by Samuel Cashin
The stories of many immigrants to America is well-documented throughout literature. The difficulties and work immigrants have to overcome to integrate with a new culture is admirable. Often a new language has to be learned on top of all the different social and cultural norms that are different from their home country. This process of assimilation can sometimes trigger an identity crisis, as immigrants now have to balance the identity, they had back in their home country with the one they created through immigration. This conflict is convoluted and hard to visualize as a whole, however the medium of literature places a new light on the struggles that immigrants go through on a daily basis. Two such memoirs, The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, portray this struggle effectively through their characters and their interactions with their changing surroundings as immigrants. Specifically, the characters of Riqui Blanco and his family in The Prince of Los Cocuyos and Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist are prime examples of immigrants struggling to assimilate into American culture, which are subsequently hampered by racial prejudice and intolerance. Changez ultimately fails in his attempt to assimilate into American culture not only due to the fallout of the 9/11 attacks but his own hubris and denial of his past in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the character of Riqui is eventually able to successfully assimilate due to his recognition of his Cuban culture and acceptance of his dual identity as a Cuban-American man.
Changez is an immigrant who comes to America in the hopes of making a better life for himself than he could have living in Pakistan. He initially gets accepted into Princeton, which he refers to as “a dream come true” (Hamid 3). He comments that the non-American students often “tended to do better than the Americans…I reached my senior year without having received a single B” (Hamid 3). His mindset in his assimilation is due to being a foreigner or immigrant; he “was expected to contribute out talents to your society, the society we were joining” (Hamid 4). With the initial awe and the splendor Changez thought he could achieve in America, he took to assimilating quite well. People commented on his attitude to assimilate and even described him as “hungry” in his drive to better himself and his stance in the world. However, this drive to better himself is a key factor in what ultimately leads to his failure to fully assimilate into American society. The drive causes him to give up a lot of his identity as a Pakistani man with his appearance being the most apparent change.
Aesthetics are very important to Changez, so much that he goes through great lengths throughout the memoir to keep the façade that he is from a wealthy family. While being interviewed for his job at Underwood Samson, Changez is hard pressed about his past living in Pakistan. He comments that his reality while at Princeton was “two choices: pretend all is well or work hard to restore things to what they were. I chose both” (Hamid 12). Changez rejects his past and puts on a mask of a man from a wealthy family. This can be equated to how the attitude towards people like Changez and Muslims changes in America after 9/11. A mask was put on by many people in the general to show that they were tolerant and accepting of Muslims, however there was in reality deep rooted disdain. Elora Chowdhury, part of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Boston, comments on this distinction, stating that “Changez’s status in the United States changes from one of successful immigrant to suspected enemy” (Chowdhury 68). Having forgotten his past, his whole identity hinges on being in an elite member of American society. His job and standing make Changez believe that he has truly assimilated. He highlights that his “Pakistaniness was invisible, cloaked by my suit, by my expense account, and—most of all—by my companions” (Hamid 71). An additional comment made by Chowduhry about Changez’s behavior, states that “Changez was almost consumed by American production and consumption” (Chowdhury 69). His determination to become an elite member of American society caused him to spiral down into a hole of American products and identity, from his suit to his blazer. He hides his past in the hopes of fitting in more and assimilating better, but it actually has the reverse effect. The depth of integrating into American society went against odds with Changez. He ends up with no other identity to fall back on once he is kicked out of the circles of the American elite.
In contrast to Changez, Riqui goes about assimilating into American culture through a more drawn-out process. The chronicle of Riqui’s life covers his life as an immigrant from a young child to an adult. This is in contrast to Changez, who immigrates when he is already an adult. The process that Riqui goes through to fully assimilate into American culture is helped by the fact that it took him so long to do so. As a child, Riqui initially tries to hide the fact that he is an immigrant, much like Changez tries to hide his past from his colleagues and classmates. Riqui says to himself while buying chicken in a supermarket, “I dropped a can in my cart and began strolling leisurely through the store, pretending I was as grown-up and American as everyone there” (Blanco 15). Like Changez, he tries to blend himself into American culture to fit in.
Another factor that helps Riqui successfully assimilate into American culture is that his family is very close. In an article written by Rodolfo Bonnin, a research consultant for the University of Missouri—Kansas City, he states that “any potential negative effect of acculturation is thwarted as a result of intact family characteristics, namely cohesion” (Bonnin 474). Throughout the memoir, Riqui is in close proximity and contact with his family who help keep him rooted in his Cuban heritage. Additionally, Riqui is able to assimilate thanks to his acceptance of his Cuban heritage through his experiences at El Cocuyito, a general store that he works at in his adolescent years.
While at El Cocuyito, Riqui is progressively exposed to his Cuban heritage through his interactions with the Cuban immigrants that frequent the store. One such character, Felipe, often recounts his experiences living in Cuban to Riqui. This slowly instills in him a pride in having Cuban ancestry. He describes these stories as “a Havana I could touch, a Cuba I could hold in my hands” (Blanco 163). He begins to pick up different Cuban slang as he continues working at El Cocuyito. This is because “after so many afternoons hablando mierda with Nunez, and buzzed on thimble-size swigs of café, his talents rubbed off on me” (Blanco 165). He begins to embrace his Cuban culture through the unusual route of learning to make fun of people in a “Cuban” way. For example, a patron of the store “looked like una tripa, and that’s what I called him—the Intestine” (Blanco 165). Riqui’s transformation as an immigrant is highlighted in his visit to Yetta, an elderly Jewish lady who travels the world trying to find a place where she belongs. Yetta considers herself not being solely from one place but a multitude of places (Blaco 230). This is contrary to most other characters that Riqui interacts with. During a conversation that takes place between the two of them, Riqui realizes “I never thought of myself as a gringo, though sometimes I wished I were” (Blanco 232). His realization shows that he considers himself a Cuban, while at the same time others around him consider him a “gringo” or Americanized.
Additionally, his internal identity as both Cuban and American is explained through an article written by Lisandro Pérez, an associate professor and chair of the sociology department at Florida International University, states it “is unlikely that the Cuban community in the United States will escape the usual intergenerational shift toward greater acculturation and assimilation” (Pérez 136). Further, this shift is embodied in Riqui who while retaining much of his Cuban culture through interactions with his family. He also retains his Cubanism through what he learns at El Cocuyito from Don Gustavo and others, eventually fully assimilating to become a Cuban-American man. This is confirmed when Pérez accepts that “English is probably the principal language among Cubans who have lived all or most of their lives in the United States” (Pérez 136). Riqui uses predominantly English in his interactions with those not of his immediate family like Ariel, a Cuban immigrant who arrived from across the Gulf of Mexico. Ariel is similar to Riqui in many ways, due to having learned English and considering himself not fully Cuban but a “cubanso” or New Cuban.
At the very end of the memoir, there is imagery that confirms the success of Riqui’s assimilation. After having pushed Ariel into the water, he describes holding Ariel as being like “Ariel Blanco, Riqui Jimenez—we were one…we were cubanaso and gringo, one and the same” (Blanco 247). Having come to the realization that he is very much like Ariel in some respects, he acknowledges being both Cuban and American. This acknowledgment is the reason why Riqui is successful in assimilating as an immigrant and is in the climactic moment in the development of his character.
The plights of both Cuban immigrants and Muslim immigrants to America are very similar in many ways. Both Riqui and Changez had to work hard to learn the cultural differences between their native countries and America. However, in Riqui’s case, he was able to internalize the American culture through the support of his family structure. In his study of immigration to America, Rodolfo Bonnin states, “the strength of the family’s cohesion and structure help in navigating the demands of the new culture” (Bonnin 467). This statement supports the claim that Riqui was successful in assimilating, but also explains why Changez failed to fully assimilate. Rather than rely on his family structure to help him with the new cultural changes that he experienced immigrating to America, he did the opposite. Changez almost outright rejected his family and any attempt to integrate them into his new life in America. Ironically, this was done in order to better help his family by potentially reclaiming some of the lost wealth and esteem they had in the past.
A counter argument could be made that Changez had a unique experience and outcome because his religion was also different than the predominantly Christian religion pervasive in America. Riqui and his family could have had an advantage in that they shared a religious connection to America. This can be offset by the fact that Riqui and his family were in part political refugees, while Changez immigrated to the country through a presumed student Visa. The different ethnicities and religions that the characters have can be juxtaposed with each other into the more common experience of being an immigrant in a new country. Elora Chowdhury comments that “juxtaposition engenders a thinking through of race at the intersection of religion and ethnicity” (Chowdhury 77). Meaning Americans unfortunately put religion and ethnicity into their definition of what is a “race”. No matter how similar that race may be to the norm, if it is in any way different, they are ostracized from the greater populace, however intentional or unintentional that may be.
Chowdhury uses the examples of African Americans, even though they were Americanized for centuries, they are still discriminated against because of their race being different from others. She compares this to Changez being Pakistani and therefore part of the Muslim race, which faces the same discrimination thanks mostly to the events on 9/11. This change in opinion of Muslims was so sudden and stark that it was coined “Islamophobia” due to it being so widespread as well (Awan 525). Changez is ingrained in American society and thinks of himself as “American,” however he is subsequently ripped away from that identity through this catalyst for failure to fully assimilate. This is covered succinctly in Aysem Seval’s academic review of the memoir in what she calls the “discourse of tolerance” (Seval 103). Seval, part of the faculty at the University of Calgary, argues that the nature of tolerance, whether it be religious or racial, is hypocritical and in reality, shows the dysfunction of liberal discourse (Seval 122). She uses the Turkish word hoşgörü, which means “fair sight” or “seeing someone/something fairly” (Seval 120). The destruction of hoşgörü is what Changez faces after 9-11. By being unable to fall back on any identity that isn’t intertwined in being a part of elite American society, he crumbles. Changez eventually loses his job and has to emigrate back to Pakistan where he becomes a teacher and is slowly radicalized. The more radicalized Changez becomes, the more of the American identity he created is lost. This spiral continues until he assimilates back into his old Pakistani identity, albeit a much more cynical one than he the original.
The work that these immigrants put in to successfully immigrate to America cannot be overlooked. The character of Riqui Blanco in The Prince of Los Cocuyos is able to successfully attempt to assimilate because of his realization that he is both Cuban and American. He does not try to stifle or deny his Cuban past and ancestry, but instead he chooses to embrace it alongside his new American identity. This is counter to Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist who denies his past and ancestry as a Pakistani man in order to fully assimilate into American culture as an immigrant. Changez’s failure is also due in part to his whole identity being rooted in his new life as part of the American elite. When that is taken away from him after 9/11, he immigrated back to Pakistan where he assimilates back into his old Pakistani culture. It is due to these facts that Changez is ultimately unsuccessful as he eventually changes his view of America from positive to negative due to his emigrating back to Pakistan and subsequent radicalization. Both memoirs serve to highlight the struggles of immigrants assimilating into the new country they have immigrated to, which allows the reader to better understand the plight of immigrants coming into the country by offering differing perspectives. These stories are based off of real-life experiences of the authors and therefore add more credibility to the lessons they attempt to impart upon their readers.
Awan, Muhammad S. “Global Terror and the Rise of Xenophobia/Islamophobia: An Analysis of American Cultural Production since September 11.” Islamic Studies, vol. 49, no. 4, Nov. 2010, pp. 521–537.
Blanco, Richard. The Prince of Los Cocuyos: a Miami Childhood. Ecco, 2015.
Bonnin, Rodolfo, and Chris Brown. “The Cuban Diaspora: A Comparative Analysis of the Search for Meaning among Recent Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans.” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, vol. 24, no. 4, Nov. 2002, pp. 465–478.
Chowdhury, Elora Halim. “Reading Hamid, Reading Coates: Juxtaposing Anti-Muslim and Anti-Black Racism in Current Times.” Feminist Formations, vol. 30, no. 3, 2018, pp. 63–78.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Penguin Books, 2007.
Pérez, Lisandro. “Cubans in the United States.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 487, no. 1, Sept. 1986, pp. 126–137.
Seval, Ayşem. “(Un)Tolerated Neighbour: Encounters with the Tolerated Other in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Submission.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 48, no. 2, 2017, pp. 101–125.