I or Nosotros? Individualism, Community, and The Search For Mexican-American Identity

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The first couple of weeks in APT have centered on two strains of political thought in America, the individualism championed by Emerson, Rand & Sumner, then the Civic Republicanism of Kemmis and the SDS that values community and cooperation. This battle of standing out vs. sticking together has long been a point of contention, whether it’s in our politics, our sports, or our personal lives. When should we come together and when should we stand up as individuals? For much of my life, this debate has been shaped within the context and contradictions of my cultural identity.

Both my mother and father were born in México, with my father moving to Los Angeles from México as a toddler and my mother moving to America in her mid-twenties. I was born in California, and have lived in Phoenix since I was 2 years old, never quite sure whether I identified as Mexican or American. Our readings on individualism and civic republicanism have caused me to revisit this relentless search for my cultural identity. This eternal question of Mexican-American identity has long felt like a battle between embracing America’s fascination with individualism versus the culture and customs of my Mexican heritage.

In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us “To be great is to be misunderstood”, recounting the likes of Jesus Christ and Socrates who went against the grain and went on to distinguish themselves as thought leaders. This sounded a lot like how American history was taught to me in school, where we learned about icons like George Washington and Martin Luther King and the ideas/deeds of these visionaries. The media fixation with celebrities like Paris Hilton or ballers like Michael Jordan ingrained in me the lesson that to “make it” in America was to stand out amongst the crowd. America loved its celebrities, its rappers, its leaders and it’s crowd pleasers.

At the same time that I was learning about American history and it’s obsession with the individual, I was beginning to understand the other half of my world, the “Mexican” side. As a kid I was largely disinterested in trying to understand my Mexican heritage, and its relevance to my future was difficult to grasp. Why was it so important to learn Spanish? Why did we visit Mexico so often? Mexico seemed to symbolize a past my parents had abandoned in order to seek a future in America. At the elementary school I attended, practically everyone else was Mexican too, so I just wanted to stand out by growing my hair like Kurt Cobain and balling (hopefully) like Kobe. It wasn’t until I was older that I would be able to understand the importance and relevance of my Mexican heritage.

Reading “Barn Raising” by Daniel Kemmis summed up some of the more important aspects of Civic Republicanism, such as the importance of a shared location and shared practices in creating a shared culture and shared values. It made me think about what my Mexican-American community valued, and what we had in common. I thought about the experiences that were unique to us, the hopes, the fears, and what brought us together. It allowed me to reflect on how I came to better appreciate being not just American, but also Mexican.

The older I got, I came to understand that not everyone around me knew how delicious tamales were, and not everyone ate pozole during Christmas. Not everyone had been to a Quinceanera, nor had they heard about that boogeyman Joe Arpaio. As I got more into politics I started to see what issues were important to us, and why others who lived different experiences or came from different backgrounds didn’t place as much importance on DACA, deportation or immigration policy. I had never really known any white people as a kid, so it was pretty cool to able to teach others some Spanish or explain why Cinco de Mayo is a holiday (no it’s not our Independence day!). I also began to meet other people who could relate to speaking “Spanglish” at home and the difficulties of not feeling “Mexican or American enough”.

For Mexican-Americans or “Chicanos” the push and pull of this hybrid identity can be difficult to handle and difficult to understand, but it can coexist. If we can find a balance between these 2 identities, than surely we can find a balance between being individuals like Emerson and Rand, and embracing our community like Kemmis and the SDS.

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4 Responses to I or Nosotros? Individualism, Community, and The Search For Mexican-American Identity

  1. Megan Lynde says:

    I read a quote once that said “Life is lived forward but can only be understood backward.” It’s interesting to see your introspection regarding your heritage and how much it actually played a role throughout your life. I think it would be insightful to compare Civic Republicanism and Liberalism in Mexico and America.

  2. widemike says:

    Thank you for your insightful post, Chicanochomsky.

    In your reading you mentioned that you questioned why you had to learn Spanish and why you visited Mexico so often. Although you didn’t directly answer these questions I inferred that the answer, broadly speaking, was that your parents, especially your mother (since she moved from Mexico at a later age), felt they had a sense of community in Mexico. Your example of your parents outlook lend credence to the Civic Republican view that individuals find benefits or comfort in staying in contact with their community that was in Mexico and those individuals that still are in Mexico. When your fathers and mothers family moved to the United States they probably kept in contact with with friends who also moved and made friends with strangers with similar life choices (moving from Mexico to the United States).

    My parents moved to the United States from the Yugoslavia which has now been split into 6 countries after years of war (Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Kosovo). Even though the amount of Yugoslavian refugees entering the US was not large, my parents were still able to get in contact with complete strangers that also fled the country and became good friends. They helped each other find jobs and notified each other of other opportunities. I believe the experiences that refugees and immigrants experience are a strong boon as to why forming and maintaining communities are beneficial: working together helps everyone and that the interest of the whole also benefits the individual.

  3. Manuel says:

    I really liked a lot reading your post. As a Mexican who is currently living in the USA, I can understand the tensions between American individualism and Mexican collective identity that you refer to. I have some family in the USA and I have heard in more than a couple of occasions the conflict that Mexican-Americans can experience while defining their identity. Unfortunately, this only becomes harder when Chicanos have to confront the sociopolitical context in which Mexican-American communities find themselves while living in the USA.

    Hopefully, what you mentioned, the idea of not having to renounce to any of their identities become more powerful and can become a way of thinking for more people in this country.

  4. ennausa says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I agree with you when you say that finding our real identity is never easy. Coming from France, I know quite well this concept of individualism described by Emerson and Rand. Indeed, French persons are generally considered to be people who care only for themselves and their families and care less about the community.
    Being in the United States for a few months now, I notice that Americans are also individualistic, but they also have a collectivist sense due to the many national celebrations and a strong sense of belonging to the country. The United States would not become a mixed nation where individualism and collectivism could cohabit to form an ideal society? Having a lot of people from different countries and bringing in their culture and the sense of community would be inspiring for people residing in the United States. I personally think that striking a balance between these two concepts is possible and that it would be beneficial to the population because each of these concepts has advantages and brings something important for the proper functioning of society.

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