I am Mexican. Proudly. I am American. Happily. But I am not Mexican-American. Let me explain why.
My Mexican identity doesn’t come from having been born to Mexican parents. It doesn’t come from a place of belonging to some pre-determined cultural/ethnic/racial category. It comes from belonging to a huge family and feeling at home among the noise and the chatter; It comes from that warm and satisfying and totally-not-guilty feeling I get when I eat my mom’s freshly larded refried pinto beans and homemade flour tortillas. It comes from my father’s stories of immigrating to California and living here among other lonesome and weary men while his wife and his baby girls waited anxiously for his weekly phone call in their quiet hometown in Jalisco, México. My identity as a Mexican comes from having to wake up every Saturday morning at ungodly hours to help my dad out on his latest home improvement project, or to mow the lawn, or to lay tile at a family friend’s house. It comes from annual visits to the aforementioned Mexican town and feeling right because everybody said ‘hi’ to me on the street, even if I’d never seen them before. I ate tacos from a truck across the street from my grandma’s house every night, and both of my grandmothers made me feel like the most spoiled child on the planet. I’m Mexican because instead of playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey I destroyed piñatas at birthday parties with a vengeance. I’m Mexican because my name is Arturo, not Arturo. My Mexican identity comes from eating turkey tamales on Thanksgiving. I feel Mexican because things like NAFTA and drug violence anger me to the core.
Much in the same way, my American identity doesn’t stem from having been born on U.S. soil. It doesn’t come from a piece of paper that says that, yes; this dude is the right nationality, so leave him alone. It does come from watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers every day at 3 PM and reenacting what I’d seen at 4 PM with my neighborhood friends. I was always Billy (the Blue Ranger) because I identified with his nerd-cool. It comes from the fact that I was saddened and angered, but mostly saddened, by the events of 9/11, even though I’d never heard of the Twin Towers before 8 AM on September 11, 2001. My American identity comes from being the 10-year-old that waited anxiously for that sporadic day when my mom would tell me that we could eat McDonald’s for dinner that night. It comes from jumping with joy the night that Barack Obama became my president and the day that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was finally repealed. My identity as an American comes from my yearly visits to the aforementioned Mexican town and feeling weird because all the kids my age knew I was from el norte (the north) and gave me penetrating and interrogating gazes before running off in the opposite direction, and because my family’s inside joke is calling me out on being a gringo. I am American because I question the validity of celebrating Thanksgiving. I am American because my father believes in “The Dream” and I want to give it to him. And yes, even though they’re not even U.S. citizens, my parents are American, too, because they’ve shared this life with me.
These two identities are whole and they are living. They live side by side inside of me. I don’t know if they’re in my soul, or my blood, or my heart, or my brain, but they’re there all the time. Sometimes they interact peacefully, sometimes violently. But the important thing is that they are whole. They’re not like two halves of a being that come together and mash up into a hyphen. Because when you hyphenate my identity, you’re invalidating one or another of my identities (usually the Mexican) as just a qualifier for what is the only valid identity. At the same time, you’re also saying that I’m not a “real” American (I don’t even know what that looks like) because I require a qualifier. You see what I (you) did there? At once, you’re saying that “American” is the only valid identity, but you’re also telling me that I don’t count as American because I have a hyphen. The hyphen has effectively erased my identity, and my existence.
Let me be clear. This is my experience as a hyphenated-American. This is why I’m not Mexican-American. If you identify with some sort of hyphenated-ethnic-identity, that’s because we have different experiences and that’s totally valid. But I won’t hyphenate you and I’ll ask that you please don’t hyphenate me. Deal?