More than 1,000 Immigrants from 75 countries took an oath to pledge allegiance to the U.S. and become citizens.
More than 1,000 Immigrants from 75 countries take the oath of allegiance and become citizens at a ceremony in San Diego in 2018. Photo by Chris Stone

The images most Americans have of “La Gente” — the 40 million people in the United States like me who are from Mexico or are children or grandchildren of people from Mexico — are decidedly negative.

Those views are reinforced when La Gente is compared to others who have immigrated to the United States since the 1960s.

But which groups of migrants have been the most successful? It depends on how success is defined.

Is the grandson of an entrepreneur from China or the granddaughter of a Mexican farmworker who walked across the border decades ago to pick lettuce more successful?

We have some answers to such questions. A classic study by UC Irvine sociology professor Jennifer Lee and UCLA sociology professor Min Zhou suggests that contrary to stereotypes, Mexican Americans are the most successful second-generation group in the country.

The study considered not just end results, but from where people started. In baseball, a person already on third base has a better chance of scoring than one just reaching first. The same is true among migrants. Where you started matters.

The study combats arguments made by Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor better known as the “Tiger Mom.”

She and her husband Jeb Rubenfeld argue in their well-known book The Triple Package that some groups — notably Chinese, Jews, Cubans and Nigerians — are more successful than others because they possess certain cultural traits. That is, they’re more successful as defined by Yale professors.

But Lee and Zhou, both from immigrant Asian families, suggest “The Triple Package” definition of success is too narrow for a broader American culture that is more blue collar than sophisticated.

They base their argument on an analysis of test scores, educational achievement, median household income, and other factors.

The study argues that it’s not any specific cultural trait that makes Chinese Americans more successful than others. Lee and Zhou point out that both Chinese American and Mexican American parents value education highly. Most parents do.

But the reason Chinese Americans get ahead is because they started ahead. Way ahead, in most cases.

The coronavirus pandemic that closed the country’s schools for a year or more provides substance to what the study points out as the main differences in success between Mexican Americans and Asian and other immigrant groups.

Mexican American children in Los Angeles, for example, were photographed sitting on sidewalks outside fast food restaurants using restaurant wi-fi to reach online classes.

There were no photos of Chinese American kids on sidewalks because there weren’t many, or perhaps any. Those children had computers at home plus internet service that in Los Angeles can cost more than $150 a month.

The Lee and Zhou study, titled “The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Cost and Consequences for Asian-Americans,” looked at Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles whose parents had immigrated to the United States.

Initially, the study’s findings seem to reinforce claims made by Chua and her supporters: 64% of Chinese immigrants’ children graduated from college, compared to 46% native-born whites in Los Angeles.

But Asian American kids, the study found, benefit immensely from well-educated parents. Some 60% percent of Chinese immigrant fathers and 40% of Chinese immigrant mothers had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

What was striking was how much higher Mexican American children’s high school graduation rate was than their immigrant parents — more than double. And their college graduation rate more than doubled from that of their fathers and tripled from their mothers.

The study’s results are clear: When success is measured as progress from generation to generation, Mexican Americans are at the top.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a Marine Corps veteran, political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.