Am American State of Mind

Am American State of Mind

By Ruben Navarrette - July 3, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- This Fourth of July, to go with the fireworks and hot dogs, I have lots of questions.

What does it mean to be an American? Is it a matter of geography? Is the only way into the club to be born on U.S. soil -- or immigrate legally and then become a legal resident or naturalized U.S. citizen? Or is there something more to the concept?

I'm not the only one who wants answers. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently admitted to being an illegal immigrant, has started an organization -- "Define American" -- to sort out what it means to be an American.

You can imagine what the group hopes the answer will be. It won't be wrapped up in legality or nationality as much as in a state of mind. One becomes an American, they'll say, by thinking and acting as an American.

I would go a step further. For those of us who are proud to be Americans, what are we proud of exactly? And if we accept that people are usually "proud" of things they accomplish, then do those of us who had our Americanism served up on silver platters even have the right to be proud in the first place?

It's fine to be proud of our country, or even proud of fellow Americans such as those who serve in the armed forces. That makes sense. But if we define pride in terms of the effort it takes to achieve something -- graduating from college, becoming a doctor, starting a business, growing a family, winning elective office, etc. -- then it makes less sense to boast about being an American if we did little to earn the title.

What about U.S. citizenship? I've always thought it strange that people are so protective of the concept -- and so eager to deny it to others, such as, in a recent example, the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants -- when, in most cases, they themselves did nothing to earn it.

I sure didn't. To paraphrase billionaire Warren Buffett, I won the lottery of the womb. I got my U.S. citizenship the old-fashioned way and how most Americans get theirs -- my mother gave birth on U.S. soil. In my case, the event took place in a hospital in Fresno, Calif.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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