For the children of immigrant parents, the knowledge comes easier. America exists everywhere in the city--on billboards, frankly in the smell of french fries and popcorn. It exists in the pace: freeways, the assertions of neon, the mysterious bong-bong-bong through the atria of department stores. America exists as the voice of the crowd, a menacing sound--the high nasal accent of American English.
When I was a boy in Sacramento in the '50s, people would ask me: "Where you from?" I was born in this country, but I knew that the question meant to decipher my darkness, my looks.
My mother once instructed me to say: "I am an American of Mexican descent." By the time I was 9 or 10, I wanted to say, but dared not reply: "I am an American."
Immigrants come to America and, against hostility or mere loneliness, they re-create a homeland in the parlor, tacking up post cards or calendars of some impossible blue--lake or sea or sky. Children of immigrant parents are supposed to perch on a hyphen between two countries. Relatives assume the achievement as much as anyone. Relatives are, in any case, surprised when the child begins losing old ways. One day at the family picnic, the boy wanders away from their spiced food and faceless stories to watch other boys play baseball in the distance.
There is sorrow in the American memory--guilty sorrow for having left something behind: Portugal, China, Norway. The American story is the story of immigrant children and of their children--children no longer able to speak to grandparents. The memory of exile becomes inarticulate as it passes from generation to generation, along with wedding rings and pocket watches, like some mute stone in a wad of old lace. Europe. Asia. Eden.
But, it needs to be said, if this is a country in which one stops being Vietnamese or Italian, this is a country where one begins to be an American. America exists as a culture and a grin, a faith and a shrug. It is clasped in a handshake, called by a first name.
As much as the country is joined in a common culture, however, Americans are reluctant to celebrate the process of assimilation. We pledge allegiance to diversity. America was born Protestant and bred Puritan, and the notion of community we share is derived from a 17th-Century faith. Presidents and the pages of ninth-grade civics textbooks yet proclaim the orthodoxy: We are gathered together--but as individuals, with separate pasts, distinct destinies. Our society is as paradoxical as a Puritan congregation: We stand together, alone.
Americans have traditionally defined themselves by what they refused to include. As often, however, Americans have struggled, turned in good conscience at last to assert the great Protestant virtue of tolerance. Despite outbreaks of nativist frenzy, America has remained an immigrant country, open and true to itself.
Against pious emblems of rural America--soda fountain, Elks hall, Protestant church and now shopping mall--stands the coldhearted city, crowded with races and ambitions, curious laughter, much that is odd. Nevertheless, it is the city that has most truly represented America. In the city, however, the millions of singular lives have had no richer notion of wholeness to describe them than the idea of pluralism.
"Where you from?" the American asks the immigrant child.
"Mexico," the boy learns to say.
Mexico, the country of my blood ancestors, offers formal contrast to the American achievement. If the United States was formed by Protestant individualism, Mexico was shaped by a medieval Catholic dream of one world. The Spanish journeyed to Mexico to plunder, and they may have gone, in God's name, with an arrogance peculiar to those who intend to convert. But through the conversion, the Indian converted the Spaniard. A new race was born, the mestizo, wedding European to Indian. Jose Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher, has celebrated this New World creation, proclaiming it the "cosmic race."
Centuries later, a Mexican-American lawyer who grew up in San Diego tells me, in English, over salad nicoise, that he does not intend to assimilate into gringo society. His claim is echoed by a chorus of others (Italian-, Greek-, Asian-Americans) in this era of ethnic pride. The melting pot has been retired, clanking, into the museum of quaint disgrace, alongside Aunt Jemima and the Katzenjammer Kids. But resistance to assimilation is characteristically American. It only makes clear how inevitable the process of assimilation actually is.
For generations, this has been the pattern. Immigrant parents have sent their children to school (simply, they thought) to acquire the "skills" to survive in the city. The child returned home with a voice that his parents barely recognized or understood, couldn't trust and didn't like.