With a fine-tuned four stage process, chapter five in Intercultural Communication in Contexts simplifies the development of identity for individuals belonging to minority groups in a straightforward step-by-step structure. From an “unexamined” state to the ultimate goal of “integration,” this (literally) by-the-book approach is allegedly the most common course followed by the nondominant sectors of society.
But what does this say about the unfortunate few who fail to follow the rules? What if this plan doesn’t pan out like it’s supposed to? For an area like St. Paul’s West Side, separation and misrepresentation deeply divide the district between insightful insiders and the preconceived public. A neighborhood nestled in the middle of the textbook’s progression with no motivation to move on, maybe integration isn’t always the absolute answer in the search for true identity.
A single city or worlds apart?
The West Side’s impressive immigrant presence is exemplified through my previous postings. Historical contexts created a region rich with recent international residents, and the contemporary culture keeps the people connected to their origins. An enlightening conversation with a local employee and long-term tenant to this distinct territory revealed not only the large number of national newcomers in the neighborhood, but also the diversity of different cultural groups among them. Though formerly comprised of a heavy percentage of Mexican-Americans, the West Side is now seeing a rise in Asian and East African ethnic groups as a display of a dynamic identity that is very much alive.
Current conditions are so comfortable, in fact, that it may seem like the citizens have no need to assimilate at all. Similar backgrounds not seen in other sections of the Twin Cities ensure residents are forever at ease expressing their native traditions and tongues without worry of odd stares or awkward encounters with an established dominant majority.
The implications of this accepting atmosphere cannot be overstated. As detailed by Gloria Anzaldúa in an essay concerning the priceless importance of language in identity development, she writes, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (pg. 2951). Freedom of a preferred form of expression throughout the West Side glues personal and community identity together. With that intact, it is all but impossible to pull a person apart.
Immigrant influences are everywhere.
Both personal pride and collective support in the neighborhood become clear by examining the West Side Community Plan. Years of active citizen engagement created an outline for a resident-driven overhaul, with strategies set to improve an array of aspects within the area. Working toward a common goal, community members are imbued with an irreplaceable sense of togetherness and cohesion that only expands upon the West Side’s existing cultural strength.
These unbreakable unifying bonds were brought to life with my most recent visit to the neighborhood. Surrounded by magnificent murals and liberal splashes of Hispanic influences in language and architecture, I was stricken with the feeling of something fresh…but decidedly foreign. I am likely not the first to experience such a phenomenon, and perhaps these happenings have led to the present perception of the West Side as an independent “other.”
Physically separated from the greater Twin Cities region by the Mississippi River that bounds its many blocks, the neighborhood is no stranger to receiving judgment. As described by Historic St. Paul, early immigrants were quick to move out of the area when enough money came in (Nelson & Lyons 2006). These original notions of a neighborhood made up exclusively of poor immigrants might be the fuel behind the external views of inferiority still seen today, as shown in my contemporary coverage of the community through popular media outlets in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Separated by more than a river.
Anzaldúa may speak of the significance of language, but our interviewee identifies the barriers and setbacks that an unusual tongue tends to produce: “[T]hey don’t know the language. So a lot of people are like, “You’re stupid because you don’t know English,” when really, just because they don’t know English doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. But people don’t see beyond that.” Like any repeated phrase, consistent calls relating one’s inability to speak English with their intelligence can eventually lead to a victim that actually believes such ridiculous allegations. With language tied so tightly with West Side culture, citizens no longer need a fear of flash floods to flee the neighborhood. Now, removing oneself from this saddening stigma is reason enough.
Or what if the residents rebelled, and rightfully refused to reach out into a society with such a vocal opposition?
Cultural identity within the West Side could not be even a sliver stronger. Entering the area is to be engulfed in an openly expressed heritage that hearkens back to a collection of ethnic homelands. The experience is extremely exciting, but the feeling unfortunately falls away the instant you cross the bridge back to downtown St. Paul. As long as that’s so, the West Side will always be different, an “other.” A beautiful bubble with a collage of cultures, its citizens may never reach total integration.
But considering the satisfaction of staying home and faced with a foreign frontier full of Minnesotans with mistaken understandings, why would they want to?
Anzaldúa, G. E. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza. (pp. 2947-2955). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books. Retrieved from http://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/calabj/282/how to tame wild tongue.pdf
Nelson, P., & Lyons, L. (2006, June 1st). Tour Saint Paul: West side. [No longer available online.]
West Side Community Organization (2011, December 7). Community Plan. Retrieved from http://wsco.org/?page_id=343