RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The process of integrating into mainstream America is a complicated one if you're an immigrant. People often lose touch with their country of origin. But these days, more second-, third- and fourth-generation immigrants are seeking out their roots. From Latino USA, Maria Hinojosa has more.
MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: Marco Polo Santiago is 36. He's a native of Los Angeles and a native English speaker. He grew up playing hip-hop and heavy metal. But now, he leads a band in Oakland that plays an Afro-Colombian style called cumbia.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in Foreign language)
HINOJOSA: Santiago's journey from hip-hop to cumbia began a couple of years ago when he took a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his parents are from. He came across a woman playing a quijada, the skeleton of a donkey jaw.
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MARCO POLO SANTIAGO: And it was my first time witnessing that. You know what I'm saying? Like, you got, like, a piece of carcass on stage that you are using as a musical instrument, and I was just fascinated by that, you know?
HINOJOSA: Santiago decided he had to get a quijada, and his search for one changed his life. It led him to indigenous and Afro-Mexican parts of Oaxaca where few outsiders ever go. Along the way, he discovered a club where people danced to the kind of music his parents liked, including the cumbia.
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SANTIAGO: We were like, wow, this is really great music. I always knew it, but it kind of just hit me, like, on the side of the head, like, it really, like, opened my eyes and ears to it, right?
HINOJOSA: Santiago is a textbook example of what Jackie Hernandez calls retro-acculturation. Puerto Rican and raised in Manhattan, Hernandez is the chief operating officer of the Telemundo Television Network, which has made it a point to reach retro-acculturated Latinos.
JACKIE HERNANDEZ: It's moments in your life, times and passages you experienced, when you want to really re-embrace your culture, your language and your traditions. We're not bipolar. We're really just able to swim in and out of both worlds and live in both worlds. We live between them.
HINOJOSA: Former journalist Guy Garcia is president of the research group Ethnifacts, and he calls this being ambicultural.
GUY GARCIA: Particularly younger people but Latinos across the board are embracing a kind of dualistic identity, an identity that is contextual, that's much more fluid. That it's not this or that, it's this and that.
HINOJOSA: You don't have to have a donkey jaw in your living room, or even be, for lack of a better term, 100 percent Latino to be a part of this trend. Take Chelsea Smith. She's 27, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mom from East Harlem and an African-American and Jewish dad from St. Louis. Like any teenager, Smith spent high school trying to fit in.
CHELSEA SMITH: And then once you got to college it was very much like, no, proclaim your difference. Own it, and, you know, do the research to understand, you know, why you have different feelings. And so I kind of spent the next four years researching those feelings.
HINOJOSA: Smith dated a Latino guy, took Spanish lessons and learned how to dance salsa. But the strongest pull to her roots was spiritual. She started studying Santeria, a religion that combines West African and Catholic traditions, which her mother and grandmother practiced at home.
SMITH: And that's was sort of what drove me, I guess, to be a Latin American studies major was questioning why this was a motivating factor of, you know, how my grandmother was going to organize her life of faith, and why my mom bought into it, and, you know, whether there was really a role for me.
HINOJOSA: There was. Not only did Smith write her undergraduate thesis on Santeria, she also took her retro-acculturation to an even deeper level, getting initiated into the religion herself. Guy Garcia says stories like these reflect a pattern that's been true throughout the country's history - as diverse groups join the mainstream, they change it. For NPR News, I'm Maria Hinojosa.