An American State of Mind
SAN DIEGO -- This Fourth of July, to go with the fireworks and hot dogs, I have lots of questions. What does it mean to be an American? Is it a matter of geography? Is the only way into the club to be born on U.S. soil --or immigrate legally and then become a legal resident or naturalized U.S. citizen? Or is there something more to the concept?
I'm not the only one who wants answers. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently admitted to being an illegal immigrant, has started an organization -- "Define American" -- to sort out what it means to be an American.
You can imagine what the group hopes the answer will be. It won't be wrapped up in legality or nationality as much as in a state of mind. One becomes an American, they'll say, by thinking and acting as an American.
I would go a step further. For those of us who are proud to be Americans, what are we proud of exactly? And if we accept that people are usually "proud" of things they accomplish, then do those of us who had our Americanism served up on silver platters even have the right to be proud in the first place?
It's fine to be proud of our country, or even proud of fellow Americans such as those who serve in the armed forces. That makes sense. But if we define pride in terms of the effort it takes to achieve something -- graduating from college, becoming a doctor, starting a business, growing a family, winning elective office, etc. -- then it makes less sense to boast about being an American if we did little to earn the title.
What about U.S. citizenship? I've always thought it strange that people are so protective of the concept -- and so eager to deny it to others, such as, in a recent example, the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants -- when, in most cases, they themselves did nothing to earn it.
I sure didn't. To paraphrase billionaire Warren Buffett, I won the lottery of the womb. I got my U.S. citizenship the old-fashioned way and how most Americans get theirs -- my mother gave birth on U.S. soil. In my case, the event took place in a hospital in Fresno, Calif.
This was typical of my family. Both my parents were born in the United States, as were three of my four grandparents. Add in all the uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, and that's a lot of instant U.S. citizens.
The exception was my immigrant grandfather, who came to the United States legally during the time of the Mexican Revolution along with the rest of his family and more than half a million other expatriates.
If you want to give someone credit for being an American, skip over me and zero in on my grandpa. He started off in one country, and voted with his feet by moving to another. That took initiative, bravery and sacrifice. My being born on this side of the U.S.-Mexico border required none of the above. Yet, to many, I'm more of an American than my grandfather was. This makes no sense.
When I put these questions to a group of friends on Facebook, what I got back wasn't satisfying. I asked, "What about these native-born Americans who were -- as the saying goes -- born on third base and yet prance around like they hit a triple?"
One friend responded that he was proud because he was "lucky enough to be born here."
Is that where we've arrived? Now we're proud of being lucky? If I scratch a winning lottery ticket and win $50, I asked, should I be not only happy but also proud?
He added: "We, as humans, are hard-wired to have pride by mere association."
Now, I'm really confused. As a sports fan, I have a loose "association" with those who join me in rooting for the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Raiders. Should I be proud of this -- in the same way that I'm proud of my children, or proud of things I've done in my life?
New rule: No more free rides on the express train of national pride. If you've actually taken steps to make this country a better place, then be proud. If you haven't, then be quiet.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben(at)rubennavarrette.com.
(c) 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group