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.