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Vadricka Etienne

College: Graduate Center
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

A New Take on Immigration

America, it is famously said, is a land of immigrants. The Pew Hispanic Center reported recently that the nation’s immigrant population reached a record 40.4 million in 2011, legal and illegal. Their share of the population is less than the peak of just under 15 percent during the flood of immigration between 1890 and 1920.

Vadricka Etienne, a second-year doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, intends to explore whether a small slice of these immigrants – the approximately 776,000 U.S. residents of Haitian ancestry – will cling to their roots into the third generation or, like so many other groups, will dissolve into the great American melting pot. To conduct her research, she has the support of a $126,000, three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the premier grant in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A second-generation Haitian-American who grew up in Orlando, Fla., Etienne (University of South Florida, B.A. in communication, minors in sociology and anthropology, 2011) says that previous research on the assimilation of children of immigrants has focused on their ethnic identity choices but not on how members of the second generation try to convey their culture to their children.

“While it was less complicated for the first generation to pass on their cultural heritage because they often raise their children in ways similar to their own upbringing, the second generation has refashioned the cultural heritage of their parents as they participate in the American culture, which begs the questions of not only what is the second generation passing on but how?” she writes in her NSF proposal.

Her hypothesis is that most likely the third generation will not maintain its Haitian identity, particularly in cities without strong cultural support. (The 2010 census tallied about 268,000 New Yorkers who were born in Haiti or were of Haitian descent.)

Immigrant Haitians tend to stay connected with their cultural practices through community networks built by earlier Haitians and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, Etienne says. But members of the second generation may move elsewhere, lessening their sense of connection, and when that happens, their sense of being Haitian may dissipate “because they lack certain cues that identify them as different from African-Americans. By the time they have children, the constant need to prove their cultural heritage might be deemed unnecessary,” she writes.

She envisions taking an ethnographic approach involving interviews with families. “I’d like to see how they identify and how they talk to their kids about their background to assure that their kids have a positive feeling,” she says. “Do children in the third generation spend time with their grandparents, speaking Creole? If they don’t speak Creole, they can’t participate in the culture, they can’t listen to the music. If they don’t have the language, what do they maintain?”

Etienne says she applied to CUNY because of three professors “who I kept coming across as I did research on assimilation and black identities” — Philip Kasinitz, Nancy Foner and Richard Alba, who have written about immigration by various groups, assimilation and ethnic politics. “When I found out they were at the Graduate Center, I had to apply.”