On a September day in 1987, a stack of six hard-covered, heavy-bound books landed on Patricia Palao's school desk. This was a dilemma. It was the first day of the second grade, and Palao was a quiet girl; earlier, at recess, she had been too shy to ask why a game called "Steal the Bacon" involved no discernible pork products. And now there were these books.
Palao, who had immigrated to New York City from the Philippines just that summer, had never seen a textbook before. There were no textbooks in the Philippines for kids that young. "I thought they were mine to keep, that I was always supposed to have them on me," Palao says. So for the next month, the three-foot-seven, 45-pound sliver of a girl toddled home from school each day under the weight of 40 pounds of books (and one plastic yellow headband).
"I was a sight to see," laughs Palao, now 30. "Finally my parents were, like, 'You can't have that much homework.' A girl in class showed me where everyone kept their books, under the desks."
When Palao immigrated to New York under her mother's work visa, she spoke only broken English. Her idea of an extracurricular activity was chasing mutt dogs around her father's coconut farm. Now, Palao wears skinny jeans, Puma sneakers, and cropped cardigans. The hair she tucks behind her ears keeps making a break for her eyes. She lives in Queens, speaks spotless English, dates a Boston native, and works at Cambridge University Press, where she does graphic design–for textbooks.
Thirty-seven percent of New York City's population is foreign-born, compared with just 12.5 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey. But unlike most major cities, New York lacks a single dominant immigrant culture: 26 percent of immigrants hail from Asia; 23, the Caribbean; 19, Europe; 15, South America; and 12 percent from Central America, as well as others. Because no immigrant subculture is expansive enough on its own, New York City immigrants tend to learn English and assimilate into American culture at high rates.
"Go to Bronx and Queens and parts of Brooklyn," says Dr. Jacob Vigdor, author of From Immigrants to Americans and professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. "There are large immigrant populations there, but if the Dominican immigrants want to speak to the Korean immigrants, what's their common ground? It's likely to be English."
In cities like Los Angeles, more than half of the immigrant population arrives from Mexico. As a result, there are few incentives to learn a language beyond Spanish. "This is how the multinational character of immigration in New York feeds into assimilation," Vigdor says. "Different groups converge in English and American behavioral and social norms."
After Palao stopped carrying her weight in textbooks, her transition was seamless: In the third grade, she began devouring Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume–and, of course, anything Sweet Valley High. By high school, she was an active member of student government, a cross-country runner, a reporter for the school paper, and a mentor and tutor to a younger Hispanic classmate. Sure, there was some culture clash within her family ("My parents very, very against dating," says Palao, lowering her chin and voice a little. "I had a secret boyfriend."); but everyone was pleased when she was accepted to Fordham University to study business marketing.
Young children have an easier time adapting to a new language and culture than adults; researchers even see a difference between children who immigrate at six and at 10, Vigdor says. In 1985, the New York City Department of Education helped found the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a system of high schools designed to aid recently arrived immigrants in their assimilation to American culture. This year, the valedictorian of the Manhattan International High School is headed to Stanford University. "He spoke very limited English when he started with us," Principal Alan Krull says.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has always been an outspoken supporter of immigrants to his domain. "It's very hard to give up your language and your culture and your friends and go 3,000 miles away to a new country," he says. "The only people who do that like the challenge, and that's exactly the kind of people we wantâ€¦It's the reason our city is successful."
Palao received her lawful permanent resident status, or green card, at 18 as she headed off to Fordham. When the time arrived to renew her status 10 years later, she and her family decided to apply for citizenship. To pass the test, Palao memorized the original 13 colonies, the number of representatives in the House, and counted the stars on the American flag. She answered questions like, "What is the Constitution?" and "Who helped the Pilgrims?"–facts she remembered from her grade-school textbooks.
The thing about Palao is that she plays ukulele in a chamber rock band. She loves the food at the new Mets stadium, and she's thinking of moving down to Brooklyn. Much like anyone else, she still doesn't understand why "Capture the Flag" is sometimes called "Steal the Bacon."
Sure, the test made her a citizen, Palao remembers. But New York City had long ago made her an American.