Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
We’ve forgotten our immigrant roots
Lately, I’ve been mulling over how far removed I feel from the immigration issue. But, this Mother’s Day, I’m also thinking about my mom.
Those thoughts came together in a memory.
One summer, when I was home from college, I got it into my head that I needed to learn to make homemade flour tortillas. I wanted to pay respects to my culture and preserve what is becoming — in the modern age of convenience — a lost art. Also, I thought it would help me get girls.
So, brushing aside 500 years of machismo, I went to my mom for a lesson. Even as the good student who always aced the calculus quiz, I couldn’t get it. I failed again and again.
It didn’t help that Mexican moms — or in my mom’s case, Tejana moms born and raised in the Lone Star State — don’t use exact measurements. It’s all “a handful of this” and “make sure the water is hot but not too hot, but also not too cold.”
Thanks a lot, Mom. What I produced never tasted good or looked right. And it wasn’t enough. The masa — the dough — would shrink, and I’d wind up with less than I expected. I always came up short.
Now I’m coming up short again. This column intends to gather up current news about immigration — of which, these days, there is no scarcity — and put it in context using honesty, common sense and critical thinking.
My editor pushes me to sprinkle in some of my own personal experience. It’s smart advice, and I appreciate it. As one of only a handful of Latino syndicated columnists in the country, what good does it do anyone for me to try to impersonate a white male?
Besides, as someone who has spent three decades writing about people crossing borders to remake themselves — and as a provocateur who has been told to “go back to Mexico” both by white conservatives and by white liberals — it’s impossible for me to approach the immigration issue abstractly.
It’s inside me. It’s just that, sometimes, it feels like it’s buried so deep inside that I can’t reach it.
But why am I telling you this?
You know this story. Part of being Mexican American — or Italian American or Irish American or German American — is feeling that, as generations roll by, you have less to trade in cultural currency. The masa never is enough. It always runs out.
That’s the assimilation process. The American way. Every generation hopefully is better off than the one that came before it, but it’s also more vanilla.
Why do you think Americans are going crazy for those DNA kits that test their ancestry? In a country of mutts, we don’t just want to know where we’re from. We need to know who we are.
And so, when I try to write about the immigrant experience from a personal perspective, I often feel like an imposter.
Yes, I’m Mexican American. I’ve spent my life on the margins, too American to be seen as fully Mexican, yet too Mexican to be accepted as fully American.
Yes, I’m proud of my ethnic heritage. I love the food, music, culture and people in my ancestral homeland south of the border.
And yes, just like former President George W. Bush recently told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, it “pisses me off” when I see Americans who were born on third base — and don’t know how good they have it — insult and attack the immigrants of today, just as previous generations did with earlier waves.
Who the hell do these people think they are?
I know who I am. I grew up in a small farming town where people like me casually were referred to as “Mexican.” But I’m an American first. I was born in the United States, like both my parents and three grandparents. The fourth, the only immigrant, legally came to this country.
Like millions of Mexican Americans who currently are living comfortable and assimilated lives in the Southwest, my connection to immigration — especially illegal immigration — is tenuous at best.
At times, I feel ambivalent. All the time, I feel conflicted. In subsequent columns, I’m going to unpack that and explain why.
For now, know this: I don’t have a single person who entered the counry illegally in my family tree.
So, I’m told, this shouldn’t be my fight. But I’ve made it my fight.
Why? Not because of how I personally feel as a Mexican. But because of how seriously I take what it means to be an American.