When Donald Trump criticized a federal judge’s impartiality because of his ethnicity, I couldn’t help but ponder the question of identity and how that evolves over generations, especially in light of this weekend’s Orlando massacre.
In a land where most everybody traces their roots to somewhere else, in a country where salsa outsells ketchup and election ballots come in more than one language, when do we step off the hyphen? By the second generation? The third? At what point, if ever, does our ancestors’ nationality lose its luster — and its claim?
First a little background: Last week Trump accused Federal District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of bias because of Curiel’s Mexican heritage. “I’m building a wall, it’s an inherent conflict of interest,” he added.
That comment, which earned the ire of both Republicans and Democrats, followed speeches in which Trump claimed he was being "railroaded" by a "rigged" legal system. He is a defendant in two cases that accuse Trump University of being a fraudulent operation. Trump has denied the accusations.
But his statements, which he now says were misconstrued, overshadow a larger and more intriguing issue, and what interests me at this point is not Curiel’s impartiality or Trump’s racist remarks or the bombastic tiff that followed from both sides. It’s how and when ethnicity — and race, gender and faith — become an issue.
Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants. He is viewed, and apparently views himself, as Mexican-American. I understand that. Born in Cuba and raised mostly in the U.S., I suspect my obituary, like Curiel’s, will carry a hyphenated classification. It’s shorthand, an easy label.
Yet there’s nothing simple about identity, or its politics, and because my personal story is so complicated, I’m intrigued by this topic. I’ve never returned to Cuba and have no relatives there, but I visit my mother’s birthplace in Catalonia and my father’s first cousins in that autonomous region of Spain as often as I can. According to my DNA, the venue of my birth might seem merely accidental.
Does that make me Catalan-Cuban-American? And if so, can that color the way I view the world?
My granddaughters are the second generation born here, and I wonder if they, or their children, will abide by the hyphen. I wonder, too, if their appearance — I’ve got blond, blue-eyed girls as well brown-eyed, dark-haired ones — will matter. How others judge us too often rests on the flimsy principle of how we look and not always on what we believe.
The narrative may be about identity these days, but kid yourself not. The theme is really about assimilation. About new immigrants who are different. About people who cling to their native language instead of learning English. About allegiance and patriotism and culture and values. About the age-old fear of the other. As we learn more about the Orlando shooter, his hatred of homosexuality, his apparently last minute identification with ISIS, we shouldn’t be surprised by an outbreak of xenophobia.
This is hardly new. Ben Franklin is said to have worried about German immigrants and a century later Protestants fretted about Catholics. During World War II we interned Americans of Japanese ancestry, while in today’s world a college student was kicked off a plane after speaking Arabic. Weeks later an Ivy League economist, who happens to be Italian not Middle Eastern, was questioned by security after his flight seatmate confused differential equations for something more sinister. In light of what happened over the weekend, over-reaction may seem the only path. It isn’t.
Even as the values of freedom, individualism, democracy and equal opportunity continue to unite us, our country is changing — will always change — and with it the ever-fluid definition of what it means to be American. In this century we are becoming less white and less European and less Christian, and some people don’t like this. Won’t ever like it. But it doesn’t mean that the object of their mistrust will be any less American or worthy of living here.