Don’t Tell Amy Chua: Mexicans Are the Most Successful Immigrants

A study of Los Angeles immigrants finds that when we measure success as progress from generation to generation, Mexican-Americans come out ahead.

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Maung / Bloomberg / Getty Images

People from Mexico cheer and wave United States flags during a naturalization ceremony in San Diego, March 20, 2013.

The narrative of the American Dream is one of upward mobility, but there are some stories of mobility we prize above others.

Who is more successful: a Mexican-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. with less than an elementary school education, and who now works as a dental hygienist? Or a Chinese-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and earned Ph.D. degrees, and who now works as a doctor?

(MOREThe ‘Tiger Mom’ Superiority Complex)

Amy Chua (AKA “Tiger Mom”) and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, author of the new book The Triple Package, claim it’s the latter. They argue that certain American groups (including Chinese, Jews, Cubans, and Nigerians) are more successful and have risen further than others because they share certain cultural traits. Chua and Rubenfeld bolster their argument by comparing these groups’ median household income, test scores, educational attainment, and occupational status to those of the rest of the country.

But what happens if you measure success not just by where people end up—the cars in their garages, the degrees on their walls—but by taking into account where they started? In a study of Chinese-, Vietnamese-, and Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles whose parents immigrated here, UCLA sociologist Min Zhou and I came to a conclusion that flies in the face of Chua and Rubenfeld, and might even surprise the rest of us: Mexicans are L.A.’s most successful immigrant group.

(MOREWhy the Tiger Mom’s New Book Makes You Nervous)

Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we found that the children of Chinese immigrants exhibit exceptional educational outcomes that exceed those of other groups, including native-born Anglos. In Los Angeles, 64 percent of Chinese immigrants’ children graduated from college, and of this group 22 percent also attained a graduate degree. By contrast, 46 percent of native-born Anglos in L.A. graduated from college, and of this group, just 14 percent attained graduate degrees. Moreover, none of the Chinese-Americans in the study dropped out of high school.

These figures are impressive but not surprising. Chinese immigrant parents are the most highly educated in our study. In Los Angeles, over 60 percent of Chinese immigrant fathers and over 40 percent of Chinese immigrant mothers have a bachelor’s degree or higher. In turn, their children benefit from their parents’ human and financial capital, giving them a boost in their quest to get ahead.

(MOREThere’s Nothing New About the New Racism)

This boost—which includes resources like after-school programs, SAT prep courses, and tutoring—isn’t limited to the middle class. The children of working-class Chinese parents employed in restaurants and factories benefit from capital and resources that are made widely available to other Chinese-Americans.

At what seems to be the other end of the spectrum, the children of Mexican immigrants had the lowest levels of educational attainment of any of the groups in our study. Only 86 percent graduated from high school—compared to 100 percent of Chinese-Americans and 96 percent of native-born Anglos—and only 17 percent of graduated from college. But their high school graduation rate was more than double that of their parents, only 40 percent of whom earned diplomas. And, the college graduation rate of Mexican immigrants’ children more than doubles that of their fathers (7 percent) and triples that of their mothers (5 percent).

The legal status of parents is key. On average, Mexican-American children whose parents are undocumented attain 11 years of education. Those whose parents migrated here legally or entered the country as undocumented migrants but later legalized their status attain 13 years of education on average. This two-year difference, which affected less than 8 percent of Mexican-Americans in our study, is critical in the U.S. education system: It divides high school graduates from high school drop-outs, making undocumented status alone a significant impediment to social mobility.

But even accounting for this additional obstacle for children of undocumented parents, there is no question that, when we measure success as progress from generation to generation, Mexican-Americans come out ahead.

A colleague of mine illustrated this point with a baseball analogy: Most Americans would be more impressed by someone who made it to second base starting from home plate than someone who ended up on third base, when their parents started on third base. But because we tend to focus strictly on outcomes when we talk about success and mobility, we fail to acknowledge that the third base runner didn’t have to run far at all.

This narrow view fuels existing stereotypes that Chua and Rubenfeld play into—that some groups strive harder, have higher expectations of success, and possess a unique set of cultural traits that propels them forward.

For at least a generation, Americans have been measuring the American Dream by the make of your car, the cost of your home, and the prestige of the college degree on your wall. But there’s a more elemental calculation: Whether you achieved more than the generation that came before you. Anyone who thinks the American Dream is about the end rewards is missing the point. It’s always been about the striving.

Jennifer Lee is professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. She is author of Civility in the City, co-author of The Diversity Paradox, and co-editor of Asian American Youth. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

46 comments
MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

Mexican and other Latino immigrants today live in different circumstances than Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans before the Civil RIghts era. I believe stronger anti-discrimination laws and more tolerant attitudes towards Latinos plays a huge part, but the immigrants' culture of strong family ties and work ethics may helped them win the American Dream. The stereotype of Latinos don't take education seriously needs to be looked at, and Latinos made great leaps in political representation. Latinos continue to grow in size and importance, therefore they will not remain a socioeconomic underclass for long.

seven7vii
seven7vii

To argue that Mexicans are most successful because they started out in a much lower economic status... and justifying it using a baseball analogy is beyond ridiculous.  This is no disrespect against Mexicans, I really do admire their work ethnic.   However, it's not like Chinese came to this country as this wealthy educated group-- history will tell you that virtually all early Chinese came to the U.S. as cheap labor building the railroad, living in slums of "Chinatowns" and being cast as outsiders by mainstream media and discriminatory laws depriving them of basic rights as citizens.  The Chinese/Asian American success story came on the backs of the suffering and injustice of these earlier generations-- and thus I would argue they had it much much tougher than the Mexicans have today.  So even using Ms Lee's severely flawed logic that  "its what you achieved the generation before you"-- Chinese are still more successful.


Plus, you cannot simply brush away the fact that overall, Chinese and Asians cultures value education a lot more the Mexicans.  Is "my Mexican parents were illegals and I still managed to work hard to become a dental hygienist" really MORE successful that "my Chinese parents came to this country with just $500, got a scholarship and studied hard to get a graduate degree. They saved their money so I can have a better life and made sure I received a good education and become financially secure and successful."?  


Personally, to rank one ethic group against another is already pushing an already sensitive topic.  However, Miss "Lee" could have used this opportunity to value BOTH groups, however, she shouldn't ignore her Asian American heritage before publishing something so profoundly flawed.



metacomet77
metacomet77

We can talk about demographics, social mobility, immigration, and education, but let's not debate which ethnic groups are the master races, and let's agree to forget about Amy. All she did was capitalize on the academic achiements of a naturally gifted daughter to sell a ridiculous book. I doubt that she asked the child first whether she would mind being exploited.

The strength and advantage of America is in its diversity. If you really don't think so, there is probably a country where everyone looks just like you, where you can live out the rest of your days in bliss, if they'll take you back. Most people who think that way are losers here......or sleazy opportunists, like Amy.

MikeAceveda
MikeAceveda

What is this trash? I'm descended from legal Mexican immigrants and I openly acknowledge that some ethnic groups do better than us. So what? We'll try to do better to compete. Equal opportunity isn't the same as equal results or equal circumstances. You'd have to be totalitarian to enforce such an unrealistic goal. 

DanaZZGarcia
DanaZZGarcia

Unfortunately, Mexicans are by far the largest group of immigrants and aliens in this country, and they are stubbornly resistant to the American value of education as a means to success, even after several generations. Washington's policy of emphasizing family unification rather than likely future achievement is creating a permanent hispanic underclass, which we taxpayers are being forced to support.

BlackMan
BlackMan

If anyone wants this country to fall.....just keep supporting our rediculous immigration.   That is a sure way. 

BlackMan
BlackMan

WHy do they fill half of calis prisons?  Why is our economy getting worse? why is unemployment going up? 


Don't give us this bullsh1t/

armandocdll81
armandocdll81

If Mexicans are such a success story why are so many of them dropping out of our high schools, washing our cars for minimum wage and generally drowning in squalor? 

TerryRosen
TerryRosen

The logic is completely faulty in this article. 

Groups that are more successful have already walked the road Mexicans have, they just did it in earlier generations. Except some groups go further than others, because some groups are superior to others. Equality is a social construct meant to shelter people from harsh reality.

gngott
gngott

Surely the most successful immigrant group in LA and the US in general are the Canadians.  From Mike Myers to Michael J Fox to Ted Cruz, Canadians only immigrate to the US to make it big.

Openminded1
Openminded1

Nigerians? They are a joke, they are involved in more scams and cons then any other ethnic group other then gypsies around the world. Their only success is ripping people off.  

DwDunphy
DwDunphy

My feelings toward Amy Chua are not very generous. I think she is using her kids as the raw materials for her process, and that is so she has books to write. It has nothing to do with the kids and everything to do with the fame she is accruing through this outrage/controversy/curiosity she is fomenting. The Mexicans have something that Chua seems to fail in providing, and I have worked with many Mexicans and seen their family lives. They too are invested in the betterment of their kids, but they care about their happiness, social interactivity, and connection to the world around them. Chua seems to use her kids as pawn, something to write about, for the betterment of her own ego.

drsoo
drsoo

How does this contradict what Amy Chua said? The only difference is that you measured for feel good "progress" while Chua measured for actual success. Don't think so white.

JLiu
JLiu

Bet you that "Lee" isn't a Chinese Lee. Why are all the social justice extremists Koreans? You're an embarrassment to your people, and to Asians overall. Does it feel good when Americans pat you on the head? So tolerant! So intersectional! Not chauvinist at all! Just like a good little liberal!


Jennifer Lee has made an entire career out of being a victim, and worse, she searches for every excuse possible to explain away Asian success. The Asian definition of success is the one that counts the most. Not some stupid sense of self satisfaction, not I-made-sum-progress, no. Actual success, measured in wealth. Parsimony stares you right in the face, Jennifer. Your assumptions of equality only flies in a small circle of sheltered western minds. You may seek validation with those few, but the rest of the world is not so blind as to believe in equality.

GuoLiang
GuoLiang

>professor of sociology

Oh sorry, should've read that part before taking this author seriously.

GuoLiang
GuoLiang

Are you a self-loathing Asian? Do you define your identity as East Asian first? Or part of a minority victimhood coalition?

The entire world measures success by where you end up, not how far you've come. When you're social status is as low as Mexicans, any kind of improvement seems like a leap. It's like the people who think Nigeria will take over the world because of their economic growth from nothing. 

I'll accept them as equals when they make a per capita income similar to the higher groups in America.

TSOL
TSOL

Sure, cut in line ahead of people that got there fairly and you'll stand a better chance of succeeding, especially if you get Affirmative Action and other freebies from the government .

Dulouz
Dulouz

Immigration means "Eat White People Alive and Call Them Bigots Until They Hand Their Wallet Over".  The same article is being printed in Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Europe.   I don't blame Mexicans for wanting to live with White people, but I hope you have a new excuse and pot to parasite from when you run out of White people.

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@seven7vii Japanese-Americans experienced military internment in WW2 over assumptions they are "disloyal" or seen as spies or saboteurs. This moment in US history is horrible, and can devastate an ethnic group emotionally. But, we still read or hear Japanese-Americans along with Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese as "model minorities". There is a high poverty rate in urban Chinese communities and Southeast Asian refugees like the Laotians and Cambodians. The Filipino community has many doctorate degrees, imported school teachers and medical professionals, but be in mind the Philippines is poorer than Japan. The portrayal of Asian-Americans as white collar and upper-middle class does not mean everyone Asian is one, and what Amy Chua should studied her Chinese and Asian group aren't all the same either. She puts down by "her analysis" of Asians overcame racism to be more successful than whites or blacks. 

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@metacomet77 Did Amy Chua also mentioned Jews, Mormons and the Amish? She analyzed religious groups as well to describe what made them "model minorities". They are not perfect, these groups experience problems like everyone else. Whether or not religions teach their own to pursue higher education and work ethic, Amy Chua might be stereotyping, unless she's doing actual academic research on ethnic and religious group's socioeconomic profiles.

MalcolmEx
MalcolmEx

@DanaZZGarcia  I'll say this, if the White Society in the good ole' USA did not discriminate Mexicans and their Mexican-American children in such an intense manner and instead have been ready to accept these hard-working people with open arms while emphasizing to future generations the importance of an education, maybe they would not have been so stubbornly resistant to "American Values". We have experienced none of these so called "American Values" , only "American Racism". For some us trying best to assimilate and better ourselves, of the darker shades of brown, we are not realizing the "American Dream" , but the "American Nightmare". I will tell you that, we will make things better for our children. 

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@armandocdll81 The study examined the ones lived in America for a longer period of time. Not just Mexicans, the media said Salvadorans and Central American immigrants are getting well established. Some Central Americans are returning to their home countries as upper-middle class when economic conditions improved in the last 2 decades.

obravomb
obravomb

@TerryRosen  Your logic is completely faulty: “some groups are superior to others”, I guess your group was born with some sort of bionic gene. I understand your parents taught you to think that way. What cloddish people.

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@gngott French-Canadians came to the US in waves in the late 19th and early 20th century, they are a similar kind of immigration alike other Europeans and Mexicans. French-Canadians, esp. Quebec are known to preserve their French language and customs, but French-Canadians in the US have gradually assimilated.  

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@Openminded1 Many African immigrants often come from higher income backgrounds and involved in college education. African immigrants' socioeconomic profiles lately in the media are reported as a new "model minority" to surpass both whites and native-born blacks. The media also reportedly state West Indian or Caribbean Americans are succeeding into the middle class: Jamaicans, Cubans, Dominicans and even Puerto Ricans.

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@DwDunphy Amy Chua claims to be a sociologist. She listed 9 groups in her book: Chinese (she mentioned all East and Southeast Asians), Indian, Lebanese, Iranian, Armenian, Nigerian, Cuban, Jewish, and Mormon, as model groups. She failed to cover African-American, Mexican-American and Native American cultures. She may be construed a racist declaring them the least successful ethnic groups. Yes, poverty rates are higher and less college education degrees, but the thing is the stereotypes of blacks not fully educated or enriched are enforced by such studies to uneducated bigots who just assume things about blacks as such. Chua promoted the somewhat exaggerated image of Asians and the others mentioned as model groups in achieving success in America compared to blacks and Hispanics. 

GuoLiang
GuoLiang

@DwDunphy  Mexicans embody vague hippie values and that's totally better than having a high level of income and education!

academoiselle
academoiselle

@JLiu  I'm a Chinese-American "Li" with what one would call "Asian success" and still I find your comment absolutely repulsive. Does it feel good when you pat yourself on the head for achieving "Asian success"? So intolerant! So chauvinistic! 


Shame, shame on you.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

You will accept them as equals? Pleaaasse, I think nobody wants to be equal to you.

IstuMademo
IstuMademo

@TSOL  Some people also got discriminated against and weren't even allowed to get in the line until 30 years ago. 

JimboJonesIV
JimboJonesIV

@TSOL Or steal a whole continent from the natives, you can get ahead a lot faster that way too.

JimboJonesIV
JimboJonesIV

@TSOL Or steal a whole continent from the natives, you'll get ahead faster that way too.

rnigueltweets
rnigueltweets

@Dulouz  That's funny, because if you replace "white people" with "Native Americans" and replace "mexicans" with "white people" it sounds like exactly what your kind did to all the Native American groups that were living here before you guys came here and stole their land.


Immigration means "Eat Native Americans Alive and Call Them Savages Until They Hand Their Land Over".  The same article is being printed in Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Europe.   I don't blame White people for wanting to live with Native Americans, but I hope you have a new excuse and pot to parasite from when you run out of countries to colonize.


Consider growing up.

drsoo
drsoo

@academoiselle @JLiu  Repulsive, intolerant, chauvinistic.... and absolutely accurate. 

The things white people find hateful or mean are usually the truest of all. Your ancestors knew this, do you?

BlackMan
BlackMan

@JimboJonesIV @TSOL  


What does that have to do with illegal immrigation?  Primarily from the Euro/natives from mexico?  and yes they are part euro just like Americans. 

MichaelDevulder
MichaelDevulder

@rnigueltweets Not only the "white" European-descended countries. Brazil and Argentina in South America had large amounts of European and Asian immigration. Large numbers of Brazilians and 90 percent of Argentines descended from immigrants. Their Immigration policies in the late 19th-early 20th century are indeed meant to reduce the percentage of persons of indigenous and/or African descent.

BlackMan
BlackMan

@rnigueltweets  


So you are basically saying....that all of those countries you named should open the floodgates to the trash of the world.  Even if they collapse? 


great logic. 

GuoLiang
GuoLiang

So should the native Americans have rolled over and tolerated themselves into nonexistence? Or did they fight for their identity?

Then so should everybody else. If you're not a ethnic nationalist, you're barely a human.