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.
Mexican-Americans, two of their biggest hang-ups revolve around
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
Always has. Always
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
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
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
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