by Rodolfo F. Acuña
What are you, a Mexican or an American? This was a question asked frequently when I was a growing – much more than it is today. This is perhaps because at that time we were clearly a minority and racism was more transparent and acceptable. It was a time when people believed that Jews killed Christ and Mexicans massacred Davey Crockett at the Alamo. The result was that this forced me to think in terms of “them and us.”
I was probably eight or so when my school mates first asked me and my cousin whether we would fight for Mexico or the United States. The question tore me up. I could not imagine shooting my father. The teachers did not help always referring to Mexico as a backward country.
A large map of North America donned the classroom wall. Canada, the U.S.’s friend, was on top, and Mexico was on the bottom. There were frequent jokes and put downs such as “If you don’t like it go back to Tijuana.”
The question of what are you first is not surprising, Americans are obsessed with policing loyalty. During the 1920s the American Firsters changed the pledge of allegiance from “I pledge allegiance to my flag” to “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” – they wanted to make sure that someone was not pledging allegiance to some foreign flag.
Early visitors to the U.S. noted American racial xenophobia that forged a national inferiority complex. America through the eyes of European visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville gives us a window into the past. While many admired the opportunities for land in the new nation, they also made biting observations about American attitudes. Nothing in the United States was authentic, for example, not even American English, which was a wannabe version of British English.
De Tocqueville noted the obsession of Americans for material objects: “…I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property.”
Although it was a love-hate relationship, the standard for Americans was Europe. Europe had a history, the United States did not. Europe had traditions, the United States did not. An abundance of western land kept alive myths of opportunity for some, but for the African slave whose labor built not only the south but the nation the inequality was rationalized.
To justify inequality whites formed opinions on the moral and intellectual inferiority of their former slaves. When immigrants entered Pleasantville, equality was based not only on on the hue of their skin but on property that increasingly took the form of capital.
So naturally the Mexicans’ equality was measured by the hue of their skin and the amount of wealth they possessed. In order to justify the inequality of Mexicans they manufactured myths that the United States did not invade Mexico, but re-annexed it. Social and biological explanations were also manufactured such as the Mexican’s moral and intellectual inferiority.
White Americans of my generation questioned, why would anyone want to be anything but American? Everyone wanted to come to America didn’t they? They believed that the U.S. was different from other nation states. It did not make war – the U.S. was forced to defend democracy.
Even in the 1950s when I was in the army a dichotomy existed. Even though you wore an American uniform, you weren’t really an American. At the time, there were the spics (Mexicans and Puerto Ricans), the Italians, the Polacks, the Jews and the Negros in the army. The Americans were white.
The army changed my worldview. I had some opportunities because my area scores were higher than others. But I was often asked how come I was a company clerk and then a supply sergeant. There weren’t too many of us in these positions. The army was the first place where I encountered a vicious form of racism. I remember that outside the base in Augsburg, Germany, the night clubs were segregated, and there were mini-race riots.
After my discharge I returned to school. I worked sixty hours a week and carried 18 units. Los Angeles State was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got my BA and then my MA in history there.
My first teaching job was at the West Coast Talmudical Seminary — taught grades K-12, I was its only goy teacher. Orthodox Jews at the time were shunned by the other Jewish sects.
In 1958 I began teaching at San Fernando Junior High. I was introduced by the principal as her “Mexican teacher.” At the time most of the Mexican American students were born in the USA yet they were referred to as Mexicans — the blacks as Negros and the whites as Americans. The contradiction was that they expected us to be grateful for being American.
Once the other teachers became comfortable with me, they began asking me questions like why a Mexican student got into a fight or why he didn’t do his homework? How the hell should I know? It was like me asking them why Charles Manson did what he did?
When a Mexican parent filed a rare complaint, the teachers in the smoking room asked me, “Are you a Mexican or a teacher first?” Frankly, at first I was taken aback. What was the contradiction? I was not as brazen as I later became and tried to reason with them. I was on probation and did not have tenure. The first time I applied for a teacher position with the LA City Schools I was rejected because, they said, I had gone to parochial schools.
Throughout my three years at the junior high school the question kept coming up, “Are you a Mexican or a teacher first?” It was not only me but also the lone Black teacher who everyone liked because he pandered to them. He advised me to play the game.
When I transferred to a high school things were different. I had tenure, and I had job offers from the private sector. About a year into the job, again in the smoking room, I was asked, “Are you a Mexican or a teacher first?” I responded that my birth certificate says “Mexican” so I guess I am a Mexican first. The question was also asked when I began my opposition to the Vietnam War and the invasion of Santo Domingo – Are you a Mexican or an American first?
I had entered the doctoral program in Latin American Studies at the University of Southern California and was studying about U.S.-Latin American relations. This led to my questioning, why would anyone want to be an American? When I traveled in Mexico and other countries I was ashamed of the “ugly Americans” who demanded service by waving dollars at the Volkswagen Service Manager.
To make a long story short, the question, “Are you a Mexican or an American or a teacher first? has today taken on a new meaning. I am a teacher and that means teaching all students. Being Mexican means advocating for the interests of Mexican, Latino and working class students.
Being a Mexican first makes me a member of an oppressed minority. In so many instances I have witnessed Albert Memmi’s prophesy in The Colonizer and the Colonized come true with the colonized becoming the colonizer. Being an American is nothing exceptional and should not negate other identities such as Mexican, Latino, African, Native American, Asian or human being. It should not delude us into believing that we equally benefit from our corporate state that has no nationality.
Meanwhile, it is somewhat pathetic that people still ask, am I your first love?
Rodolfo Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. Dr. Acuña writes various opinions and essays on his Facebook page and allows sites to share his thoughts.