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ETHNIC IDENTITY : Emphasizing the Right Side of the Hyphen

August 20, 1995|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam)

FRESNO — Americans are confused about whether cherishing one's ethnic identity is a good or bad thing for society. For their part, Californians seem afraid of difference and eager to support political initiatives that promise to limit ethnic diversity. Many seem convinced that what ails our country is too many people claiming too much loyalty to too many different cultures within an American one.

Gov. Pete Wilson says he does not much like characterizing Americans by race or ethnicity. Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh similarly worries that we are "focusing on every possible difference" between human beings and frets that it is "tearing us apart." And just last week in Dallas, presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan brought the assembled, and largely white, membership of United We Stand, America organization to their feet when he denounced those among us who refer to themselves as "hyphenated-Americans," quoting Theodore Roosevelt on the evils of the hyphen.

Every diez y seis de septiembre, photos appear in my hometown newspaper of young girls in flowing Mexican gowns and young men proudly swirling strands of red, white and green crepe paper. Soon after, people write angry letters to the newspaper's editor, complaining how about "this is America" and stressing the virtue of cultural assimilation. Last year, one letter writer even complained, rather brazenly, about the Mexican tradition of quincineras, the cultural ceremony marking a young woman's 15th birthday.

On college campuses, conservative academics, unhappy with the rise of multiculturalism, have, for several years, fretted about the "Balkanization" of higher education. Most recently, at Cornell, the expression was tossed around by critics of ethnic-themed dormitories that were termed examples of "self-segregation." Even the California civil right initiative, which helped spark a national debate on affirmative action, has its roots in anxieties about national identity.

Back home, in the San Joaquin Valley, I am routinely challenged, mostly by whites, to defend why I make the effort to identify myself as a Mexican-American. Why do I bother with the hyphen, someone will ask with a nervous smile. Someone else will confess to being somewhat peeved at my self-identification and ask the question that my Mexican-American father would have welcomed during the harsh discrimination of the 1950s: Why can't we all just be Americans?

Yet, in a bizarre double standard, some Americans are allowed more liberty with hyphens than others. Around the time they reach middle-age, many Americans search old scrapbooks for the adventures of their grandparents. Some board airplanes and fly to Ireland or Germany or Italy or Portugal as if to make up for lost time. A radio talk-show host in the San Joaquin Valley, having once ridiculed people for referring to themselves as Mexican-Americans, recently returned from a trip to his father's homeland of Great Britain. Recalling bits of British culture, the born-again Anglophile could hardly resist a few boastful references to "Mother England." A friend, after seeing an inspirational film about Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace, proudly revealed her secret: Her family tree had roots in Scotland.

Seemingly unburdened by the cultural ambivalence of Californians, Easterners do a better job of protecting the integrity of the hyphen. In New York, Italian-American politicians who distance themselves from their ethnicity do so at their political peril. And who would dare march into South Boston and accuse a proud Irishman of divided loyalties? What Harvard academic would so fear "Balkanization" that he might cross the Charles River and force an Irish-American to choose between the opposing poles of the hyphen, the Irish and the American?

The truth is, we simply do not trust some ethnic minorities to be like the Irish, to be fiercely proud of their grandfather's afternoon stories and yet just as fiercely patriotic. It is expected by those who want to have it both ways that Latinos, for instance, will break the bargain and remain too Latino and not American enough. We are infinitely more troubled by Chicano studies at UCLA than we are by Celtic studies at Boston College. Perhaps our proximity to Mexico or the steady flow of immigrants across the border, or startling demographic shifts or a guilty conscience over the discrimination endured by our fathers and mothers have convinced cultural alarmists that Mexican-Americans simply cannot be trusted to keep their loyalties straight. And, so from the back of a crowded auditorium comes the plea: "Why can't we all just be Americans?"

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