the importance of family. But why should they? Hispanics for the most part are a distinct people from European-Americans, speaking a different language, watching different television programs, living different lives, many of them in unassimilated ethnic enclaves. Americans, like any other people, have their own concerns. They don’t say to themselves: Hey, look at these great statistics on Mexicans, let’s be more like them! Yet intellectuals of both left and right actually seem to think that this is the way the world works. Subscribing to magical catch-phrases instead of looking at reality, they imagine that the mere physical presence of millions of Mexican families in the U.S. will, by some mysterious osmosis, “teach” white and black families how to live more ordered lives.

The solution to America’s moral crisis is not to adopt Mexican-style familism as opposed to contemporary American anomie. It is to reconstitute the traditional morality—the balance of order and freedom unique to Western culture—that we have lost. Such a moral restoration requires profound cultural and political changes that would be very difficult to achieve even in the best of circumstances. They will be impossible to achieve so long as Third-World immigrants, with their socially destabilizing effects, continue to pour into our country in such huge numbers.

Having said all that, I must confess that I have given the family values argument more credit than it really deserves. The claim that Hispanics have more cohesive and responsible families than white Americans turns out to be largely a myth. The truth emerged in an exchange a decade ago between the neoconservative scholar Francis Fukuyama and Michael Lind, who by then had become an immigration critic. Fukuyama had written an article for Commentary in which he celebrated Hispanic family values as a boon to America and urged continued non-European immigration. Lind wrote in response:

Hispanic immigrants, even in the second and third generation, are significantly more likely than white Americans (and East Asian immigrants) to drop out of school, go on welfare, and end up in jail, nowithstanding their (exaggerated) greater “family values” and the (equally exaggerated) moral rot “right in the heart of American’s well-established white, Anglo-Saxon community.”

Lind further stated that among Mexican Americans (by far the largest Hispanic group), the rate of out-of-wedlock births was 28.9 percent, over twice as high as the white American rate of 13.9 percent.[5] Significantly, Fukuyama did not contest these figures. Instead, he replied evasively that the illegitimacy rates for whites and Hispanics are much closer than the figures suggest, if you adjust for income level, that is, if you look only at Hispanics whose average income is equal to that of non-Hispanic whites. But Fukuyama was playing a statistical trick. Since Mexicans on average are much poorer than non-Hispanic whites, they will also have the high illegitimacy rates correlated with poverty. To adjust for income level between two such widely disparate groups is completely misleading, since it means looking at a small, unrepresentative segment of the Hispanic population.

In responding to Lind and other critics, Fukuyama engaged in a further evasion. First, he conceded that the superior Hispanic family values he had praised in his article really meant “amoral familism.” In other words, he was admitting that the central assertion of his article—that the family ethos of Mexicans was superior to that of Americans—was false. But then, without missing a beat, he switched to a whole new argument. Amoral familism, he said, isn’t such a bad thing after all. Many of the earlier Italian immigrants were quite similar to Hispanics, and it took them generations to assimilate. Likewise, Hispanics may take longer to assimilate than some other groups, but in the end they will assimilate and all will be well.

Of all the pro-immigration arguments, the parallel between Italians and Hispanics is perhaps the most stupid and offensive. It is true that southern Italian immigrants to the United States were for the most part of a lower socioeconomic class and of traditional Catholic background, and that their descendants have taken longer than some other European-origin groups to move into the mainstream of American life. But Italians never formed an aggressive ethnic lobby as Hispanics have done. They never demanded quota representation in every area of American life. They never formed huge “bilingual” establishments. They never promoted a distinct sub-national identity openly hostile to the American nationality. They never formed a huge welfare class. There were never Italian-American academics and elected officials who declared that the United States is a guilty country that has no right to protect its borders. Italian-Americans never booed the American national anthem and rioted against the American team at American-Italian soccer matches. Most importantly, Italians never dominated entire cities and regions, swamping American institutions and customs and setting off a mass exodus of Americans from those areas. Indeed, how could they? People of Italian origin have never comprised more than four percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics already comprise over 12 percent of the U.S. population and (if immigration is not stopped) will comprise 25 percent in a few decades. Their growing presence in California, where they now make up over a quarter of the population, could very well lead to the Quebecization of that state in the near future.

The equating of Italians with Hispanics is typical of the false parallels that are so frequently employed by immigration advocates. On the basis of a couple of characteristics held in common by two otherwise very different groups, the immigration advocates conclude that the two groups are essentially alike. In the present instance this argument takes the form of a syllogism:

(a) Most Italian immigrants were of peasant or working class background, with low educational levels.

(b) Most Hispanic immigrants are of peasant or working class background, with low educational levels.

(c) Therefore, the Hispanics will not change America any more than the Italians did!

On the basis of such fallacious reasoning the immigrationists construct a fantasy world, obstructing the real world in which we live.

Asians are hard workers, and are strengthening America.

This is another example of syllogistic reasoning divorced from reality. The syllogism goes like this:

(a) Industriousness is an important American value.

(b) Asians are very industrious.

(c) Therefore Asians are good for America—the more the better!

The problem here is that industriousness—like family values—means different things in different cultures. When commercial fishermen on the Texas Gulf coast in the 1980s complained that they were being outcompeted by Vietnamese fishermen who worked, as journalist James Fallows put it, “harder and longer and under more difficult conditions that do most Americans,” Fallows retorted: “Should the fishermen have been protected against the Vietnamese’ willingness to work longer hours? Are we ready to say that fair competition is too much for Americans to stand?” Fallows concluded that it would be wrong to keep hardworking Southeast Asian fisherman out of Texas, since as Americans we believe in the rewards of industry.[6]

In making industriousness per se his standard of value for American society, Fallows ignores an important cultural difference between Orientals and Westerners—namely that from a Western point of view the incredible industriousness of East Asians often seems more like that of slaves than that of free men. Why should Americans be forced to compete with quasi-slaves, working slave hours in slave-like conditions, in order to make a living? To pose the question another way: If America imported 100 million immigrants who were the hardest-working people in the universe, but whose way of life was incompatible with ours and pushed our way of life aside, what good would that do us?

Muslims will fit into America, since Muslems believe in the same transcendent God as Christians.”

True, Muslims have a monotheistic faith as do Christians, but that is just about all they have in common. Everything else about Islamic religion, ethics, and culture is radically incompatible with the West—which is why the Islamic world and the Western Christian world have been at odds for the past 1400 years. It is also the reason why Islamic countries have so far shown themselves incapable of forming representative governments based on liberty under law. Once again, we must look beyond these simplistic phrases that suggest sameness and see the reality behind the words—a reality in which there are irreconcilable differences between different civilizations.

End of Part Two


1. “The Strengths and Strains of Immigrant Families,” The Family in America, November 1992.

2. “Home Life is All in the Family for Asians, Hispanics in D.C. area,” Washington Post, 9/8/91.

3. R.W. Johnson, “South Africa Hit by Rapid Spread of HIV Infection,” London Times, 8/30/95.

4. “The Strengths and Strains of Immigrant Families,” The Family in America, November 1992.

5. Michael Lind, letter, Commentary, August 93.

6. James Fallows, “Immigration: How It’s Affecting Us,” The Atlantic, November 1983, p. 61.

- end of article -

Stephen T. writes:

I might have known you would be years ahead of Heather Mac Donald in puncturing the cherished myth of the “Superior Hispanic Values.” But I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told us—too bad that the “Front Page” editors didn’t publish it.

I’ve never been impressed by romantic references to superior Mexican family values. The phenomenon can be attributed to one mundane fact, common to squatter cultures: Mestizo Mexicans are instinctively drawn to band together by blood. However, rather than the warm cocoon of family conviviality that is imagined by Anglo liberals, when I have visited Mexican homes housing children and relatives numbering well into the double digits I found something oppressive and joyless about the way they are mindlessly jammed together, generation stacked on top of generation in overcrowded and collapsing conditions. Instead of a manageable home in which to educate and discipline, it is a chaotic and dysfunctional setting: often they are flatly unaware that one or more of their many children—or innumerable grandchildren or countless cousins—stopped attending school months ago, or have become involved in drugs, or even that they have been arrested. Whether this binding together of kin is really an expression of superior familial love which should make us frigid Anglos hang our heads in shame, or simply (as I suspect) a response to some primitive impulse that drives them to amass the greatest possible force of blood-related bodies in one place in order to assert and defend the squatting imperative, is unclear. But ask any LAPD officer dispatched to the umpteenth Saturday night domestic violence call at a tract house designed for a 1950s Anglo-American single-family unit with two children, but now housing 25 or 30 Mestizo Mexicans, about the “family values” that predominate in that volatile environment.

The statistic which I find, frankly, endearing about Italian immigrants to the U.S. is this one: After less than five years on these shores, fully one-third of the Italians quietly packed their bags and returned to their beloved Italy. Homesick for the more pastoral, cultured pace in their homeland, after an appraising look at the crass hustle and stress of turn-of-the-century America, millions said a polite “Ciao” and happily boarded the next steamer for Naples. Contrast this to the Mexicans who arrive here today illegally, pounding their chest with their hot, famously fragile “Hispanic Pride,” waving the Mexican flag, and bearing a long list of gripes and grievances against Anglo society. And yet, despite the noisy vows of undying fealty to their native land, and their Mexico Uber Alles parades, you will note that the overwhelming majority have no intention WHATSOEVER of ever voluntarily returning to live in that blighted cesspool. You couldn’t drive them back there at the point of a gun.

That’s just one more difference between the Italians and the Mexicans (if another one is indeed required).

LA replies:
Stephen’s observation, of “some primitive impulse that drives them to amass the greatest possible force of blood-related bodies in one place in order to assert and defend the squatting imperative,” is kind of brilliant. I never thought of it in those terms. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s very vivid and thought-provoking.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 24, 2006 01:54 PM | Send

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