The thing about American identity is that it’s not easy to define.
The temptation for the average person is to simplify matters. For many, the only “real Americans” are white people descended from European settlers.
But any cursory look at American history reveals that there are many kinds of Americans.
According to our laws, no one is better or superior than anyone else. But we often don’t respect the law.
In spite of that, equality is important to me. I am not an immigrant, and growing up I never knew anybody who was. Growing up in south Texas I felt comfortable In my identity. My family were long-time residents of the Valley, as we called the southernmost protrusion of Texas, with Brownsville at its tip on the east and Laredo to the northwest.
Across the Rio Grande is the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, with the ancient towns of Matamoros, Reynosa, Mier, and Camargo, named after their counterparts in Spain.
These towns were founded in the 1740s by the Spanish Mexican settlers, people descended from Spaniards and the Native Americans with whom they intermarried. Unlike in the English colonies, intermarriage with the Indians was usually the case in the Spanish colonies, including Texas, New Mexico, and California.
This mixture of blood and culture has effects even now.
Most Mexican Americans feel a faint but perpetual sense of insecurity. The immigration flap fills us with fear. Will we be rounded up by ICE and sent back to Mexico?
It’s happened to many a U.S. citizen. Many a brown-skinned Chicano (Mexican American) has endured these perils. A big peril is to be perceived as an illegal, solely on the basis of looks. We cannot deny that this exists.
But more out of pride than fear, I offer this history of south Texas origins as credentials, to convince the skeptics that I am as American as any other citizen.
What makes me an American? First, to cement my bona fides, I volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War.
Volunteering for the combat arms is a time-honored custom among Spanish-Mexican people of the United States. We love this country, and we want to show it.
Second, the truth is that unlike immigrants, I didn’t come to America. My people didn’t come to America. America came to us. We didn’t cross any border. The border crossed us.
After the 1846-48 war with Mexico, my homeland, along with New Mexico and California, was annexed and became part of the United States. All the people living there became American citizens and their descendants inherited this birthright.
Like many other Chicanos I have my stories of racism in the 1950s and ’60s. But Chicanos still wrestle with racism. Growing up, when I left the Valley I wrestled with identity, exacerbated by the ignorance of my peers who couldn’t accept me as an American.
I remember my Anglo American classmates asking me if my career U.S. Army father was in the Mexican Army. Kids wanting to know if my grandfather was a bandit with Pancho Villa, or where in Mexico I was born.
When the usual adolescent contretemps surfaced, kids would shout at me, “Go back to Mexico! Go back to where you came from. To which I would reply, “All right, I’ll go back to south Texas.”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D, has taught U.S. Southwest Literature and Culture, American Ethnic Studies and American Literature. Barrera is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.