Of all the many immigrant communities that have come to the U.S., Mexicans may have the most unusual experience.
“Most immigrant experiences in the U.S. have a very simple beginning, middle and end,” said Gregory Rodriguez, founder and executive director of Zócalo. “For Mexican Americans, it’s not that easy. The process isn’t that linear.”
Instead, Mexican Americans struggle with “a confusing and sometimes painful collision of competing identities” – between new and old cultures, English and Spanish language, generational divides, all compounded by new waves of immigrants.
Rodriguez moderated a Zócalo panel at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, exploring how Mexican Americans see Mexico. Writers Dagoberto Gilb, Michael Jaime-Becerra and Daniel Hernandez – all California natives – spoke frankly about their sometimes conflicted attitudes toward the land of their parents and the land in which they were raised.
Native and foreign
Rodriguez outlined the vacillating history of Mexican Americans. The earliest Mexican Americans were not immigrants – “they became American by virtue of conquest and annexation,” he explained. In 1890, the majority of people of Mexican origin in the U.S. were recent immigrants. By 1940, the majority were native born, and by 1970, the great majority of adult Mexican Americans were third generation. The pattern shifted in 1990, by which point the majority of adults of Mexican origin in the U.S. were foreign born. Today, he said, another shift seems in the works: the fastest growing portion of the Mexican origin population in the U.S. is second and third generation.
Gilb, Hernandez, and Jaime-Becerra are all part of the second or third generations, and all mentioned having an initial sense of alienation from Mexico. Gilb grew up in Los Angeles – his mother was an immigrant, “illegal, as they would say,” and his father was “a white guy who spoke Spanish.” His family worked at an industrial laundry downtown, the staff of which was 70% Mexican, he estimated, but he had little contact with Mexico – beyond Mexicali and Tijuana – until he was much older. “Mexico was a fiction,” he said. “Just a fiction.”
Jaime-Becerra grew up and still lives in El Monte, a city east of Los Angeles that he pronounced, as most do, with an American accent. His legal name was “Michael” but his father called him hijo and his mother called him Miguel. “My parents grew up in a Los Angeles that was not very friendly to Mexican people,” he said, explaining their choice to legally name him Michael. Growing up, he said he spoke less Spanish than the Vietnamese woman who staffed a local convenience store, and he began to learn the language only while watching dubbed episodes of Happy Days and talking to his grandmother.
Hernandez described feeling disconnected from Mexico because of Mexican attitudes toward him as he grew up in San Diego and attended college at UC Berkeley. “You were defined as Mexican by mainstream culture in the U.S., but Mexicans didn’t see you that way, and recent immigrants and people in Mexico would call you a pocho,” he explained. Hernandez, who now lives in Mexico City, where the natives easily identify him as an outsider and where many recent deportees from the U.S. face discrimination, called himself a “proud pocho.”
Jaime-Becerra also recalled the “precise moment” when he realized he wasn’t accepted by Mexicans. He was a sophomore in high school and arrived on campus wearing “tight black jeans, a leather jacket, pointy black shoes,” and his sister in a plaid skirt, “monkey boots,” and a Depeche Mode T-shirt. He recalled, “A kid walks by and looks at us, completely disgusted, and goes, ‘Pinche nu-wavers.’”
Despite the disconnect, all three panelists experienced, too, a shifting attitude toward Mexico over the years. Gilb explained the evolution in generational terms. While his mother’s generation complained at times about the church, or the poor mail system, or poverty, his generation “romanticized the Aztec,” he explained. “Mexico had deities and natural things that were cool. We had a romantic vision of what Mexico was.” Today, Gilb noted, he’s happy being “I like the Mexico that I can afford. I am definitely an Americano, and I like being the Americano and being in Mexico.”
Jaime-Becerra grew close to his family through trips to the small town near Chihuahua, from which his father’s family hailed. And in the U.S., he watched as Spanish became the dominant language in El Monte. But he also appreciated that the immigrant experience isn’t so easy outside of particular urban areas. The immigrants who move to areas with small Mexican American populations, he said, “are incredibly brave.”
Hernandez noted that Mexico and the U.S. are coming closer together culturally and economically. Just as business travels across the border, Mexicans are embracing Mexican American culture, he said, through rockabilly, hip hop, and other trends. The second generation in the U.S., meanwhile, is growing up on films like La Bamba and Born in East L.A. “Those films were huge in allowing us to define ourselves,” he said. Hernandez noted that he showed up to the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifying games in “a blue T-shirt and green socks. I could play it both ways,” he joked.
Still, the panelists acknowledged the real complexities of the Mexican American identity. Gilb discussed in Q&A the trouble the term Hispanic (“When you say that word, you will become a Republican) and Latino (since over two-thirds of those described as such are Mexican American). “The history of the U.S. is Mexican American,” he said. And Hernandez, though he applied for a Mexican passport, did so less for reasons of identity and more for practicality. He did it, he said, “at the climax of the nightmare of the Bush era. And I thought, I need another passport, just in case.”
Watch the video here.
See more photos here.
*Photos by Miguel Izquierdo.