Immigration Reform 2013: 10 Powerful Representations Of Immigrants in Pop Culture


Americans love a good story. Immigration is no different. From the start of America's founding, stories of struggle and success, of invention and reinvention through migration have held a special place in popular culture. Here, for your entertainment, we list a few.

1. Horatio Alger: 


The 19th century Harvard alumni and rags-to-riches author got famous literally writing the book on immigrant/lower class rise to “middle class respectability” and success in America’s industrial work world. Most famous for his Ragged Dick series and the Luck and Pluck series.

2. Los Lobos:

They're an East LA Chicano rock band. Their first album was "Just Another Band from East LA," a title they'be defied for the last three decades. “Road To Gila Bend” is a song addressing immigration head on. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics. “Made Nogales over night/through the desert in the yellow light/missing everything I left behind/Will they see me coming? Do they know I'm running?”

3. Ugly Betty: 

A TV show that gained a ton of popularity through the early oughts, Ugly Betty is based on a Colombian telenovela "Yo Soy Betty La Fea." Betty is played by America Ferrera, the daughter of Honduran immigrant parents. It's the story of a hard-working, sweet, smart, and dedicated young woman who struggles at work because of the hate and ridicule endured at the hands of beautiful people. Also at play, body image conformity issues.

4. Fievel/And American Tail:

Late 80s and 90s babies will remember this utterly endearing series that recast a Russian immigrant mouse as the prototypical immigrant seeking the American dream/Dickens-esque rag tag protagonist. I don't know about you but I still can't watch the original without feeling nostalgic and conspicuously patriotic. We'll leave all the obvious racist and class issues those who watched it were subjected to alone for now. Feel free to rewatch it with a critical eye.

5. Coming to America: 

Another movie where we find out that class and wealth (and a healthy dose of good attitude and humor) will help you not only conquer the land you immigrate to, but also land the hottie you fell in love with at first sight. Gotta admit I loved this movie, especially because Arsenio Hall is hilarious as the knuckle head sidekick.

6. Godfather/Gangs of New York/Scarface: 

Enough of the comedies and kiddie films. Immigration flicks are dominated, in large part, by the violence, excess, greed, murder, and mayhem of immigrants. (Think about it as labeling "others" before, during, and after their arrival via cinematic exploitation.) These three deal with specific waves of immigration, the Irish and Italian through New York's Ellis Island and the Cubans by way of Hollywood, Florida.

7. Jay Z: "Open Letter":

So, speaking of Cuba, Hello there, Senator Cruz all riled up over Jay-Z's indelicate trip to the motherland of all things antithetical to American values (read: communism). Cuba keeps the immigrant pop culture spotlight for this trip-induced song (as well as the Part II version featuring Common) and other, less notable musical Cubans. (I'm looking at you, Pit Bull).

8. Ricky Martin/Shakira/Justin Bieber: 

OK, America, geez ... enough with the siphoning of the international talent into our media driven, pepsico money saturated, goose laying platinum record eggs all over the radiosphere music machine. We have immigrants all over our airwaves. Actually, it's a really good thing. The problem is when they look like Shakira or Ricky, we know they're not from here (for some reason; maybe they talk about it more) but when they look like Justin no one seems to ask. Yes, he's CanadianEw.

9. The Melting Pot: 

This classic American colloquialism is often cited as the reason why Americans of all backgrounds are welcome to our storied shores. The whole world, all the "huddled masses" come to America, assimilate, and become as American as any who've come before. The problem is the Melting Plot idea is based on a play by Israel Zangwill, first staged in 1908, in which the hero proclaims, "America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming ... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians - into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American." Yup. the melting pot was for White folks to become American. Others have remarked that the kindling on which the pot is heated is made of the races of color. Interesting, no?

10. Not me. But yes, me.

(Gotcha, this isn't pop culture, but it kinda is because American immigration is all of us.) I'm Native American; Spanish and Apache from the Four Corners region. I am also French and Spanish. I tend to think of it as half colonizer, half colonized. It is what it is. At the end of the day, very few folks are 100%, ancestrally, native to this land. So how do I see myself? That's a question for another day. How you see me is a question for this day, and the answer is in how pop culture represents me. 

That said, let's look to the great and beautiful representations of immigrants in our pop culture, and in our own lives, as we work towards immigration reform. We shouldn't be looking at recent immigrants as others, but as a part of us; a great and beautiful human fabric.