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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Nuestro Himno and An Immigrant's Song

I received a very poignant email from a friend of mine this morning regarding the recent immigration debate and cultural identity. Jose Reyes is an award-winning graphic designer and one of those people who truly live what they believe. Here is what Jose said:

I am an Hispanic-American who has been struggling with cultural identity as both an American and Hispanic my entire life. I have finally come to grips with this by making some decisions in my life. The following are a few personal thoughts on my own journey which might lend some insight into what other Hispanic-Americans are facing as well as a critique of the new song, Nuestro Himno.

Last year, before my wife and I had children, I made it my mission that I was going to teach our kids Spanish, which is no easy thing for me since I am not fluent. (my definition of fluent being the ability to speak in all tenses, dream and think in that language and actually use colloquialisms correctly. None of this, "my kid knows Spanish because he can count to 10 crap." That isn't 'knowing' Spanish. Anyway, I have always been self-conscious of speaking in front of anyone, so it was a major move for me to make this decision. As I have become more fluent with lots of practice and failure, something interesting has been happening. The more I learn and speak, the more whole I feel as an Hispanic. I've always believed that if only I could hang with my peeps and speak, then I'd finally feel whole, a 'real' Puerto Rican, and it's blowing my mind how true that seems to be turning out. With immigration becoming a hotter topic, and as I have journeyed into greater fluency, I have found myself identifying more and more with Latinos. And in some ways, taking issue with how people refer to, gulp, 'us'.

This revelation is kind of freaking me out because for so long I grew up caught between worlds and identities. Am I American? Yes! Am I Puerto Rican? Yes! But what does that mean exactly for who I have come to identify with? I can hang with white folk (no offense) and almost all of my dearest friends are white, but believe it or not, I have never felt at 'home' with white America. If I simply walk by a group of Latinos chatting in Spanish, my heart leaps and I literally find myself longing for home, be it my parent's house or a Spanish speaking enclave. I think that I have also always felt more at home with foreigners of any stripe than Americans. Mostly because 'our' customs are more familiar to me and we can somehow relate by being from another land so-to-speak. Yet, what is so ironic about all of this is that the majority of my friends are Caucasian.

What I'm ultimately getting at here, is that what I'm experiencing, even on a small level, is the desire to self-segregate and associate with Hispanics because they 'know me' and I them. To be with 'my' people. I can't explain this. I feel a little lost. Yes, I grew up in the States and am very much Americanized, but no matter how much my friends see me as one of 'them', I am not, and it's important for them to understand this. I get asked for my greencard more often than you might believe, get stares in stores, get watched more closely and followed, even in department stores. I grew up in a Spanish home where culturally, it was 100% Spanish all the time. My parents spoke Spanish, I ate Spanish food, my friends were Spanish, my entire family (cousins, Uncles etc) are Spanish, we partied with Spanish, I did everything Spanish—until I left the house.

I don't ever want to take the position of the wounded minority because that is just weak, but it is offensive to be told that I am just as American as everyone else. An American may speak fluent Spanish have visited a few Spanish speaking countries, but cannot claim to be any more Puerto Rican than Eminem can claim that he is Black—no matter the street cred they may have. There is just a wall that is there that prevents people from crossing between worlds. The movie Crash was very illustrative of this. For me, the power of Crash was not how it conveyed the divide between whites and blacks, but the divides within ethnic minorities, and in the case in Crash, the affluent black husband and wife. Where you have the, 'real', grew-up-in-the=hood black, suffering like their ancestors did and then the 'kind of black, who grew up in the suburbs doing white things.' That kind of sophisticated nuanced racism is something that I have faced my entire life which brings me back to language. Because I am not fluent in Spanish, Latinos put me in a category of not being a 'real' Latino, so I essentially get rejected by the very people I long to be with. It's this real bullshit internal ethnic pride crap which is often so wounding.

Finally, regarding Nuestro Himno. Musically, it is predictable and awful and is an embarrassment to Hispanic music. It is marketing crap that honors no one but the people whose ego's have created this monstrosity. Personally, my tastes in Spanish music have always favored Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean, music. Music that is simple. Music that reflects community, home, love, life and family. So, when I heard this song, I was stunned. Stunned not because the Hispanic community would stoop so low (just watch Telemundo for 10 minutes) but because of their choice of song to rally around. Did you have to make this your anthem? Really? Nuestro Himno will no doubt make a largely empathic American community choose sides. Americans are extremely open to other cultures and gladly pay homage to our own melting pot, but they, we, can only be pushed so far, and honestly, there are some things that are just sacred, and you just don't F--- with something like our National Anthem. Period. By creating their, 'our,' version of the anthem, it's a rejection of America and ultimately, what America is about—mixing and becoming strong because of that mix. It is saying, we need this anthem to bond our people who live here, but who don't truly call themselves Americans. Thank you very much for all that you have done for us, but at the end of the day, we'll hang with each other and get each others' backs, but not yours. It is what Europe has been and is facing—the integration of its member countries by foreigners who don't want to adopt those nations cultures for fear of losing themselves—their identities—in the process. The problem is that you HAVE to mix in order to survive and thrive, and in that, you must sacrifice yourself in some way—this is the beauty and sacrifice of living in America—out of many, there is one.

Postscript: My parents decided to teach their 3 boys English because they wanted to make sure we had all of the opportunity in the world to survive in America and to achieve the American dream. This was very noble of them and in many ways, we have indeed succeeded. What's interesting, now that we are all grown up and have children of our own, is that all three of us Reyes boys have cultural identity issues which manifest themselves in not fully knowing the Spanish language. My brothers' children do not speak Spanish and grew up in truly Americanized homes, yet it's ironic and sad for me to see my oldest niece play the Hispanic card. She is as confused and desperate to have something that is solely hers as I was and still am in some ways. She is both American and Hispanic, but wants and craves to be just one thing. This American melting pot is so wonderful and yet, can be so debilitating that we can often times seem extremely ungrateful for all that America has given us.

For me, I am so incredibly thankful for living here. I don't take it for granted for one minute and all that I have become, in 99% of the rest of the world, would be impossible. I can say this having seen with my own two eyes, what kind of life many of the rest of the world is resigned to. America promises something other countries have come to hate us for—endless hope and possibility and the chance to achieve that. That is no pipe dream! It is what my parents instilled in me and what caused them to make English my home language. They knew they were sacrificing a part of us, but to them coming from a small town in Puerto Rico, it was all worth it so that we could have more than they ever did. My father cut sugarcane as a boy to help support his father's small income as a baker. My mother was raised by her aunts because her mother died at age three. Both my father and mother dreamed of something better and bigger for themselves, and in turn, for their children. I am so proud of them for their sacrifice.

To all of the people that are coming into this great country, assimilate, become American, dream the big dream because you can make it here! But please, make sure your children learn your native language and not just English. It will make them rich beyond belief as they become adults and will contribute to the greatness of this country. They may not embrace it as children, but as adults, they will thank you for the gift that you given them every day of their lives.

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