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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT