"I'm not a hyphenated anything!" fumed my father-in-law. "I'm not a Mexican-American, I'm an American." The ardor with which he spoke these words made me wonder what was bringing on the sudden outburst. It surprised me, since my in-laws have for years taken a keen interest in their heritage which has revealed Mexican, Spanish and Apache ancestry. Maybe it had something to do with the t-shirt I noticed my father-in-law wearing a few days ago. It had the words "Freedom Is Not Free" written in small letters over his chest.
My father-in-law is a decorated Korean War veteran. He's an interesting man, smart, opinionated and with a dark side that he's managed to compartmentalize over time. Some of the most memorable conversations I've had with him concerned the nature of evil and questions of identity.
"Everyone's from somewhere," my mother-in-law chimes in.
"That's right, you don't hear of English-Americans or Greek-Americans," my suegro continues.
"I've heard of them," I'm tempted to say but decide that just this once I'll listen instead of talk.
Deep down, I already know what they're saying. Why do we qualify the word American with information about our heritage? Why don't I say I'm Vegetarian-American, or I'm Feminist-American? Those are bits of information about me that say something about who I am too. Hmmm, maybe he's got a point there.
What purpose does it serve to hyphenate our nationality? I don't know. I mean, doesn't it make it easier for people to make assumptions about us, perhaps even stereotype us? I recall an episode from my high school days when I was asked to paint a mural at school. I was excited at first and dreamed up a surreal image from my fevered imagination but I came crashing back to earth when I was told what I could paint - an Aztec pyramid with a eagle perched on a cactus in the foreground, something that would "be meaningful for the Mexican-American students." I couldn't figure it out. If anyone was Mexican-American, I certainly fit the bill but I didn't limit myself to the iconography of past generations.
I've been calling myself a Chicana for a many years now and before that I was Mexican-American, briefly Hispanic and for just a split second, Latina. When I lived in Los Angeles, if someone asked, I would say I was a Chicana and I felt pretty confident that the person knew what that meant, but maybe I was assuming too much.
Let me define my terms. I think of Chicanas/Chicanos as US born individuals who, although born and raised in the United States, retain an awareness of our Mexican heritage and find strength and hopefully wisdom in the balancing of our dual cultures, creating a powerful hybrid identity. People who define themselves as Chicana or Chicano oppose assimilating the values of the dominant culture and make a conscious decision to retain our duality and allow it to guide our personal and political decisions. Well, that's what it means to me anyway - I wouldn't mind if people assumed all those things about me when I say I'm a Chicana.
Here in Phoenix, it's different. First of all nobody ever asks, they're too darn polite, but there's also the fact that in Phoenix I have...let me see...one...two...make that zero Chicano friends. I don't know very much about my friends' cultural backgrounds, but with names like Wass, Forsythe, Budzak, Peters and Mar I have a feeling they're not Chicanas. I don't even know if they know that I'm Chicana or what one is (unless they're reading this right now) but it just doesn't seem to matter. To them I am the crafter, the (hyphenated) dog-walker, the mom. They relate to the part of me that gels with the part of them which we have in common.
So when does nationality matter? I suppose it matters most when you're fighting a war or defending whatever you see as patriotic values (Freedom Isn't Free). I think my father-in-law probably fights that war every single day of his life.