Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

My Mexican-American identity crisis

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
November 30, 2012 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
The Zócalo plaza in Mexico City.
The Zócalo plaza in Mexico City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Long, troubled history divides Mexicans, Mexican-Americans
  • He says many were forced to leave Mexico because of the lack of opportunities there
  • Mexicans tend to fault those who left; they remind Mexicans of hard times, he says
  • Navarrette says Mexican-Americans are caught between two worlds

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- On a recent trip to Mexico City, I had barely made my way down the concourse and arrived at the immigration processing area when I got stumped.

Signs pointed the way to two lines: one for "Mexicanos" ("Mexicans"), another for "Extranjeros" ("Foreigners.")

I stood there for a few seconds, unsure of where to go. Growing up in Central California, I had been called a "Mexican" my entire life. It's ethnic shorthand in the same way that my friends in Boston refer to themselves as "Irish" or my friends in New York describe themselves as "Italian." Later, I settled on "Mexican-American."

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

But, this was Mexico. And, in the homeland of my grandfather, there was no need for shorthand or hyphens. I was simply an American. I speak Spanish, good enough to handle either end of an interview in that language. But I don't have the vocabulary of a native, and I can't shake my American accent.

So I took my U.S. passport and got in the line for Extranjeros.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I thought about that moment this week when Mexican president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto visited the White House to meet with President Obama. On the agenda, as usual, when the leaders of these two countries meet: immigration, drugs and trade.

News: Mexico's new leader measured against old party

Pena Nieto was also eager to talk about the growth of the Mexican economy, which is one reason that Mexicans are now just as likely to stay in Mexico as venture to the United States. He wants to partner with the United States and Canada, and create a European Union-style trading bloc in North America. And Pena Nieto vowed to continue Mexico's war against the drug cartels, even though he offered no specifics.

For Mexico, the relationship with the United States is complicated and filled with hard feelings. Most Americans probably never give a thought to the fact that, in 1848, the United States invaded Mexico and forced its leaders to sign over half their territory at the point of rifle. But for Mexicans, who think in terms of centuries, not minutes, the reminders are everywhere.

So the minute that a U.S. official says anything the least bit critical of Mexico, you start hearing -- in the Mexican press, and among the elites -- complaints about how the Americans are encroaching upon their neighbor's sovereignty. And the children of Montezuma go on the warpath.

What Mexico, U.S. can do for each other
Mexico's president-elect on issues ahead
Mexico may change name to 'Mexico'

And yet, for Mexico, the really challenging relationship is with the more than 35 million Mexican-Americans living in the United States. You want to talk about hard feelings? There is plenty. Mexico has winners and losers, people for whom the country provides opportunities and others for whom it doesn't. The only reason you have so many people of Mexican ancestry living in cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver or San Antonio is because, at some point in our family tree, there was a person, maybe a parent or grandparent, who was shut out from opportunity in Mexico and had to go north. And more often than not, that person fit a profile -- dark skin, little education, from a poor village, etc.

We're their offspring, and we're loyal to them. Not Mexico. And even though we may now be living the American Dream, having gone to good schools and taken good jobs, we can never lose sight of the fact that it's the American Dream we're living, and not the Mexican one. Our identity might sometimes be fuzzy, but our loyalty is clear. It's to the United States.

Besides, we're aware that many of the elite Mexicans in the ruling class don't like us. The feeling is mutual. They see us as a reminder of a humiliating defeat and look down on us as inferior stock that isn't sufficiently Mexican. Our Spanish will never be good enough, our ties to Mexico never strong enough. Our existence is, as they see it, all about failure.

If our families hadn't failed in Mexico, they wouldn't have left. And we wouldn't now find ourselves trapped behind the silk curtain, living well in the United States but lost souls nonetheless.

My wife, who was born in Guadalajara and came to the United States legally as a child, reminds me that there is friction between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans because Mexicans have a firmer grasp of who they are and Mexican-Americans resent that. While she's a U.S. citizen, she sees herself as a part of two countries.

Meanwhile, many Mexican-Americans I know don't feel like they're a part of either. We love listening to the Mexican band, Los Tigres del Norte, but also to Bruce Springsteen. You get the best of both worlds, but you're rooted in neither. In Mexico, we're seen as Americans. And in the United States, we're considered Mexican.

Now, to complicate the relationship even further, as I learned during my trip, some Mexican leaders and parts of the intelligentsia want to reconnect with the Diaspora. They want to put Mexican-Americans to work as makeshift "ambassadors" for Mexico, representing its interest in the United States. We would tell our fellow Americans what a great country this is to visit and pressure political leaders to strengthen ties with Mexico.

Yeah. That's not going to happen. Too many hard feelings. And, with income inequality and rampant corruption and drug violence, many of us are not so sure that it is a great country. I'm afraid you're on your own, amigos.

That's fair. If at least some Mexicans aren't yet ready to forgive the United States for how it treated Mexico a century and a half ago, then they have to accept the fact that some Mexican-Americans still hold a grudge for how their family members were treated much more recently than that.

Hmmm. Maybe we're more "Mexican" than I thought.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT