Monday, January 25, 2010

Freedom Isn't Free

"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.

8 comments:

Matt "Max" Van said...

I know where I come from. Let me start with that. I know the reason why nobody says "Dutch American" or the like is because northern Europeans are "normalized"-we're the supposed majority group.
At the same time,I think it'd be better if I had to wear my biography on my sleeve. See, it'd be easier if I could just preface every new introduction with- I've got a dutch name, but my family fled russian persecution to get that dutch name, and hide their background, and their religion. But that wasn't enough, and my Dad still ended up in a camp. So, that's why I'm in America, now. The family kept running, after those camps, hoping we could assimilate somewhere else. But, then, they raised me in South El Monte, where my chances of assimilating were nil, but I still tried, so if I talk about the Chicano movement in my neighborhood, I'm talking about a sense of identity I was most definitely not able to be a part of. So, If I say I'm "Dutch American" I'm jutting my jaw, and saying Hey, I'm from somewhere, I mean something different from just another generic WASP.
Then, there's my wife. She's Finnish American. She'll introduce herself as that. Her mother speaks with a strong accent, and her father was in the navy. So, my wife is a citizen of both this country and of Finland. But, her mother looks more Estonian than Finnish, and her father was Spanish enough that my wife qualifies as "Hispanic" on census forms, which would erase that slavic minority Finnish background. If Americans knew Finland, she'd probably say that she's Karelian-American, but they probably still wouldn't understand.
My point? It's small, only that these labels are practically meaningless in describing us. What does "American" mean to a Karelian? What does "Dutch" mean to a russian jew? What does "Hispanic" mean when it applies to someone who is more something else than they are from a spanish background? What should "Mexican American" mean, unless it's referring to a bad musical number by Cheech Marin? Going back to the beginning, I know the position I'm in. I know that I've got certain options, and certain conditions available to me. That part makes a certain kind of horrible sense- people who look like me control an awful amount of wealth and power. But, does all that negate the rest?
(In other words, I'm with your father-in-law- no need for any kind of label because it only confuses things, but if you have to have a label- go with the broadest one possible)

melississippi said...

hi mrs. name dropper :) so i am very much a "white" american, my last name was mooney before I was married but we didn't get much into my german/irish/scottish/french heritage when i was growing up. what's funny is that when i got married i got a polish last name-budzak, but instead of learning anything about polish heritage i have learned more and more about chicano culture because i got a mother in law who is a first generation "mexican-american"

Chris Wasserman said...

I completely relate and agree with Max's comment. As the experience of miss-assumption of one's heritage becomes more common, I can only hope that it is the commonality of interests that brings people together over the perceived differences in heritage that segments our population.

As a person of Jewish heritage with a Christian first name, a German last name, and the fair skin of my Austrian grandmother, I've been privy to a lot of antisemitism because it was assumed that I was "one of them" and not one of "those people". I like to call my heritage "Eastern Bloc Mutt", as my grandparents fled persecution from Austria and Russia (parts that are now known as Latvia and the Ukraine).

In college, I had an "African-American" minority studies teacher that liked to refer to Caucasians as "European-Americans". Just to be sassy, I spoke out and said that my family was from Russia, which is technically part of Asia, so I really should be referred to as an "Asian-American". He tried to ignore me as much as possible.

GV said...

I recall being impressed with Jose Vasconcelos' essay "La Raza Cosmica" (1925) when I was in school. Although it seems woefully Pollyannaish now given the current state of humanity, I loved it in that anything-is-possible first year of college.

Here is an excerpt from the Wiki entry:

"La Raza Cosmica expresses the ideology of a future "fifth race" in the Americas; an agglomeration of all the races in the world with no respect to color or number to erect a new civilization: Universópolis. the "universal era of humanity". La Raza Cosmica embodies the notion that traditional, exclusive concepts of race and nationality can be transcended in the name of humanity's common destiny.

Teresa Sullivan said...

I lived in Phoenix from 1972 - 1978, from first through 6th grade. I had older brothers and sisters who were in high school (Alhambra) then. My family is white. My sisters hung with their Chicano and Black classmates, one of my sisters mentioning that she couldn't relate the (white) cowboy thing. My former brother-in-law came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was about 1-1/2 years old. Does anyone remember that a lot of Spanish-speaking/Brown people were here before the postwar boom period?
I might have a sense of the arbitrariness of race and family as my two brothers were adopted. They kept their real last names, but like my sisters and I they are short, with brown eyes and brown hair. They began living with us when I was less than a year old, so I got used to it naturally. There was still plenty of otherness-type feelings and family chaos that resulted, though.
Sorry if this sounds disjointed. When my parents divorced and I was moved to Portland, Oregon, I asked my mom "How come everyone's so white?"

Teresa said...

Don't wanna beat this to death, but the bottom line (and this is usually less visible/noticeable to white people like me) is that: my dad, as a white guy, has a statistically smaller chance of being questioned by another person(verbally or non-verbally) as to whether he's here legally/legitimately/etc. than Alice's father-in-law, regardless of length of time lived in the US, military service, etc. This is irrational, of course, and can never be justified. One way to combat this is by talking about it, individual to individual and group (rather than just passively listening to some angry radio commentator). Thanks, Alicia, for bringing this up!

fauxtografer said...

I lived in Jacksonville FL for the greater of my elementary years (early 70's) where the majority was "African-Americans," bused in from the city, and "caucasians." I don't remember the use of those terms, what comes to mind is "blacks" and "whites." Nonetheless, at recess I associated with schoolmates by the level of amusement not skin color.
We moved to the suburbs of San francisco in the late 70's where I was to graduate high school. My high school may have had a population of close to 1,000 students ranging from multiple walks of life. At this juncture in life I still don't recall nationality or race being a focal for me, I'm not denying it existed because around the age of 5 I was wooped with a leather belt for calling my sister the"N" word.
I didn't know what it meant, I probably heard it at school, all I know is my parents would not tolerate that word.
I think the first time I really took notice to the categorizing of nationalities was when I moved to LA. I also felt a sense or racial tension that I had never observed before. Perhaps because the city is so huge? Perhaps it was just me? I don't know.
As I grew older I also took notice to the section at the end of a survey, or some sort of form that I needed to fill out, asking me to check the box which best describes your nationality. Well i'm not "native-american" nor am I "asian" or "african-american", "caucasian" what's that? I never really question my heritage before. My mom says german, irish, french, spanish. I've heard my great great great grandfather came from cuba worked for a family and had adopted their name's sake. I used to check "white" and now for as long as I can remember, I check "other." Not because I feel none apply to me, but because who needs to know, why and what difference does it make?

The short of it is, for me, nationality was never an issue on how I perceived myself or others. I don't believe it was taught to me directly, but that it was systematically introduced to me.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say thank you for talking about what it means to be a Chicana to you. I find your website particularly nice because not only is Los Angeles punk in general under-recognized in the history of punk rock, but Chicana/o contributions to punk are seldom IF EVER recognized. It's nice to see one of the pioneer punks talk about such personal issues around ethnicity and race and punk music.