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Immigrants Are Americans After All

By Ruben Navarrette

Hispanic Heritage Month only started a few days ago and already it has produced an epiphany.

It came from an unexpected source: a concert by Mexican superstar Luis Miguel on Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16. Four thousand fans flocked to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for an event that sold out months ago.

My wife and I went for entertainment but I wound up with a dose of enlightenment. I needed it. Some readers scold me for being too hard on Mexican immigrants. For the record, I think immigrants from Mexico -- or any country -- should come legally, assimilate thoroughly, participate fully, live responsibly and contribute mightily to our economy and our society.

The good news is that, despite what the nativists believe, most immigrants to the United States are doing all that. The genius of America is that it draws the most daring, determined and hopeful people from all over the world. The problem is that we haven't created enough avenues for people to come into this country legally, and so too many still feel as if they have no choice but to come illegally.

The lawlessness concerns Americans. But for many, the real concern has to do with loyalty. They worry that Mexican immigrants -- whether legal or illegal -- remain emotionally beholden to Mexico. Even as these immigrants learn English, they maintain their Spanish. They eat Mexican food, throw Mexican fiestas and wave Mexican flags at concerts and sporting events. In fact, like other immigrant groups before them, they work hard at preserving their culture and traditions. Some even idolize the homeland.

Preserving one's language and culture is great. But frankly, as someone who was born in this country and whose parents were born in this country, I've never understood why Mexican immigrants would long for Mexico. It's obvious that Mexico has little regard for them, or they wouldn't be here. In fact, I've said that Mexican immigrants should sever ties to their home country, joining me in the ranks of the hyphenated by becoming Mexican-Americans. As it stands, too many of them are simply Mexicans in America.

That's not good enough. Which brings me to the concert, and the epiphany.

Having performed for more than 20 years, Luis Miguel has made millions of dollars and built a vast and incredibly loyal base of fans in both Mexico and the United States. Once, he even recorded a duet with Frank Sinatra.

But in 2004, Luis Miguel released a CD that further endeared him to his fans -- especially those who happen to be Mexicans living in the United States. Titled "Mexico En La Piel" (loosely translated as "Mexico on your skin"), the CD is a mixture of mariachi tunes and silky ballads. The title track is a song about the wonder and beauty one finds in the various states of Mexico, implying that this is how an entire country can stick to you.

I've seen Luis Miguel perform this song in concert twice -- in Las Vegas and in Los Angeles -- and the reaction was the same: a mild form of pandemonium. Members of the crowd cheer, especially when their home state is mentioned. Some people sing along, while others unfurl Mexican flags.

Yikes. I thought to myself, "What would Lou Dobbs say?" And would anyone in the audience really care?

Watching this, I realized that America isn't like the witness protection program. Immigrants come here for economic necessity -- not a new identity. It's an old story. Those from Ireland or Germany or Italy were in no hurry to renounce the homeland. Nor should they have had to for the sake of placating those who were too insecure to grasp the possibility that people could make room in their hearts for more than one country.

In a different sense, I've lived a version of this myself. I left my hometown in California's Central Valley in July 1997 in search of greater opportunities elsewhere. But, the place has never left me -- anymore than the son of the millworker who left Ohio or the daughter of the miner who left West Virginia can completely forget the lives they left behind.

Surely it's the same with Mexican immigrants, which, in my book, makes them Americans after all.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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