Ruben Navarrette: The boundaries of identity

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 - 5:00 pm

SAN DIEGO – Who’s afraid of a little ’ol hyphen?

Apparently, some of my readers. What sets off many of them is when I refer to myself as a “Mexican-American.” What sets me off is when they have the audacity to confront me over it.

The latest skirmish started with a column urging Americans not to emulate Mexico’s strict immigration policies lest we wind up a Third World country with a second-rate economy. At one point, I casually identified myself as “Mexican-American.”

One reader wrote: “You are no more of a Mexican American than I am American Indian, Irish and German American. I am an American. Please join me in becoming an American?”

Another said: “What part of you is Mexican? Do you own any allegiance to Mexico? Just wondering why you refer to yourself as a Mexican-American. American has no color or nationality in front of it.”

Another wrote: “Congratulations are in order. You can now refer to yourself as an American of Mexican heritage as I refer to myself, a third generation American, as an American of Irish heritage vs. an Irish-American. For me being American comes first.”

Another offered this: “You said you are a Mexican-American who was born here and your parents are too. To me, that just makes you an American. We all have fathers and mothers who came from somewhere else … I wish people of Mexican descent could just be called Americans. Is that prejudicial? I don’t think so. I think it makes us all brothers and sisters.”

Finally there was this gem: “You are trapped, sir, between being a Mexican and an American. Your loyalties are split. My heritage is German, French and possibly Welsh. I do not refer to myself as a German American, German/French American, or any other kind of hyphenated American. I am an American … Those that identify themselves as hyphenated Americans deliberately or perhaps unwittingly separate and even alienate themselves from our culture. It is self defeating and perpetuates racial tension and separation. If I recall, you are second or third generation American. I cannot conceive of why you continue to call yourself a Mexican American. Isn’t it time to become an American?”

I’ve been haggling over the hyphen for more than 20 years. Those who oppose using it like to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, who railed against the concept of a hyphenated American as someone who was “not an American at all.”

Since Roosevelt’s Dutch ancestors crossed the Atlantic, and most of mine never crossed a border as much as a border crossed them, I’ll take what he has to say with a grain of salt.

What many in the anti-hyphen crowd forget is that, when Roosevelt said those words in the early 1900s, the dominant immigrant groups in the United States were German, Irish and Italian. These are the folks T.R. feared would not assimilate? How silly. All of these groups would go on, in a pair of world wars and a half dozen other major foreign conflicts in the 20th century, to send their children to fight and sometimes die for this country. At home, they worked hard, paid taxes, built roads, toiled in factories and contributed to society in a thousand ways. They never deserved to have their loyalty questioned – by Roosevelt or anyone else.

Today, while nativists won’t admit it, Latinos are following this tradition. They give and give to this country – then give some more.

My critics need to step back. It’s none of their business how anyone else refers to themselves. We don’t need their permission.

Even for a public figure in a public forum, how one identifies oneself is a private matter. My choice of words doesn’t hurt anyone. Besides – with the possible exception of reporters in Ferguson, Mo., – Americans still have the right to free expression. This is how I express myself.

Those at the other end of the spectrum, the folks on the Latino left, have other issues. They want to attack me over how I pronounce my name, whether I speak Spanish, and how authentic they judge me to be. Again, none of their business.

One side demands that I respect the country and flag. The other side demands that I respect my culture and heritage. Yet neither side respects boundaries.


Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Read more articles by Ruben Navarrette



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