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Just How Mexican are Mexican-Americans?
email this pageprint this pageemail usGregory Rodriguez - Los Angeles Times
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November 18, 2010

Mexico City - Is there one Mexico or two? That's what Mexican writer and television host Sergio Sarmiento asked me and two other Mexican-American writers Tuesday on his weekly show. It's a fundamental question that is actually about Mexicanness: How Mexican are Mexican-Americans? Are Mexicans and Mexican-Americans siblings? Distant cousins? Strangers?

It's a question befitting the historically awkward relationship between Mexico and the United States, with its long history of conflict and cooperation, affection and distrust. Historically, most Mexicans have answered it this way: You're either with us or you ought to be. They rejected the idea of a more transcendent kind of Mexicanness - a cultural identity separate and distinct from nationality. That left many Mexican-Americans in a true diaspora: not fully American by the standards of many in the U.S. and cut off from their "homeland" culture as well.

Sarmiento's inquiry, however, is just one indicator that the duality, and the restrictions of that either/or definition, is changing.

There is some distance to go, however. Most Mexicans tend to assume that emigrants and their children should remain loyal to the country they left behind, the country that in many cases failed to sustain them economically. A 2009 Zogby poll found that an overwhelming majority of people in Mexico thought the primary loyalty of Mexican-Americans - both Mexico- and U.S.-born - should be to Mexico. Just 20 percent said it should be to the U.S.

It's an utterly false picture. Like all immigrants, Mexicans Americanize over generations. Language alone bears this out. Seventy-one percent of third-generation Mexican-American children speak only English. Many grow up to have no ties to Mexico, but many more find it both exotic and familiar, foreign and comforting. Like most Americans, they recognize their roots - probably more so because Mexico shares a border with the U.S. - even if they're also as American as apple pie.

Mexico's misunderstandings about its emigrants have historically led it to reach out to its diaspora for its own narrow national interests. When the U.S. engaged in mass repatriations of immigrants in the 1930s, for example, Mexico offered assistance to the U.S. authorities. Officials in Mexico City saw the returned laborers, who had gained skills in the U.S., as a potential benefit to their own economy, and never mind that many of them had built new lives and weren't returning voluntarily.

Decades later, emigration would become a glaring symbol of Mexico's inability to take care of its people. The flip side of that is that Mexicans often saw emigrant families as renegades who cashed in their souls for material goods.

One early sign of a shift in attitude came from official Mexico at the beginning of the new century. In his inaugural address in December 2000, former Mexican President Vicente Fox referred to emigrants not as traitors but as "our beloved migrants, our heroic migrants."

Sure, some of the change in attitude has to do with Mexico's desire to keep remittances flowing from north to south. But Fox's welcoming words keep echoing.

"We used to see Mexican-Americans as imitation Mexicans," Ricardo Salinas Pliego told me this week. Salinas is president and chief executive of the conglomerate Grupo Salinas. "Now we see them as brave, and worthy of respect. We're grappling with this huge population north of the border and wondering what it means for Mexicanness."

It's impressive to hear that from Mexico's high and mighty. So how did we three Americans answer Sarmiento's question? Is there one or two Mexicos? A more fluid identity than either/or is in sight. We settled on one and a half.

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