Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

My Mexican-American identity crisis

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 3:19 PM EST, Fri November 30, 2012
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
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 6:12 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
updated 1:05 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
updated 12:55 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
updated 3:32 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
updated 8:41 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT