On being Mexican and American

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 - 4:41pm

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Designed by Sherry Chen

Every year in early August, our mother would haul my siblings and me into our car in the stifling heat. The four of us would wait for hours in long lines at the international bridge, waiting to cross the border from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua into El Paso.

We lived on the Mexican side of our sprawling binational metropolitan area and crossed often for groceries and shopping, so this was a standard routine for us. When our turn finally came, we would roll down the windows and sit up straight, knowing better than to speak out of turn.

“American,” my brother, sister and I would say to the border agent, as our Mexican mother put her green passport next to our blue ones.

We would spend all day hopping from store to store, buying No. 2 pencils, tennis shoes, new backpacks and pencil cases. Our last stop was always the Walmart in the Cielo Vista Mall. There, our mom would go through her usual weekly grocery list, sometimes even agreeing to buy us the candy bars we picked at the register.

I always knew my blue passport granted me something special, something everyone else wanted, but not all were allowed to possess. My parents encouraged me to be proud, to be grateful, to take advantage of the opportunities I got. And I was.

I felt special. My blue passport allowed me to move north when the situation in Juarez deteriorated, and granted me access to public education. It erased the border for me and allowed me to aspire to be more.

But now, I am not so sure. The word "American" doesn’t feel so safe anymore. It doesn’t feel mine.

My family and I aren't strangers to racially charged comments and discrimination. Since our move to southwest Michigan in 2011, we have been told to go back to where we came from, asked if we ride donkeys to school, given mustard when we asked for coffee in a drive thru when a worker claimed not to understand my father's accent, even been laughed at for the way we say “kitchen” or “jaguar.”

From the beginning, we understood that our differences were not completely welcome in the place we were to call home, and we strove to be included, to respect our neighbors and to learn how to do things their way.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started feeling unsure when calling myself an American.

I can recall the specific moment on television, when their candidate Donald Trump claimed Mexico was sending “their worst.” Claiming Mexicans were criminals, rapists and “bringing drugs” was incorrect, but extremely successful.

He got what he wanted.

Hearing those words come out of Trump's mouth as if they were facts validated stereotypes about my people. There was no distinction. In Trump's words, all Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, even me and my family, were Mexico's worst.

This particular Latinx stereotype was alive and thriving in 2015, and it has since grown into full-blown acts of hate and violence. What happened at the Cielo Vista Walmart of my childhood at the beginning of August can only be labeled as such, an act of hate by a person who believes the Latinx community is a threat to European Americans. 

The word “American” slips further and further from our reach every time someone commits a crime denouncing the Latinx community, casting us as others in a country that would not exist  without our presence and dedication.

Latinx people, Mexicans in particular, populated areas in the Southwest of our country before European Americans even thought of them as viable places to live. Those lands in New Mexico, California, Colorado, Arizona and, yes, Texas were cultivated and developed by us before they became part of the United States.

The decision between calling myself Mexican or American is not one I should have to make.

I am both. I have full rights to enjoy all of what this country has to offer. I am not stealing anything away from “Americans” because I am one. 

At this moment, people like me, Mexicans and Latinx, are being labeled as invaders, and that contradicts everything my parents told me about the special qualities of my blue passport.

A version of this column appeared in the Detroit Free Press. You can find it here.