It’s Fourth of July once again, and from coast to coast, tens of millions of Americans will celebrate the nation’s 237th birthday. Younger kids will hold sparklers while the older ones fire off Roman candles and the other, more illegal kinds of fireworks that their uncles bought in the next state over. Barbecue grills will sizzle and bands will play “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Pools and beaches will be packed to the brim. Refrigerators and coolers will be loaded with Coronas and light beer. We’ll all stuff our faces with an ungodly amount of hot dogs, burgers and carne asada.
Except for the arrachera, my Fourth of July celebration will be that of a typical American, because that’s what I am. Sure, I have a Spanish last name and skin like a cacao bean, but I still share more in common with John Smith from down the street than anybody in either Tegucigalpa or San Juan, the places my family hails from.
Yet, despite our obvious American-ness, Latinos rarely self-identify as American. Not primarily, anyway, or unless they’re third generation or higher.
I’ve always self-identified as an American, however — mostly because English is my forte, but also because I’ve always had a deep appreciation for American history and culture. I studied the lives of the Founding Fathers before I’d even heard of Francisco Morazán or Luis Muñoz Marín. I could quote Poe and Whitman before I’d read Martí. I knew the names Tecumseh, Sitting Bull and Geronimo before I knew who Lempira and the Taínos were.
I am a Latino American. “Latino” describes me, but “American” is what I am. And I realize my declaration may be controversial. A lot of Latinos like to say they’re Latino first (or, more commonly, Mexican or Colombian first) and American second — a feeling which may be very human, but is ultimately un-American. There are undoubtedly plenty of Latinos who wave the Mexican tricolor every 5th of May or display the Honduran “emblema divino” every September 15th and don’t even own las barras y estrellas.
As immigrants and citizens, we’re all here to be part of a nation and — I hope — to improve that nation. So to be loyal to your clique and place that loyalty above your loyalty to the nation is counterproductive. But, alas, in America you’re free to be as counterproductive as you want, to be un-American even.
While Latino solidarity has become chic, many first- and second-generation Latinos still cling to the flags and national anthems of their ancestral homelands. Even in Latino Chicago, life in Mexican Little Village rarely overlaps with life in Puerto Rican Humboldt Park. Latinos are still much too tribal for their own good, or anyone’s good (except those looking to keep America a white and unequal country).
For many Latinos, becoming American will require letting go of the past and embracing the future. America is our future, and we are hers. We celebrate the heroic deeds of Cuauhtémoc or Bolívar, but we no longer sleep in the lands they died defending. Thanks to the dreams of those who ventured here before us, we now eat, play, work, dance and live in a brave new world.
I carry in my atoms a primordial memory of Honduras’ green mountains and sweet brooks, but my heart beats American and my neurons fire off the electricity of this city. I know every block and alleyway in Chicago like my ancestors knew every plant and deer path in the forest. They could make tortillas and huts from scratch, but I know the best places to get a greasy spoon at 2 in the morning and how to make a root beer float.
And unlike my ancestors in Honduras and Puerto Rico, I believe in the “separation of church and state,” that “all men are created equal,” and that our humanity endows each of us with an inseparable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I know that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” and that as long as the idea of America still lives, the hope of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” will never die.
Being a Latino American doesn’t make me white-washed or watered-down. I’m not a former Latin American suffering cultural amnesia. I’m Latino 2.0, Latino to the fifth power. I am Latino plus more. To borrow a poet’s words, “I am the hope and the dream” of the Taíno, living on his beloved Boriken, a tiny island encompassing his entire universe. In fact, I am more than he could’ve even dreamed. I inhabit a huge village 3 million strong, with towers of glass and steel. I am the member of a great tribe known worldwide as “the Americans.” I know more than he could’ve known. I know more than most. And whatever I don’t know is available to me in less time than it takes you to read this sentence.
Look around you and then tell me America has no culture, that this project of ours isn’t worthwhile. Convince me that you’d rather go back there and not forward here, that being a Latino American — being from there and here — doesn’t make you the best of both worlds.
So I say it again — I am a Latino American. “Latino” describes me, but “American” is what I am.
[Photo: Hotash via Flickr]