A Longitudinal Study of Mexican-American Assimilation

Michael D. Reilly, University of Arizona
Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona
ABSTRACT - The assimilation of Mexican-Americans to Anglo consumption patterns is examined by comparing longitudinal data on actual consumption by two income matched groups. Findings point to the existence of a lag factor stemming from the dynamic aspects of culture and the way in which cultural norms and values change over time.
[ to cite ]:
Michael D. Reilly and Melanie Wallendorf (1984) ,"A Longitudinal Study of Mexican-American Assimilation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 735-740.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 735-740


Michael D. Reilly, University of Arizona

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

[The authors would like to express their gratitude to Professor William Rathje of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona for making the data available for this analysis.]


The assimilation of Mexican-Americans to Anglo consumption patterns is examined by comparing longitudinal data on actual consumption by two income matched groups. Findings point to the existence of a lag factor stemming from the dynamic aspects of culture and the way in which cultural norms and values change over time.


Marketers are showing increasing interest in the Hispanic market. There are several reasons for this interest. First, demographic studies indicate that the Hispanic market will grow more rapidly than any other in the decade of the 1990's (Pachon & Moore, 1981). Second, as Hispanics become more and more integrated into American culture, they occupy higher status jobs and buy more and better merchandise than was previously the case. As a result of these factors, there is increasing interest in the consumption behavior of Hispanics. In fact, there have been several cases in which marketers have developed advertising campaigns aimed specifically at Hispanics, with the brewers taking, the lead.

The Hispanic market is of interest to consumer researchers for another reason. The migration of Hispanics into the U.S. provides an excellent context for investigating the process of cultural assimilation and the effect of this process on consumption patterns.

Prior cross-sectional research has indicated that Mexican-American consumption patterns are unlike those of either income-matched Mexicans or income-matched Anglos (Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983). The purpose of this research, then, is to further investigate the assimilation process of this group using a longitudinal perspective.


Traditional approaches to cross-cultural mobility model the process by which immigrants become more and more a part of their new culture and less and less a part of their old culture (Gordon, 1964). Cultural assimilation involves changes in the behavior patterns of the immigrants. For example, over time immigrants may change their style of dress, types of foods consumed, language spoken, and types of products purchased. Thus, cultural assimilation involves changes over time in the consumption patterns of immigrants.

Since, in this work, behavioral patterns are used as indicators of the degree to which, cultural assimilation has occurred, it is important that the behavior patterns studied be those which are reflective of underlying cultural norms and values. In other words, if an immigrant is observed behaving in ways which are normatively prescribed by the culture of residence but not the culture of origin, then it can be inferred that to some extent cultural assimilation has occurred. Of course, this inference can only be drawn if the behavior pattern is one which is voluntarily adopted as the result of individual choice and not involuntarily adopted as the result of structural mandates or conditions.

Thus cultural values are reflected in adherence to certain behavioral patterns or practices. For immigrants this adherence is an indicator of cultural assimilation.


One problem with a traditional model of cultural assimilation is that it implies that culture is relatively static. That is, it predicts that an immigrant in moving from one culture to another will exhibit a somewhat linear pattern of change as he or she moves away from the behavioral patterns of the culture of origin and moves toward the behavioral patterns of the culture of residence. Thus, cultural assimilation is viewed merely as change from one pattern to another.

Yet this model fails to account for the way in which the behavioral patterns normatively prescribed within a particular culture are constantly changing, and altering. That is, as cultural values change over time within a culture, so do the behavioral patterns indicative of that culture. For example, as American values concerning the interplay of industrial development and environmental purity have changed, so have some of its culturally prescribed practices (e.g., emissions standards for factories and automobiles, water usage practices).

In short, an immigrant leaves a culture which is changing and moves into a culture which is changing. Thus rather than trying to hit a fixed target from a fixed platform (as is implied in a traditional model of assimilation), an immigrant in attempting to assimilate is trying to hit a moving target from a platform which is moving, most likely in ways different from the movement of the target. This dynamic aspect of culture makes it unlikely that the immigrant will exhibit a very high degree of accuracy in determining just exactly what the behavioral patterns of the culture of residence are. In fact the traditional assimilation notion that immigrants' behavior will lie somewhere between the boundaries of those patterns characteristic of the culture of origin and those patterns characteristic of the culture of residence is not supported by cross-sectional data (Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983).

This can be accounted for by examining longitudinally the shifts occurring in the culture of residence as a result of its dynamic nature. This shift may reveal a systematic deviation from the linear pattern of assimilation predicted by the traditional assimilation model. The primary purpose of the research reported here is to compare the consumption patterns of income-related Anglos and Mexican-Americans over time to determine to what extent the trajectory of Mexican-American cultural assimilation is approaching the Anglo norm. And yet this comparison can only be made over time by also incorporating into the explanation the ways in which American culture and norms are changing.

Perhaps an example can best highlight the sources of variation. Assume for a moment that Mexican culture places a high value on the utilitarian function of an automobile, particularly as it is used in a context characterized by narrow city streets and few facilities for parking. Assume also that historically American culture has placed a high value on the status indication function of an automobile. Thus, one would predict that Mexicans would purchase larger, more flashy cars and would do so more frequently. Similarly, one would predict according to the traditional assimilation model that Mexican-Americans would, over time, move from purchases of smaller cars to purchases of larger cars. However, consider the changes in the predictions which one would make if one assumes discoveries of petroleum resources in Mexico and crises resulting from an oil embargo in the U.S. Clearly, such events shape the values, norms, and behavioral patterns within each culture. But what of a recent Mexican immigrant to the U.S.? Is he or she likely to purchase a small car as has historically been done in Mexico, a large car as has been made possible by recent Mexican oil discoveries, a large car because that has historically been the desire of many Anglos, or a small car which is dictated by current U.S. conditions? The traditional assimilation model is of little help in answering such questions.


The normative context chosen for the research reported here is that of patterns of food consumption. Food consumption patterns were chosen because of their strong connection to cultural norms and values (Braudel, 1967; Greeley, McCready, and Theisen, 1980; Patai, 1977; Royce, 1982). Cultural style is particularly linked to the types of foods consumed and the frequency with which they are consumed.

In addition, over the recent past, American values concerning food and their accompanying patterns of consumption have changed substantially. In this sense, Mexican-Americans are in fact chasing a moving target as they try to assimilate to Anglo food consumption patterns. This context then provides the opportunity to examine the impact of cultural change on cultural assimilation patterns.

In particular, four food product categories are investigated here. These food groups are:

1. Meats and other protein sources

2. Bread types (white, dark, tortillas)

3. Soft drinks and other non-alcoholic beverages

4. Alcoholic beverages (spirits, wine, beer)

It was expected, that these four food categories were ones which would exhibit recent changes in Anglo consumption patterns. More specifically, it was expected that Anglo patterns would reflect the following trends:

1. Fairly high levels of protein consumption, shifting toward more chicken, fish, cheese and beans and away from red meats and eggs (Brewster and Jacobson, 1978; Semling, 1983; Standard and Poors' Industry Surveys, 1983; USDA 1982). This trend is based on a shift resulting from changing beliefs and concerns concerning serum cholesterol levels and fat and caloric intake.

2. Low consumption of breads, shifting toward dark breads as opposed to white breads (Przybyla, 1983; Semling, 1983; Standard and Poors' Industry Surveys, 1983; Wall Street Journal, 1980 and 1981). This trend is based on increasing desires for higher levels of fiber consumption as well as trends favoring products which are more "natural" or less processed.

3. Shift away from regular sugared soft drinks and caffeine products in favor of fruit juices and dietetic soft drinks (Beverage World, 1983; Beverage Industry, 1983a, 1983b, 1983c, and 1983d; Brewster and Jacobson, 1978; Chemical Marketing Reporter, 1983; Jerrey, 1983; Standard and Poors' Industry Surveys, 1983; USDA, 1980 and 1982). This trend is based on an increasing concern with not only calories, but also nutritional content per calorie.

4. Preference for beer and wine over spirits (Beverage Industry, 1983c and 1983d; Shanken 1982; Standard and Poors' Industry Surveys, 1983). This trend is based on desires to reduce calories and to prefer lightness to heaviness or darkness.

As a result of these shifts, it is expected that Mexican-American consumption patterns may lag Anglo patterns. That is, because new immigrants to a culture are likely to derive a large portion of their information about their new role from, stereotyped depictions and portrayals (Thornton and Nardi, 1974), it may well be that Mexican-Americans do not reflect these shifts as quickly in their consumption patterns as do Anglos. For at least a short period of time during the shift, it may be that the immigrants move toward a behavioral pattern which natives are shifting away from. Thus, for example, as Anglos shift away from consumption of white breads and toward consumption of dark breads, Mexican-Americans may be shifting their consumption from home prepared tortillas to the staple of the (previous) American diet, namely white bread.

Using a longitudinal data set, the trajectory of the consumption patterns of the two group can he compared to see the impact of these shifts.



The cultural groups studied are Mexican-Americans living in an urban area in the Southwest and Anglo residents of the same urban area. This cultural context was chosen because of the large numbers of Mexicans making such a move (Pachon and Moore, 1981), and because the immigrants are not isolated from others from Mexico once they reach the culture of destination. Also, in the Southwest, structural constraints on the availability of food products characteristic of the culture of origin are unlikely.


Because of the difficulties of assuming equivalent meanings and response willingness and bias between two different cultural groups, it was decided to not use a survey methodology. Instead unobtrusive measures were used. Behavior patterns were observed directly, in lieu of using self-reported behaviors.

Le Project du Garbage, developed under the guidance of William Rathje, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, has been involved in the collection and analysis of behavior by reference to physical remains since 1973 (see Rathje, et. al. 1978; Rathje and Harrison, 1978; McGuire, Hughes, and Rathje, 1982). Typically, collections of garbage are unobtrusively sampled from the regular pickups left by residences. Each item in the collection is coded as to weight or volume, brand name, cost, material composition and waste rate. To protect individual anonymity, samples are identified only by the census tract in which they were collected. Thus, each observation represents the refuse of one household within a census tract. This data allows the researcher to track consumption based on product dispossession.

Although garbage analysis overcomes many of the limitations of survey analysis, it introduces its own limitations. Analysis is limited to items consumed at home and is most accurate with respect to items which result in discarded packaging materials. This avoids the distortions introduced by compost piles, garbage disposals, feeding of scraps to pets, and other items which leave no residue. Garbage analysis also places limitations on the inferences which can be drawn from purely behavioral data. Without survey data, any inferences concerning the underlying motives and cognitive processes can only be speculative. Thus the data used here is indicative of the behavior patterns of the two groups, but does not address questions concerning how or why these patterns occurred. Supplemental survey research is needed before these questions can be conclusively answered. However, the purpose here is to describe behavioral patterns and, as such, the data is appropriate for the task.


Two samples of garbage were used for each of seven years (1975-1981). These years were selected because they are the years for which comparably coded date is currently available. The data were drawn from the Tucson, Arizona data base resulting from the ongoing; activities of Le Project du Garbage. The Mexican-American sample consisted of observations from two predominately Mexican-American census tracts; the Anglo sample consisted of observations from two census tracts containing few Mexican-Americans. The number of observations for each group in each of the years is shown in Table 1.

These four census tracts all had 1970 income levels between one and three times the minimum waste. Thus, the two samples are matched on income level. This removes the possibility that any observed differences are the result of differences in income. Income levels close to the minimum wage are appropriate since this level is characteristic of the primary group of interest, namely Mexican-Americans (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1980). Of course this means that the sample is not characteristic of Anglos in general, nor is it representative of all Mexican-Americans. However, given the census tract organization of the data, it is the most accurate way of deriving a characteristic sample of Mexican-Americans.

Volume estimates were used as the dependent variable in the analysis. For each item, the volume of the item as indicated by packaging and labeling information was coded. For example, a six-pack of beer would be recorded as a volume of 2130 milliliters. Volume estimates were not used, however, in one food category, namely eggs. For this category frequency counts were recorded. Thus the presence of egg shells in one day's refuse collection would result in a frequency count of 1. For each of the two groups, mean levels of household consumption were computed for each year.

All data was weighted to reflect culturally-based differences between the two groups in household size and composition. In other words, the refuse of one Mexican-American household is likely to be different from one Anglo household merely because the former represents, on average, a larger number of people. Nationwide Mexican-Americans have an average of 4.06 members per household compared with 3.3 for the U.S. population as a whole (Pachon and Moore, 1981).

To remove the effects of this difference, a weighting procedure was used (see Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983 for a fuller explanation of this procedure). Each of the four census tracks was profiled in terms of number of persons in each age category excluding those living in single person adult rental households. Then an index number was assigned to each person in each tract to reflect his/her calorie intake (as suggested by the Food and Nutrition Board, National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council, 1974) relative to that of a typical adult. The consumption means for each tract were then weighted to reflect the average number of adult equivalent residents per household. For the alcoholic beverage category, a similar procedure was used to compute the number of adults over the legal drinking age per sampled household. The analysis procedure used was two-way ANOVA, comparing mean levels of consumption for the two sample groups by years.




Overall Economic Effect

The first finding to surface was the presence of an overall economic effect. In almost all product categories, mean consumption for each group dipped in the years 1978 or 1979. Given the downturn in the economy during this time, it appeared that the low points indicated one strategy used by consumers in responding to difficult economic times. In other words, it appears from the data that consumers cut back their consumption of food items, in addition to shifting from higher price products to lower price products. This reduction in purchases was most apparent in observing a dip in consumption of beans, which are typically regarded by Mexican-Americans as an inexpensive protein alternative to meat, as well as a dip in the amount of slop or plate scrapings and scrap present in the garbage during these years.

However, since the purpose of this research is to compare the trends in consumption by Mexican-Americans and Anglos rather than to examine their responses to economic fluctuations, it was necessary to remove from the data series the overall economic effect. The rationale for doing so is that since the two groups are matched on income, economic fluctuations would affect them equally. Thus by removing this effect, the relationship between the two groups should remain unchanged. The only change is to make the data from different years more comparable and reflective of the overall trends.

The economic indicator used for smoothing the data series is the Index of Consumer Sentiment computed by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan (Katona, 1976). The ICS is a measure of people's expectations concerning the economy. It is used to predict fluctuations in the economy and in spending four to six months before they occur. The rationale is that people's economic expectations are an important determinant of their economic behavior. Thus the ICS was used as a covariate to smooth the consumption means and was lagged six months. This then removes the overall effect of the economy on the consumption data available and makes the long-run trends more apparent. Results are shown in Table 2.



Protein Sources

The expectations are confirmed with regard to consumption of protein sources. Mexican-Americans consume more beef and eggs than Anglos. Anglos, however, consume more chicken, fish, cheese, and beans. There is a statistically significant main effect for ethnic group for fish, cheese, and eggs. There is a statistically significant main effect of year for beef, fish, cheese, beans, and eggs. Overall, Mexican-Americans appear to be increasing their consumption of beef more rapidly than are Anglos. While Anglo consumption of chicken is increasing, Mexican-American consumption of this product is declining. Overall, Mexican-Americans appear to be increasing their consumption of beef more rapidly than are Anglos. While Anglo consumption of chicken is increasing, Mexican-American consumption of this product is declining. Overall, Mexican-American consumption of beans appears fairly stable, while Anglo consumption is increasing. Thus it appears that Mexican-American protein consumption is quite different from Anglo consumption. Bow-ever, it appears that in several of the product categories the trends are similar, but Mexican-American consumption lags Anglo consumption in its movement along that trend.


The expectations are even more solidly confirmed with regard to consumption of breads. Mexican-Americans consume more white bread than Anglos; Anglos consume more dark bread than Mexican-Americans. There is a significant main effect of both ethnic group and year for each of the two product categories. The trend appears to be one of increasing white bread consumption by Mexican-Americans, while Anglo consumption is relatively flat. Although Mexican-American consumption of dark breads reflects an upward trend, it lags behind the upward trend of the Anglos.

The tortilla category offers some interesting findings. There is a significant main effect of both ethnic group and year, as well as a significant interaction term. It is clear that the Mexican cultural pattern of tortilla consumption has persisted among Mexican-Americans, although the consumption is currently of packaged branded tortillas. Interestingly, Anglo consumption of tortillas is increasing although it lags behind Mexican-American consumption.

Nonalcoholic Beverages

Anglo consumption of canned or bottled fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, and diet soda exceeds that of Mexican-Americans. However Mexican-American consumption of regular soda exceeds that of Anglos. There is a significant main effect of ethnicity for fruit juice concentrate, diet soda and regular soda. There is a significant main effect of year for regular soda. Trends appear to indicate, again, that the two groups exhibit the same trend line but Mexican-Americans lag Anglos in their progression along the trend

Alcoholic Beverages

All three products in the alcoholic beverages category exhibit a significant main effect of ethnicity. Anglos consume quite a bit more spirits and wine than Mexican-Americans. In the most recent few years, Anglo consumption of beer has also exceeded Mexican-American consumption. However, this has occurred because of different directional trends. It appears that over time, Anglo consumption of beer is increasing while Mexican-American consumption of beer is declining.


Across the product categories included in the study, there is relatively clear evidence that Mexican-Americans are facing a complex situation as they assimilate into the American culture. For many of the products studied, there is in fact a moving target, in as much as Anglo consumption patterns have changed over the time period covered by the data. Assimilating ethnic groups might presumably have difficulty accurately assessing the current norms in a new culture. In fact, in a previous study of the assimilation process (Wallendorf and Reilly, 1983), it appeared that the Mexican-Americans were likely to over conform to prevalent norms when their consumption patterns were compared to those of income matched Anglos.

The situation is even further complicated as the norms of the new culture change. An assimilating individual would face the problem, not only of determining what consumption norms currently are, but also of discovering how and in which direction these norms are changing. Given this, one might logically expect the dominant pattern in the data to be one in which the Mexican-Americans would lag Anglo consumption changes, often coming from the direction of previous Anglo patterns. Thus, when Anglo consumption is decreasing, the Mexican-American pattern should show a similar decrease only occurring later. Likewise, Anglo increases in consumption should be gradually followed by Mexican-American increases. However, when Anglo patterns are not clearly linear, but rather have a curvilinear trajectory, more complicated possibilities occur. Given the proper lag, the consumption levels of Mexican-Americans and Anglos could appear to be moving in opposite directions when in fact both are on the same path, but separated by time. Obviously, there are dangers in basing managerial judgment solely on patterns uncovered in cross-sectional studies.


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