SAN DIEGO — For many Mexican Americans, it’s a poignant scene. In the film “Selena,” Edward James Olmos plays Abraham Quintanilla Sr. — the father of the famous Tejano singer. In the scene, Quintanilla schools his children about the difficulty of belonging to two countries — and neither.
"We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are. And we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are," he says. "We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans, and more American than the Americans. Both at the same time. It's exhausting! Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican American.”
It is tough. You have to speak perfect English or Americans think less of you. You also have to speak flawless Spanish or the Mexicans will label you a "pocho" — a watered-down Mexican. No matter what you do, you’re not going to please either side of the cultural divide.
And, over the past couple weeks, being Mexican American has been tougher than ever before.
On Aug. 3, when 21-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas, drove at least 10 hours south to El Paso with intent to, as police told reporters, shoot as many Mexicans as possible, he did more than take the lives of 22 people and wound two dozen. Casius also upset the equilibrium that has helped define the Mexican-American experience in this country.
The Mexican-American experience
Let me introduce you to my tribe. There about 60 million Latinos in the United States, and nearly two-thirds of that population is Mexican or Mexican-American. Most of us are concentrated in just five states in the Southwest: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. Along with Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, those states form the occupied territory that used to belong to our southern neighbor before Manifest Destiny sparked the land grab better known as the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.
Mexican Americans have been called the “ambivalent minority.” We can’t figure out whether we’re assimilated into the mainstream or apart from it. We’re thought of as both an immigrant ethnic group and a racially oppressed minority, and we think of ourselves both ways.
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One minute, we’re following the assimilation pattern of earlier waves of Catholic immigrants who came from Italy or Ireland and, with every generation, inched closer to the American dream. The next, we’re competing with African Americans for affirmative action to gain admissions to a selective university and rolling our eyes at claims by whites that they’re suffering reverse discrimination.
Mexican Americans want to be part of the immigrant story of those who come here with nothing and succeeded. But we also expect to be included in the civil rights narrative of pressuring the United States to live up to its billing as a place where “all men are created equal.”
Equality has long been a foreign concept to Mexican Americans. Historians have done an awful job of chronicling the abuse and violence endured by Mexican inhabitants of the Southwest, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Only in the past decade has there been a surge in books that expose this hidden history, including “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928” by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb. In the 19th century, Mexican Americans were beaten and run off their property; in Texas and elsewhere, thousands were lynched. The World War II generation put up with segregated schools and being barred from public swimming pools, restaurants, barber shops and other establishments.
My parents’ generation was punished for speaking Spanish in school and later had to put up with ethnic profiling by police and job discrimination by employers.
In recent years, Mexican Americans have been in a safe space. Many of us think of violence as being a relic of the past.
After an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue, my Jewish friends told me they’re not surprised. After a white supremacist shot up a black church, my African-American friends said it was to be expected. But when a gunman left nearly 50 people dead or injured because they were Mexican or Mexican-American, my community is totally shocked to be in the crosshairs.
We never saw this coming. That's because we’ve been hiding in the “in between.” We’re in between Mexico and the United States. We’re in between Spanish and English. We’re in between Mexican immigrants and fellow Americans.
And within the country’s color scheme, Mexican Americans are in between black and white. In the 1960s, the saying was: If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re black, stay back. And if you’re brown, stick around. The idea was that the country would accept Latinos as full participants in society, if we would just wait for our moment.
Well, we never got our moment. What we got instead, at a Walmart in West Texas, was mayhem and bloodshed and heartache.
Mexican Americans have been defined by ambivalence. But after what happened in El Paso, that is a luxury we can't afford.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and host of the daily podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Racism against Mexican Americans has long followed us