The U.S. Crisis of National Identity

Where are you from? It seems like such a simple question. In most countries it has a simple answer. When I lived in Europe, Beausoleil, France to be precise, my answer to “where are you from?”, was simply, “je suis mexicaine,” or “I am Mexican.” Not a grammatically precise answer, but there was never any ambiguity to my answer. In Latin America, “yo soy mexicano” also left no ambiguity. I also believed “I’m from México” left no ambiguity in the United States until I started to notice strange responses or reactions from my friends.

The first time I noted a strange response was from an El Paso woman I was dating at the time. We’d been together for some time, and one day, as we were returning from a day trip to Cd. Juárez, I took out my passport to cross back into El Paso. For me, it was a normal thing I did thousands of times before. But to my girlfriend at the time, my passport was nothing less than shocking to her. We had the questions-and-answer of “where you are from” before and I had responded with my normal answer, “I’m from México” which was clear to me, but apparently unclear to my friend.

After crossing the border, my friend told me that she didn’t know I was a Mexican. To which I responded that we had the conversation before. It turns out that my answer, “I’m from México” was interpreted by her as saying that I’m of Mexican descent or ethnicity. Apparently, it never occurred to her that I was a Mexican citizen. Over time, I started to realize that in the U.S. I had to be specific to say, “I am a citizen (or a national) of México” to make sure I was understood.

But why is this necessary?

It took me a while to understand it. Once I understood it, I soon came to believe that it comes down to the simple fact that in the United States there remains an unresolved national identity crisis. Most people tend to ascribe the problem to the multiculturalism of the country.

But the U.S. is not the only multicultural country in the world. Many of us Mexicans, as in citizens, consider ourselves mestizos, a mixture of our native American roots with that of the Spanish invaders that created México. There are many Mexican Irish, Blacks, Jewish and even Mormons in México and each celebrates their heritage openly. But, I have never witnessed any ambiguity on what it meant to say, “I am Mexican.” For all us that clearly meant we are Mexican nationals.

In the United States, more often than not, the answer, “I am Mexican” means that I am of Mexican heritage, or Mexican-American. To ensure that my answer is understood, I must add “citizen” to clarify that I am a citizen of México.

The United States has always been a land of immigrants. Many seem to fear that. But more than immigrants, the expansion of the United States westward absorbed many other cultures as it grew. The largest culture was Mexican. The Mexicans were absorbed into the union and were never immigrants, but were treated as such. Interestingly, Spanish was spoken by more people in present day United States then English. Just like there is a fear of the Spanish language, there is also a lingering fear of multiculturalism, mainly within the ruling and minority culture that fears their cultural erosion as other cultures assert themselves upon the political scene.

This ongoing national identity internal conflict can be seen in the ongoing national debates about flag burning, standing for the national anthem during NFL games and the many other national arguments about what it means to be a patriotic American.

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