February 23, 2006
Language and Identity Issues for Mexican-Americans
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

SAN DIEGO -- If you're one of those Americans who doesn't know much about Mexican-Americans, you had better start cramming. Latinos account for 1 in 7 Americans (expected to reach 1 in 4 by 2050), and about half of the Latino population is of Mexican descent.

To help with your studies, I'll let you in on a little secret.

For many Mexican-Americans, two of their biggest hang-ups revolve around language and identity.

Why language? My parent's generation was punished in public school for speaking Spanish; now my generation has to put up with flak from fellow Latinos for only speaking English.

And identity? In this country, we're accused of not being American enough: south of the border, we're accused of not being Mexican enough. We belong to both countries, yet to neither.

I wonder if any of this occurred to the reader who recently dropped me a note, asking how I respond to those who insist that I can't relate to average Latinos and thus can't speak for them.

And why is that? Apparently, it's because, on the E.L.T. (Ethnic Litmus Test), I flunked the verbal -- the section dealing with language. As a second-generation Mexican-American, I speak English. What I don't speak well -- at least not as well as I'd like -- is Spanish. And, in the minds of some, that disqualifies me from being a legitimate spokesman for Latinos in the United States.

It's just as well. I never wanted that gig in the first place. For one thing, it sounds exhausting. I mean, besides some politicians I know, who has the wind to speak for 40 million people?

Besides, I'm not sure how it would work. For whom would I be speaking? Those Latinos who vote Republican or those who vote Democratic? Those who support the war in Iraq or those who oppose it? Those who want open borders or those who take a hard-line against illegal immigration?

The Latino community is delightfully complicated and multifaceted and certainly not monolithic. So it can't have a spokesman.

As for the criticism about language, I plead guilty. I speak English much better than I do Spanish. But so what? This is the United States, and that's the way it is supposed to be. No matter what you hear from the paranoid crazies -- you know, the folks on the anti-immigrant right who insist that Mexican-Americans are Mexican first -- assimilation works.

Always has. Always will.

Besides, no other ethnic group is held to this standard. When was the last time you saw a second- or third-generation German-American attacked for not speaking German?

It's the same thing when those of us who are professionals are told we can't ``relate to average Latinos'' and their experiences.

Every time I hear that, I think back to a phone call I got after I graduated from Harvard. I had just returned home to Central California when a family friend called to offer his congratulations -- and a suggestion for what I should do next.

``You know what you need to do now,'' he said. ``You need to go pick grapes.'' He wasn't joking.

My first thought was: ``Gee thanks.'' Actually, it was more like: ``No thanks.''

Maybe he assumed that a Harvard man could always use a bit more humility and that fieldwork would do the trick. Or maybe, as a non-Latino, he thought I couldn't appreciate the ``Latino experience'' without experiencing the kind of work done by other Latinos -- in this case, mostly Latino immigrants.

Either way, the comments were out of line. It's not like this was a job for which I was especially well qualified. The closest I had been to grapes was the produce aisle at the supermarket. Out in the fields, I would have been in over my head before the lunch break.

If he was looking for field hands, he should have tapped my grandfathers. They worked like machines and picked every crop imaginable.

And they did it so that their children and grandchildren could aspire to something better.

That's the way it is in this greatest of countries. In America, people work hard so that their children and grandchildren who come after them can have an easier time of it.

I have soft hands, and, frankly, I like it that way. It serves as a reminder of something that's a source of pride: that my family -- like so many others -- got the full effect of the American experience.

© 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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