From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Not Mexican?

My wife, Veronica, and I have an ongoing argument. The subject? How I identify myself.

Before I met her, I never considered myself anything but a Mexican. Not a Mexican-American, or an American of Mexican descent, but simply, in a kind of ethnic shorthand, a Mexican.

I didn’t mean that in the literal sense. I had never lived in Mexico, and I had only rarely visited it. In fact, most of what I knew of the place was limited to unsightly border towns that are no more representative of that country than are inner-city ghettos a fair reflection of my own.

And yet, growing up in a small farm town in Central California, that’s how I saw myself: as a Mexican. Just as important, it is how others saw me and people like me. Adults pointed to the “Mexican” part of town or talked about how someone had once made history by being the high school’s first “Mexican” quarterback or homecoming queen. Years later, when I was admitted to Harvard, my good fortune was scorned by less fortunate Anglo classmates who informed me: “If you hadn’t been Mexican, you wouldn’t have gotten in.”

Okay, so I’m Mexican, just like my friends in Boston—in more ethnic shorthand—consider themselves “Irish” and my friends in New York call themselves “Italian” or my friends back home in Fresno think of themselves as “Armenian.” I’m Mexican, right?

Wrong, says Veronica. To her, I’m an American, plain and simple. Born and raised in the United States, how could I be anything else?

She’s the Mexican. Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, she came to the United States when she was nine years old with her mother and three sisters. Later, she returned to Mexico for two years of high school, and she stayed there for four years of college before returning to the United States. She speaks, reads and writes Spanish with an awesome proficiency that I could never hope to attain.

How can I be Mexican, she asks? If I went to Mexico and said that, people would laugh. They’d ask where exactly in Mexico I was from, and they’d expect me to answer in perfect, accent-free Spanish.

Veronica isn’t the only one urging me to think of myself as an American. On the job, as a newspaper editorial writer and syndicated columnist, I write often about Mexican-Americans. When that happens, I get shelled with e-mails from furious readers. They have no use for hyphenated-Americans, seeing such things as a form of divided loyalty.

Veronica doesn’t mind hyphens. As far as she is concerned, I can refer to myself as a “Mexican-American” to my heart’s content. But if I decide to drop the hyphen and keep just one of those elements, then, by all means, I should drop the Mexican part.

I wasn’t born in Mexico, she points out, and neither were my parents. Sure, my grandfather, Roman, came from Chihuahua, but he’s the only one of my grandparents who came from south of the Rio Grande. The other three were all Tejanos, Texans of Mexican decent.

So I’m no Mexican, she says. That goes double for the other twelve to fifteen million Mexican-Americans living in the United States, even if many of them do live in what she disdainfully calls an “American Mexico”—those culturally rich neighborhoods and towns with taco trucks and rows upon rows of Spanish-language storefronts.

In fact, she admits, when she describes me to folks, she tells them I’m an American. Period.

Whoa there! What my wife doesn’t understand is what it was like for me to grow up as a cultural nomad. I’ve spent my life feeling as if I was too Mexican to be 100 percent American and too American to be 100 percent Mexican. There’s a lot of truth in the old joke about how a Mexican-American is treated as an American everywhere in the world except America, and as a Mexican everywhere except Mexico.

In Veronica’s world, there was no need for identity crises. When she arrived here, there were Mexicans and there were Americans. But Mexican-Americans? She says that before she met me, she had no idea the species even existed.

She isn’t alone. A few years ago, I was part of a delegation of Mexican-Americans that visited Mexico City. At a junior high school, we were surprised to learn that a classroom of eighth-graders didn’t know there was such a thing as Mexicans who were born in the United States. For over 150 years, the Mexican government—still humiliated by the outcome of the U.S.-Mexican war in 1848—has seen no value in having its schools teach such things.

Nor am I alone in my identity crisis. For the most part, U.S.-born Mexicans aren’t sure what they are. I would bet that most see themselves primarily as Americans. And yet many can also point to an uncle, aunt or parent who, as recently as twenty or thirty years ago, was made to feel like a second-class citizen. The culprit is usually the public schools, or government, or some other institution that saw them as “Mexican” and treated them as inferior because of it.

Sure, Mexican-Americans have distinct advantages over our distant relatives to the south. Overall, we have opportunities for more education, more freedom, higher living standards, fewer class barriers. But Mexicans do have one edge over us, their distant relatives to the north: They know exactly who they are.

Recently, Veronica threw me a curve ball. She explained that she did not think of me as a typical American. Her experience with that breed is that they are often arrogant, contemptuous of the rest of the world and prone to dismiss other cultures as inferior to their own.

That’s not me, she said. I enjoy all sorts of people, and I always try to be open-minded to cultural differences. The reason, she suggested, must be that I feel a connection to what my grandparents and parents endured in America in an earlier time. That’s great, she said. It’s also one of the reasons she fell in love with me.

“Mi amor, you have the best of both worlds,” she said with a smile. “You have all the privileges that come from being raised in the United States. You speak your mind, and you know you have the freedom to tell people exactly what you think. And yet, when you do that, you’re always respectful and never look down on anyone.

“Lindo, you’re very special,” she said. “But you’re still not Mexican.”

Ruben Navarrette, Jr.

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