Lois M. Collins: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Romina Munoz, right, prepares dough for a pizza crust from a recipe she learned from her grandmother with her niece, Nicole,10 and daughter, Ella, 2, at her home in Midvale on Thursday, June 21, 2012. Romina moved to the United States from Argentina when she was thirteen years old.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Editor's note: This report is part 6 of "Coming to our Census," a series of reports that takes a careful look at the issues posed by the changing demographics of Utah and the nation.

Related coverage

Part 1: The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?
Part 2: Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality
Part 3: Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?
Part 4: Latino students face barriers to higher education
Part 5: Minorities face hurdles in getting health care

Editorial: 'Coming to our Census' series takes needed, critical look at issues posed by Utah's changing demographics

Lists: Poll responses: Benefits of a more diverse population in Utah; Poll results about Census data: Perceptions don't always match reality

KSL coverage: 'Coming to our Census'

SALT LAKE CITY — Burundi refugees, so far from their homeland, will thrill once more to the sound of their native drums later this month as they gather in Salt Lake City to celebrate the independence day of the country they left behind.

Families that spent years in refugee camps in Tanzania, near their war-torn central east African homeland of Burundi, may be planting gardens in their new American neighborhoods or trying to master the intricacies of the English language so they can land better jobs, but they will pause and remember where they came from. Some may tell children born in the United States how their families suffered in a civil war sparked by antagonism between Hutu and Tutsi factions.

Changing countries and assimilating doesn't mean you toss the old ways out or forget the past. It's a process of picking and choosing that takes place among families of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. And there are a lot of them in the United States.

A new minority/majority

According to U.S. Census figures, America's demography is undergoing a shift. By 2040, even slow-changing states like Utah are expected to have fewer white babies born than babies from ethnic backgrounds. Their parents may be immigrants, refugees or their descendants, as well as blacks and American Indians who have been here for generations. They are part of the burgeoning minority-majority.

The makeup of the ethnic population is shifting in multiple ways. For instance, Pew Research Center just noted that Asian Americans are the best-educated, highest-income, fastest-growing race group in the country. And they are very different culturally than refugees. But one of the challenges that each ethnic group faces is figuring out what to keep and what to leave behind in terms of cultural identity.

Letting go of heritage for the sake of fitting in "makes people feel more welcome and accepted, particularly if a community isn't open to newcomers and those who are different," says Patrick Poulin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake.

On the other hand, says Alex Ngendakuriyo, a Burundi refugee who with wife Virginia Nizigiyimana arrived from the Burundi refugee camps in Tanzania nearly five years ago, "I would like to learn more about American culture, but not lose my old culture. I want to always keep where I came from and always know who I am."

Their daughter, Annie Nikiza, now 21/2, was born here.

Knowing what's expected

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