The New Face Of America

Actor Dennis Quaid performs with his band, The Sharks, Feb. 24, 2007, at Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg, Canada, where Quaid has been shooting a movie. The actor, who wrote songs for several of his movies, has been involved in music for many years.
AP Photo/CP, Joe Bryksa

Look into the face of four-month-old Isabella Mermeryan and you can see the future, reports Correspondent Jerry Bowen for CBS News Sunday Morning. Little Isabella is a tiny mirror of a changing America. Her mother, Karen, is Japanese and Peruvian. Her father, Hamic, is Greek and Armenian.

Says Karen, "I was thinking, 'Will she get my eyes? They're kind of Japanese eyes.'"

Adds Hambic, "And my family, they were saying, 'We want to see that baby. When you guys gonna have that baby, so we can see what its going to be.' You know?"

Stroll across the playground at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Los Angeles, and you may actually hear the change. Principal Mary Jane Collier says it's the sound of diversity:

"We have over 10 languages," she says. "And they come from very diverse cultures. We have Japanese and Thai. Vietnamese. Korean. French. Cantonese. We really are a melting pot. We really are a microcosm of what the rest of the United States is."

At the Los Angeles County fairgrounds, 7,000 more new Americans pledge allegiance to their new homeland every two weeks. America is a country where, in a little more than 50 years, minorities will become the new majority.

In California, most populous state in the nation, it's already the new reality. Los Angeles, say demographic experts, is the window on this emerging blended society:

"There has been no greater demographic shift in the history of mankind than what has happened here in Los Angeles in the last 40 years. We basically went from a society that was about 80 percent white to one that is about 30 percent white," says Fernando Guerro, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University:

"Los Angeles is the second largest Mexican city" he continues. "It's also the second largest Korean city. The second largest Filipino city. And you can go on and on."

Guerro says what is happening in Los Angeles is the story of California: a state populated by immigrants. Whites who came largely from the Midwest are being overtaken in sheer numbers by Latinos and Asians. But it's the speed of the change that's surprising.

Part of this L.A. story is how the differences between ethnic and racial groups are being blurred. It's happening because of the rising number of mixed marriages and mixed births. In Los Angeles County, one of every nine newborns is the product of an inter-racial couple. In fact, these babies make up the third-largest group of newborns after Hispanics and whites.

Baby Isabella is an exotic combination of Greek, Armenian, Peruvian, and Japanese. Her parents, Hambic and Karen, understood that their marriage (and Isabella's birth) might be making history.

"You know, Armenians get married with Armenian people," explains Hambic. "Usually, they like to get Armenians married with Armenians. But I loved her the way she was."

Raina Ram's father is Indin and her mother is Japanese: "I like to be called mixed. I know everyone has their own kind of term. I don't like bi-racial. I like mixed."

Drew Staten's father is black and his mother is white: "I like bi-racial or maybe multi-racial better. I don't know. Just when I was growing up and people would say mixed, it sounded like it was an accident, like some big thing, like, 'Oh my God! You got mixed!'"

Along with a score of similar ethnically and racially blended students at the University of Southern California, they organized a club that speaks to their issues.

Says Raina, "My mom's from Hawaii, and everyone there is mixed, so that wasn't a problem, getting accepted there. But my dad's family is still into arranged marriages, and it was a big shock that he married outside of his culture."

Becky Peterson, who is half Filipino and half African American, says, "Whatever friends I'm hanging out with, whether they are Filipino or black, they want me to be whatever they are, for some reason. So it's kind of hard for me, like identity crisis or something. Like, what am I?"

And Drew adds, "I couldn't hang out with a lot of white because 'He's not white.' But then a lot of the black students, they call me traitor to the race."

Los Angeles civil rights attorney and activist Connie Rice cautions that not everyone is pleased with the idea of a multi-cultural society. Poor blacks, especially, she says, see it as a threat:

"Where the rubber meets the road, the dilemma, the real dilemma at the heart and core of America's race problems is black, white," explains Rice. "And when you say some African-Americans that's code for, 'Let's get away from the hard stuff and do the easy stuff. Let's leave that behind, leave them behind.'"

Back at Loyola Marymount University, Fernando Guerro, in his role of political science professor, says African Americans aren't alone in their concern. Many whites are uneasy with the new multi-cultural society. White flight is also part of this L.A. story.

Says Guerro, "The major challenge that America has is whites defining themselves as not part of the multi-cultural mix. They're excluding themselves from this blending, and they need to stop and say, 'No. This blending is a part of America, and I'm American, and this is what's going to happen. And, in fact, I need to engage it, not run away from it."

How is that affecting the way that we define race?

"It is a constant issue," Guerro replies. "What does it mean to be Mexican or Latino? What does it mean to be white? What are you? What is Los Angeles? But our answer is that you can't define us, and we're not going to be stationary enough to be defined. And Los Angeles is constant change, constant ethnic movement, constant neighborhood movement."

For Hambic and Karen Mermeryan, their blended Greek-Armenian, Japanese-Peruvian family had yet nother reason for celebration this Thanksgiving, and not just Isabella's birth.

Karen's sister, Patricia, and her British husband, Andy, just had their first child: a baby boy named Andrew Jr. And there was no end to the debate over who the babies most resemble -- though the answer is obvious: Isabella and Andrew look just like Americans.