Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E116%257E957371,00.html

When defining becomes confining

By Tina Griego
Denver Post Columnist
Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Ruben Gomez is 49 years old, a Lakewood resident and the son of a Mexican immigrant who moved to this country illegally. Gomez hears often that illegal immigrants deserve our help. Each time he has the same reaction.

"You couldn't print the words I have to say," he says. "I get so steamed."

"Well, wait," I say, "wasn't your father an illegal immigrant?"

"Yes," Gomez says, "but he became a citizen, he went through the proper steps."

"So," I ask, "when you see a Mexican, do you ever think, 'That man is just like my father was'? Do you feel any kinship?"

"No," Gomez says. "None. Too much emphasis is given to these people, and you know what? Hispanics who have been here and who speak English, good people who have tried to do something for themselves, we have no clout, we get nothing. That isn't fair at all."

That all Hispanics are not alike should be obvious. Unseen in the heated debate over illegal immigration is the rising tension between Hispanics who were born here and Spanish-speaking immigrants who may be illegal. Some Mexicans see U.S.-born Hispanics as too diluted, drained of a beautiful language and culture. Some Hispanics see Mexicans as
something inferior, something from which to be distanced. "All those illegals running amok and taking our jobs, well, I'm not one of them," some Hispanics seem to be saying, a version of "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us."

When Teresa Sanchez, a Hispanic, married a Chihuahua man, her brothers called her a "wetback lover." When Rene Cisneros worked to bring a clinic to southwest Denver, Hispanics complained that Mexican patients would ruin the neighborhood.

It's internalized racism, argues local author Ernesto Vigil, victims of racism seeking mainstream acceptance by discriminating against their own. This pattern is not restricted to Hispanics. Other minorities say this happens with them too. And, no doubt, class conflict comes into play, but when Gomez speaks, I hear the rumble of resentment at being
constantly confined, defined by ethnic identity.

I don't agree with his views. I do know the feeling. "What are you?" I was asked by Mexican immigrants who settled southeast Los Angeles County in the late '80s. "What are you?" I was asked by Anglos bewildered by Spanish-speakers transforming their towns.

Define yourself. Declare yourself.

"I tell my students that Mexican-American, Hispanic, is a social category to which members belong but are not tightly affiliated," says my former sociology professor, Felipe Gonzales. Cultural differences between Mexicans and Hispanics do exist. During the civil rights movement, those differences often didn't matter, he says, because "what was in mind
was a common heritage, a history of racism, a sense of struggle in the U.S." That's definitely not true in post-Sept. 11 America, he says.

"Right now, being a citizen is so valued that it leads people to lose all sense of history," he adds. "You can have a first-generation Mexican-American whose parents came from Mexico, and that doesn't matter. 'I am a citizen and you are not and I don't care what your last name is. I don't care what your language is. I don't care what language my parents spoke.' "

Gomez says his parents never discussed their Mexican heritage and rarely spoke Spanish. Sometimes he thinks about going to his father's birthplace. Maybe, he says, he's missing something. Meanwhile, he'll go to the polls like he always does, and when he comes to the measure eliminating bilingual education, he will vote, without hesitation, yes.

Tina Griego writes Monday and Wednesday. Phone: 303-820-1698.


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