Saturday, January 26, 2008

Naming your own identity


Mexican Immigrants, circa 1915*

My great great grandfather's family was in what is now U.S. territory before the American Revolution; he also fought in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier. I guess that makes me eligible to be a Daughter of the Confederacy.

Wait a minute, his father was born in Mexico - in a state called Coahuila y Tejas near what is now the town of Laredo. How confusing. Coahuila y Tejas is now part of the United States! Another factor adding to this ambiguous identity - the family was descended from Spaniards, not indigenous people or Mestizos - In Mexico (or New Spain) they were called white people.

The white Confederate soldier born in U.S. territory was named Jesus Paredes. His descendants have all been born in the United States, except one child that was adopted in Spain by military parents. Everybody speaks English; some are bilingual.

This leaves me in a situation where I have to make a decision. What should I call myself? Am I white, a Spaniard, a Mexican, an American descended from Spaniards or Mexicans or native Texans?

My decision depends on whether I want to keep my genealogy a secret. Would I do that to better myself, win an election, or marry a blue blood from New England?

I could. That's the beauty of this great United States. We can make up just about any identity we want. It is a country of re-invention. Thus we can forget that our other grandfather had three wives, or that our great grandfather was indigenous, or that he belonged to the Jewish Mafia.

Only thing is, as some French guy I read in graduate school said, what is buried always has a way of eventually coming to the surface.

P.S. Oh, I forgot to mention that the other side of the family is mestizo- there was a "Teco Indian" that married a nun around about the same time the Romney's first made it to the Mexico.


Romney And McCain, 'Hispanic' Candidates?

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008; C01

When Bill Richardson canceled his presidential bid, wags in the Latino blogosphere did not mourn the lack of other Hispanic contenders. They still had the "Mexican-American" and the "Panamanian" vying for the GOP nomination.

Those hombres would be Mitt Romney and John McCain.

A blog called Adventures of the Coconut Caucus had fun consoling readers thus: "But do not worry, there is still a Mexican-American left in the race, Mitt Romney . . . and of course we still have Panamanian John McCain, who is actually not doing as bad as he was, and could, with a constitutional change, become the first Central American President of the United States."

After the first primary, the Coconutters headlined their dispatch: "Panamanian beats Mexican-American in New Hampshire." (The blog's motto is: "We put the panic in Hispanic.")

Scribes, scholars and provocateurs have sounded similar themes in such online realms as Nuestra Voice, Latinopoliticsblog, Latina Lista, the Latin Americanist, HispanicTips, Think Progress and the Huffington Post.

It's all very funny. But it's not complete fantasy. And it says something about identity and labels.

Mitt Romney's father, George -- the late former governor of Michigan and onetime presidential candidate -- was born in the state of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. Three generations of Romneys lived there, starting with Mitt Romney's great-grandfather, who helped found one of several Mormon colonies in that country in about 1885. Some of those Mormons, including Romney's great-grandfather, who had several wives, were seeking refuge in Mexico from a recent anti-polygamy law in the United States.

But in 1910 the Mexican Revolution broke out, and in 1912 rebel commanders threatened to pillage the Mormon colonies. Five-year-old George and his parents fled back to the United States.

As for McCain, he was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936, where his father, Jack, a Navy man, was stationed.

In a campaign season in which the theme of immigration is about as stable as old dynamite, what is the meaning of these coincidental family histories of border-crossing and Latin American residency? The candidates don't talk about it much. So the bloggers and pundits are filling in the blanks.

"Mitt's papi, George, was born in Chihuahua and therefore more Mexican than your typical Chicano-studies major," writes Gustavo Arellano in his syndicated newspaper column, "¿Ask a Mexican!"

Where would Romney be now, Arellano muses in print, "if it weren't for porous fronteras"?

Romney comes in for rougher treatment than McCain because of his tough rhetoric about illegal immigrants and secure borders. McCain, in contrast, has endorsed a type of immigration reform that would give illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens.

"The irony . . . of course makes many of us chuckle," says Mario Solis-Marich, a Los Angeles talk radio host and the blogger behind Nuestra Voice. "Beyond the chuckling, there's certainly some interesting questions that this poses."

Romney "needs to come out of his Mexican-heritage closet," Solis-Marich writes in his blog. In an interview, he adds, "If his family has a history of knowing how fluid the southern border of this country has been, how is it, and why is it, to this day they have what I believe is such a disdain for immigrants?"

Romney writes only briefly of his family's Mexican history in his 2004 memoir, "Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games." He rarely discusses it on the campaign trail, because it hardly ever comes up, says spokesman Kevin Madden.

"He's readily explained to those who ask that his father was born there and did live there at a time," Madden says. "He never talks about this in the context of immigration."

Romney lauds the contribution of legal immigrants and reserves his condemnation for illegal immigrants. The circumstances of his own forebears' passing back and forth are somewhat murky, but it has never been proved they crossed illegally. At the time, there were fewer rules to obey.

In "The Story of George Romney" (1960), biographer Tom Mahoney says a fellow Mormon obtained permission from Mexican President Porfirio D¿az for Romney's great-grandfather and other Mormons to establish colonies. But some commentators have said that Mexico did not permit polygamy at the time, and that the new colonists had promised to be law-abiding.

"If true, [Mitt Romney's great-grandfather] then knowingly arrived in direct violation of Mexican immigration law," Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, writes in his blog.

Among the reasons legal and illegal immigrants come to the United States today is to escape persecution and strife.

Since George Romney's parents were American citizens, having been born in the United States, they had a legal right to return. But it was easier said than done. The Mormons negotiated with the revolutionaries for safe passage for the women and children to reach El Paso by train. The men took to the desert on horseback, rebuffing armed attack, and crossed into New Mexico.

From El Paso -- does this sound familiar? -- the Romneys made it to Los Angeles. Mitt Romney's grandfather worked as a carpenter. The family was so large that the Romneys had trouble finding affordable housing, and some landlords refused to rent to them.

They and their fellow Mormon refugees were "the first displaced persons of the 20th century," George Romney later said.

What is identity? For example, the forebears of Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., a proud member of the Hispanic Caucus and a fifth-generation Coloradan, were long established in the United States by the time Romney's forebears re-crossed the border to take up their lives here.

The U.S. Census says Hispanic origin may include the "country of birth of the person or the person's parents."

On the presidential campaign trail in 1968, George Romney had to deal with his Mexican heritage. Some enemies referred to him as "Chihuahua George." They asked how someone born in Mexico could run for president.

McCain has occasionally faced the same question. The Constitution requires a president to be a "natural born" citizen.

In response, McCain's campaign, like Romney's before him, points to legal and academic interpretations that say "natural born" includes children who are born abroad to citizens. McCain has the added factor of being born in a zone that was under U.S. law.

In his 2002 memoir, "Worth the Fighting For," McCain includes a picture of himself on the day of his christening in Panama. He didn't stay long; his father was soon deployed elsewhere.

A person's identity might also include his favorite movie. McCain's memoir devotes an entire chapter to his. He first saw the film when he was 16 and living in the Washington suburbs. He has watched it many times over the years, meditating on its heroic and tragic themes.

The movie is called "Viva Zapata!" It stars Marlon Brando, and it is about a leader of the Mexican Revolution.

for link to Washington Post article, click title to this post.

*photo of Romney family (Mitt Romney's father third from the right)Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University Of Utah.

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