OpinionTop of the Ticket

Immigration is as American as a hamburger or an interstate drive

EntertainmentMusicHighway and Road TransportationMusic IndustryImmigrationRadioMcDonald's

Since the beginning of the republic, there has been a dynamic tension between constantly expanding diversity driven by immigration and the relentless homogenizing force of common American culture. And there’s nothing like a long drive on an interstate highway to remind a person of that reality.

On Monday, I traveled 600 miles on I-5 cutting through the center of California, from Redding to Los Angeles. The force of homogenization was apparent at every major exit and interchange. I was hungry, but I was hoping to find something beyond McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Arby’s or Taco Bell. That was not an easy task.

As anyone who has driven an interstate anywhere in this great nation knows, the America one sees from the freeway lanes is the same from coast to coast. The fast-food restaurant choices are the same. The slower food choices are the same – Olive Garden, Denny’s, Pizza Hut and their equivalents. The stores are the same – Target, Best Buy, Starbucks, Wal-Mart.

There is comfort in this level of reliability. A traveler can always find a familiar vendor to buy the thing that did not make it into the suitcase or a hamburger that tastes exactly like the one at the last stop. Still, it can be dispiriting, as well. I remember driving down a highway in rural Indiana marveling that not a single shop or restaurant was unique to that place. It was franchised, homogenized America at its most appalling.

The happy surprise was to discover that, within a minute or two of turning off that Indiana highway, I was rolling through pristine farmland where Amish families riding in horse-drawn buggies sustained a unique culture. And that is still true in most places. I drive to Montana a couple of times a year, and I know once I exit the freeway and bypass the fast-food emporiums, I will find a little cafe filled with ranchers and farmers lunching on homemade soup and sandwiches and talking about the weather, their cows and the upcoming potluck at the VFW hall.

On Monday’s run down I-5, though, I was in a rush and had no time to find the unique places in the countryside that I know must be there. I had to seek diversity from another source: the radio.

Just out of Redding, Christian preachers hung out at the high end of the dial while country music stations predominated in the stronger frequencies. Those stations played song after song extolling the virtues of small towns, back-country roads and girls in tank tops and tight jeans eager to park down by the river and get frisky on the tailgate of a pickup truck.

Approaching Sacramento, the country songs faded and a political talk show took over. The host was part of the legion of small-time Rush Limbaughs across the country. This particular pundit was going off on guns and immigration, sometimes making sense, other times spouting hunches that veered seriously from verifiable facts.

I also began finding more unusual stations broadcasting from the Bay Area. On one, a man with a very earnest voice described how the Earth is actually a prison where all the psychotics from other planets are sent by the overlords of intergalactic civilization. That’s news you don’t hear just anywhere. Another station was nonstop hip-hop. Like the country music, there were reliable themes: wearing gold chains and gold watches, having sex, partying in the crib, having sex, hanging with the homies, having sex, voluptuous female bodies and having sex.

The college stations kicked in at various points. Some offered BBC reports from Jamaica, Mali, the Netherlands, Brazil and other locales most Americans cannot find on a map. Others played music by undiscovered alternative musicians who should probably stay undiscovered. The bad music was, at least, distinctive. On the pop stations, homogenization was really in evidence. Interchangeable divas – was that Beyonce or Mariah Carey? – sang interchangeable songs with bland “I want you, baby, I need you, baby” lyrics.

Strangely, on the Christian music station in the Central Valley, the music was essentially the same as on the secular stations, the main difference being that Jesus was substituted for the usual love interest in the songs. Somehow, making Christ sound like a really neat boyfriend seems vaguely sacrilegious. 

The closer I drew to L.A. the more the Spanish-language stations took over. I suppose this is a clear example of diversity. On the other hand, most of the music sounded as formulaic as the pop and country tunes. (Does every Mexican song contain the word corazon?). One hombre stood out, however. Like them all, he was singing with a mariachi band blaring in the traditional three-beats-to-a-measure rhythm, but his voice sounded as if he had just rolled out of bed on the third day of a tequila binge. That was distinctive.

As night fell, I entered the swirl of L.A. traffic. National Public Radio was reporting that immigration reform is suddenly a popular item in Congress. That sounded good to me. We need the different sounds, tastes, talents and ideas that are brought to our shores from all over the world to be integrated, co-opted and fused onto old forms to create something distinctively American. After all, our national motto is E pluribus unum – one from many. 

So, sure, secure the borders, but let’s not lock the doors. And please, let’s build some sushi bars at a few exits on the interstate.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
EntertainmentMusicHighway and Road TransportationMusic IndustryImmigrationRadioMcDonald's
  • Sen. Harry Reid's filibuster deal infuriates liberal Democrats
    Sen. Harry Reid's filibuster deal infuriates liberal Democrats

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shocked and infuriated many of his fellow Democrats on Thursday when he backed away from his pledge to put an end to the curse of the filibuster.

  • Hillary Clinton exits Benghazi probe looking stronger than ever
    Hillary Clinton exits Benghazi probe looking stronger than ever

    When Hillary Clinton went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Republicans opened their bags of overly ripe conspiracy theories and moldering fruitcake ideas and tossed everything at her. Every shot missed.

  • Who's minding public pensions?
    Who's minding public pensions?

    In September 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a modest pension reform measure that tried to close some of the loopholes that could inflate pensions. Last week the board of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS, diluted that legislation by voting to allow...

  • Why have U.S. companies become such skinflints?
    Why have U.S. companies become such skinflints?

    Here's a depressing statistic: Last year, U.S. companies spent a whopping $598 billion — not to develop new technologies, open new markets or to hire new workers but to buy up their own shares. By removing shares from circulation, companies made remaining shares pricier, thus...

  • Franchise bill would send the wrong message to California businesses

    Judging from the rhetoric, you might think state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) was proposing to radically shift the balance of power in the world of franchised restaurants, stores and hotels. Instead, SB 610, the bill Jackson guided through the Legislature, would write into law...

  • WHO's misplaced Ebola priority
    WHO's misplaced Ebola priority

    The World Health Organization is nothing if not opportunistic, impulsively jumping on every public health issue that makes the front page. And, of course, it always calls for lots more money to throw at the disease-of-the-month. The latest on  WHO's radar is the Ebola virus outbreak...

Comments
Loading