By now, most have you read or heard about Jose Antonio Vargas’ public mea culpa. When I first read it I thought, “Wow, he’s got courage.” But with admiration came concern and questions. What’s going to happen to him next? Are there more like him, whether journalists or non-journalistic important figures, out there?
What does it even mean to be American?
This led me to question my American citizenship. I, like many others who live along the border, were born in the U.S. side. My mom gave birth to me in Brownsville, but because she and my dad are Mexican, they went back to Matamoros, where I lived for the first 18 years of my life (and where I currently reside).
As I’ve told some of you, I would cross the border (legally) every day to go to school (private, because my parents don’t pay taxes). I’d scream out from the back seat of the car, “U.S. citizen!” to the immigration officer/border patrol agent, who needed to check our birth certificates, though sometimes the declaration alone would suffice (to those officials who were old friends of my grandpa, who used to work on the Mexican side of the border bridge, or who were so accustomed to seeing us every day).
On paper I was American. My name, my heritage, my residence all proved otherwise. The area is also heavily Hispanic. Crossing over to the American side was only different in how clean and orderly everything was, and how people actually respected traffic laws. Aside from that, almost everyone spoke Spanish or had a Hispanic-sounding name.
Sometimes I even felt like a traitor to my own country. Going to an American school, flaunting a perfect American accent, and learning about the American Revolution. I never felt more disgusted with myself than when I moved to Pennsylvania. I knew hardly nothing about Mexico. I wasn’t even into Mexican food (I know, blasphemy).
I had neglected my culture because of something that was printed on a piece of paper.
I still remember my first class at Lehigh. It was an introductory sociology course in Packard lab. The professor explained the concept of recognizing one’s culture until one is confronted with another one, usually a culture that is drastically different. He, of course, explained it in sociological terms (which, unfortunately, I’ve forgotten. Cut me some slack). This is basically what happened to me in Pennsylvania.
Now that I was actually away from this U.S.-Mex region that was predominantly Hispanic, I began wondering about my Mexican heritage, so much so that I’ve fallen in love with it.
But what about that label, American? What do I do with that? Sure, it gives me an edge. I don’t have to apply for a worker’s visa to work in the U.S.. I don’t have to undergo Vargas’ lifelong hidden struggle. But, aside from that and my preference for writing in English (which I owe to my American education), I don’t know what makes me an American.