I met Vianney Bernabé in the buffet line at the Fiesta Inn during the Fulbright orientation in Mexico City. I was struggling to contain my toddler, who was a hydra-like mess of limbs fighting to race freely up and down the corridor. “She’s beautiful,” Vianney said, and we started chatting. Vianney’s English is quintessential California: lots of “likes” and drawn out “yeahs” and “killed its,” with big vowels and sentences that curl at their ends into question-like realizations. She is petite, with a tensile, restless energy. Her wavy black hair is often corralled in a low ponytail, and her features are chiseled: fine cheekbones, fine collarbones, delicately contoured fingers. They are the features of a violinist, which she has been since she was eight years old.
As we inched closer to the tubs of chilaquiles, she began telling me her story, and a familiar space opened between us: a territory de aquí y allá, a shared experience of having family on both sides of the border. We started talking by phone every Monday night, after she’d finished her 12-hour day of commuting and work at a security firm as part of the Fulbright Binational Business Program. Her family here in Mexico, she explained, thought of her as American: a deserter of her home country, wealthy and privileged, a gringa come to strut around with all the gringa’s carefree assumptions of power. Meanwhile, in the United States, Vianney’s parents clung to the lowest rungs of a racialized U.S. labor and power hierarchy, having worked for three decades to give their children better lives. She and her sisters had grown up in some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Los Angeles, struggling against failing schools, crime, racism, and poverty.
Vianney had come to Mexico City expecting to embrace her past and to be embraced as a long-lost daughter. Instead, like many second-generation Mexican Americans who return to Mexico, she wound up being confronted with her Americanness. “I have never had turkey at Thanksgiving. I grew up listening to cumbia, but on the other hand my education was from the United States,” she told me. Our conversations were full of this vexed ping-ponging between Mexicanness, Americanness, and Mexican Americanness, an ineffable cultural zone inhabited by more and more Americans, including my own Mexican-American husband and daughter.
For Vianney and the other seven million second-generation Hispanics in the U.S., most of them Mexican Americans, this quest to define identity and establish belonging has significant ramifications. As a Pew Research Center demographic survey put it, “The kinds of adults these young Latinos become will help shape the kind of society America becomes in the 21st century.”
What these young Latinos become will be determined not only by their own struggles and achievements, but also by the willingness of many Americans to rethink their fundamental conceptions of Americanness, to recognize the dangerous fiction of an essential, unchanging America defined solely by white culture.
Vianney was born at the UCLA Medical Center approximately 10 months after her family arrived in L.A., and was followed 15 months later by a younger sister and four years later by another. They lived in Mid-City, a neighborhood where they were surrounded by other immigrant families.
Her parents had left Mexico City when her mother was 25, her dad was 31, and her older sisters were eight and nine. Vianney’s mother had become an orphan at 17 and a mother of two by the time she was 18. She’d struggled to go to university, but was tyrannized by her father-in-law. “Why are you going to school?” he’d ask. “You have daughters, you should be cooking.” She pushed Vianney’s father to take the family to L.A., because his seasonal work wasn’t enough to support them and it was hard to imagine their daughters getting ahead in the vice-grip of Mexican machismo.
Vianney’s parents didn’t miss Mexico. “Even though we were poor in Los Angeles, they had food in the fridge,” she said. “They always had milk. That was their thing. They always had milk, and meat.”
From an early age it was clear that Vianney was unique. “My mom set me up to be the one to understand things,” she said. She has carried this weight her whole life; it hung from our conversations like an anchor. Her parents are undocumented. Her father had a drinking problem and would regularly come home and beat his wife and children. Vianney would run to her younger sisters’ room and try to shield them from the sound of his violent retching.
She found her refuge in music. When she was eight she started playing violin, and by the time she was 10 her music teacher declared, “You’re going to be great one day.”
“I was the roughest of kids in the hood,” Vianney told me. I struggled to imagine this; it seemed as likely as a university professor declaring she’d once been a pro wrestler. Vianney exuded warmth, professionalism, the pluckiness of the straight-A student. But as a 13-year-old she’d rebelled hard. She drank, tried drugs. She was on the verge of flunking out of school. She was angry, and she repressed this anger as best she could until one day at school she got in a fight with another girl.
“That anger was crazy,” she said. “I felt like I could’ve done some serious damage if there wasn’t anyone there to break us up.” The police were called, and the incident likely would have ended there if Vianney hadn’t kept raging. She couldn’t stop. The anger had been uncorked.
She was sent to the police station, and then, per her parents’ acquiescence, to a detention center, where she caught a glimpse of her potential future: pregnant 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds who’d overdosed on meth. But also a sense of community, of shared differentness. It was the first time race as a social issue registered for Vianney. Why, she wondered in the courtroom, are there no white people here? Later, after the Fulbright orientation, she’d echo this sentiment to me: “I just looked around the room and thought, Why are there no people of color here?”
Thirteen was the year Vianney leaned over the edge of the abyss, and 13 marked the beginning of her rise. Her mother enrolled her at the Harmony Project, an L.A. non-profit that offers students from low-income communities musical instruments, classes, community support, and field trips to cultural events. Vianney trained at Harmony for five years. When she turned 15, at the urging of her music teacher, she applied to the elite Music Academy at the Colburn School in downtown L.A. To her shock, she was accepted with a 50 percent scholarship.
Soon she was competing at summer camps across the country. She won scholarships to the Interlochen Center for the Arts and CalArts. Meanwhile, her family struggled to pay tuition. “My mom had to make payments of $100, and the work she had to do to make those payments was crazy,” she told me. Eventually, seeing the progress she was making, the Harmony Project offered to pay the other half of Vianney’s tuition.
The Music Academy at Colburn is a highly competitive pre-college program, and Vianney said most of the top musicians there were white. They came from elite private schools. She immediately understood how different her experience had been from theirs. “I was taking Honors Literature and I struggled,” she told me. “I mean, a lot. In private school they teach other stuff, because these kids walked into Honors Lit and they killed it.”
She started reading the newspaper every day, studying all the vocabulary she didn’t know. “It became like a mission,” she told me, “to just push myself, push myself, push myself.” In 2008, during her sophomore year, she read the phrase “religious crusade” and understood what it meant, and in that moment it dawned on her that her work was paying off. In 2009, the Harmony Project won a Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and Vianney was selected to be part of a small delegation that would travel to Washington, D.C., for the presentation. She attended the awards ceremony — presided over by Michelle Obama — met the violinist Joshua Bell, and went sightseeing around the capital for three days.
In Washington, looking at the stately architecture and the well-dressed people walking the streets with a sense of purpose, she was struck by the gulf between the world she had grown up in and this world of privilege, wealth, and status that was largely white, and that white people seemed to own so lightly. On that trip, she decided she wanted to become a lawyer in order to help struggling minorities succeed in a society where opportunity was so unevenly distributed. She applied and was accepted to California State University–Chico, and she turned down a music scholarship at California State University–Northridge in order to go.
At Chico, Vianney was one of only two Hispanic students in her seven-story dorm. “For a while,” she told me, “I really wanted to be white. I wanted to dress like them, and talk like them, and look like them, and be friends with them. I remember praying to God one night, Let me be like them.” It took studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, for Vianney to let go of this need to fit in. It was there that she stopped trying to make herself seem white and started to embrace her Latina heritage.
For many European immigrants who came to the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the gradual shedding of ethnicity in order to fit into Anglo-Protestant white culture was essential to success and advancement. As one mid-century Italian American put it, “We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents.” For many second-generation Mexican Americans today, the opposite is true: They are becoming Americans by seeking out and embracing their ancestral cultures, learning how to be proud of their parents. Their understanding of what it means to be an American derives not so much from the symbols and institutions of mainstream white culture but from a powerful sense of in-betweenness. For them, Americanness is less a sweeping mythology to which they must submit and more a framework for seeing, thinking, blending, reinventing. Their experience grows out of distinct demographic, social, and economic conditions, and their unique take on identity has challenged longstanding ways of thinking about assimilation.
Classic assimilation theory arose out of the Chicago School of urban sociology in the 1920s. European immigration had peaked around the turn of the century, and students under the direction of sociologist Robert E. Park scattered into Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods to study the relationships of ethnic minorities to their new society. Park and his students developed the “straight-line” model of assimilation, which describes immigrant groups as moving closer to the cultural mainstream via successive and irreversible phases until being completely absorbed. Unlike his successors, however, Park did not see assimilation as the total usurping of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority. Rather, he described “a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life.”
This nuanced notion of assimilation as fusion was largely neglected in favor of emphasis on the dissolution of ethnic, racial, and cultural difference into an Anglo, Protestant, white “core culture,” a theory most saliently represented in sociologist Milton Gordon’s canonical 1964 book Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion and National Origins. Gordon’s assumptions still form the basis of popular conceptions of the immigrant experience and the American dream. According to Gordon, assimilation depended first upon acculturation: the immigrant group’s willingness and ability to learn English, and to adopt white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class customs, after which point its members would gradually be allowed into white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class clubs and institutions, and would ultimately identify with and marry into the dominant group. In this theory there is no mutuality, no fusion. Assimilation is a one-way train to the cookie-cutter suburbs of Kansas, Applebee’s, Kmart, and the NFL. Gordon admitted a modest influence of ethnic minorities on cuisine, architecture, and place names, but the sizzlin’ pepper-jack quesadilla was largely the extent of the exchange. To adherents of this view, the “core culture” is stolid and unchanging; it exists beyond reach of minority groups, and cannot be influenced by their beliefs, traditions, and lifestyles. The incorporation of immigrants into white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture is seen as progressive, complete, and irrevocable, a gradual, generational act of erasure.
In the 1990s, a new surge of assimilation studies challenged the straight-line paradigm. In their 2008 book Generations of Exclusion: Mexican-Americans, Assimilation, and Race, sociologists Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz suggested that Mexican Americans were not actually assimilating into a white mainstream but rather into “the lower rungs of a racialized order.” At the University of California–Los Angeles, where Telles and Ortiz were professors, a vast 1965 survey of Mexican Americans was discovered on a dusty bookshelf, and Telles and Ortiz managed to find and follow up with the majority of respondents, generating an analysis of 35 years of assimilation. They concluded that, while second-generation Mexican Americans made significant leaps ahead of their parents in education, income, and occupational status, progress tended to stop there, and third- and fourth-generation immigrants either stagnated or sank back into poverty. Telles and Ortiz explained this halted assimilation largely in terms of education, particularly public schooling, which they called “the single greatest institutional culprit for the persistent low status of U.S.-born Mexican Americans.” Segregated schools, poor public education, and stereotyping all disproportionately affected Latinos, evidence of a pattern of racialization with which European immigrants did not have to contend.
Drawing on the results of a 15-year longitudinal study on second-generation youth conducted from 1991 to 2006, sociologists Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut expounded on the theory of “segmented assimilation,” which has superseded Gordon’s as the predominant thinking in the field. Portes and Rumbaut argued that, while a majority of second-generation immigrants would assimilate into the social, cultural, and economic mainstream, a sizable minority might instead experience “downward assimilation.” Frustrated by insurmountable racial prejudice, lacking strong parental support and community, and finding themselves marooned between their traditional family culture and that of the U.S., they could be drawn into an underclass defined by gangs, drugs, and incarceration.
Another impediment to assimilation identified by Portes and Rumbaut was the “hourglass” U.S. labor market, with competitive professional jobs that demand higher education at the top, low-wage jobs for unskilled workers at the bottom, and few opportunities in between. While early-20th-century European immigrants benefited from strong unions and well-paying, unskilled industrial jobs that allowed them entry into the middle class, many contemporary Mexican immigrants must either make a massive leap in education from one generation to the next or toil in low-wage work that barely allows for subsistence. U.S. corporations eagerly employ Mexican workers at barely a living wage, while taxpayers balk at providing these workers social services, quality schools, and even the basic security of legal status.
Despite all these obstacles, in 2013 the college enrollment rate for Hispanic high school graduates actually surpassed that of whites (49 percent compared to 47 percent). However, Hispanic students — lacking the financial security, cultural know-how, and familial support enjoyed by the majority of white students — are only half as likely as their white counterparts to complete their degrees. Those who do have made a phenomenal leap in status and achievement, prompting a 2014 University of California–Irvine/UCLA study to label them the most successful immigrants in America.
Vianney spent her final year at Chico seeking a way to get to Mexico, having come to the realization that going there and meeting her family was “the only way I can really accept myself, who I am, where I come from.” She became curious about the drafting of contracts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had devastating effects on Mexican agriculture and had sent her family and millions of other Mexicans fleeing northward. “I wanted to know how contracts are made, how business is run,” she said, and this interest led her to the Fulbright Binational Business Program. The application was daunting, and Vianney didn’t believe she was talented enough to make the cut. She mentioned her hesitancy in passing to a professor, who was appalled at her reticence and insisted she apply.
Still, she wasn’t sure. “I told my dad, ‘Dad, I don’t have any skills, no one’s going to want me,’ and my dad said, ‘Tu diles que sí sabes, tu sí sabes, a huevo sabes.’”
Months later, when she learned she’d won the fellowship, her father was conflicted. “You know,” he said, “everyone in Mexico tries to go to the United States, and you’re the only one trying to go back.” Reluctantly, he called his brother in Mexico City and arranged for her to stay with him.
Vianney’s first memory of Mexico is of her and her uncles sitting across the table from one another in silence. She had moved into a divided house. Her aunt and cousin lived under the same roof as her uncles but avoided all contact with them, cooking in their own small kitchen, staying in their own rooms in a silent boycott of the men’s old-school machismo. Vianney tried to make peace, but found herself highly restricted: a curfew, no keys to the house, no social life. Work was a two-hour commute through dense traffic. She lasted a month before finding her own apartment in the Hipódromo neighborhood, where she felt infinitely lighter.
But still, Mexico City weighed on her. She had long, grating days of commuting and work, and her colleagues seemed to be playing mind games with her, inviting her for drinks and then spreading rumors, changing meeting times and events at the last minute, making fun of her accent. She was younger than many workers but above them in the hierarchy, and this put her in the strange position of being resented for her privilege, even though she’d spent much of her life working hard to overcome being underprivileged, and was seen by many in her own country as a pariah. To her colleagues in Mexico she was a gringa, even though she wasn’t white or blonde or rich or gallivanting across Latin America with a backpack. She grew furious when a man she was seeing was hours late to a date; she was irritated when he didn’t help her with the dishes. She asked him to get tested for HIV. She told him about The Communist Manifesto.
“Por qué? Eres tan loca, gringa!” he said to her.
Meanwhile, Vianney began seeing her parents differently.
“I’m like, Oh my god, I get it,” she told me in December, the middle of our Fulbright year. “Like the education my dad received at home. As a young kid, when I would get whipped by him, I’d cry and cry and cry to my mom like, Why did you marry him, he’s a monster. I understand that now. He grew up seeing that — violence, and drugs, and alcohol — and his father was more machista than him.”
She called her dad regularly and they found a new closeness talking about Mexico City’s culture. Whereas the typical study-abroad student might call home and gush over newly discovered exoticisms to the amazement and delight of her parents, Vianney’s dad knew it all firsthand. She’d bemoan the sorry state of street dogs and he’d say yep, yep, yep. She’d marvel at the thousands of taco stands and he’d say yep, yep, yep. She’d worry about how many Mexicans have gastritis and he’d say yep, yep, yep.
Small moments of understanding and connection bloomed amid the confusion and the frustration. Mexico began to grow on her, and, as it did, she grew more confident in herself. For New Year’s, she took a trip with a group of friends to Chacahua, a remote beach town in the state of Oaxaca. As she stood on the beach one night, a Mexican woman she’d just met turned to her and said, “You’re Mexican, huh.” And Vianney, having learned by then the proper response, said, “Yeah, but I’m from Los Angeles,” and the woman said, “Yeah, but you’re Mexican.” She recounted this with both pride and bemusement; it came right at the moment when she no longer needed to hear it.
Any conversation about Mexican immigrants in the U.S. must acknowledge that it’s absurd to talk about many of them as immigrants at all. The first sizable population of Mexicans was here when the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, requiring Mexico to cede more than half of its territory to the U.S. At the time, Mexicans living in what is now Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah automatically became American citizens. The concept of an American culture defined by middle- and upper-class white people demands and perpetuates cultural amnesia.
“Forget the French Revolution,” wrote Richard Rodriguez. “Forget the Dutch; forget Spain, obviously; forget the Massachusetts Indians who rescued the Puritans from winter; forget the African slaves who created the wealth of a young nation.” Yet many Americans would have us believe that this culture has persisted, largely unchanged, since the earliest days of settlement, absorbing immigrants into its cloak of Anglo-Saxon whiteness like water into a sponge. Those who do not allow themselves to be absorbed have long been persecuted or exterminated, their histories expunged from the cultural record. To understand the challenges faced by second-generation Mexican Americans, it is necessary to understand the pervasiveness of this fiction of an essential national identity based on the norms of white privilege, and the prevalence of the fear of brownness and differentness that underlies it.
Second-generation Mexican Americans are confronted with this myth early in their lives, and must make a choice whether to believe it — to attempt to behave in accordance with mythical whiteness — or to assert a different kind of belonging based not on the willful denial of difference but the acceptance and celebration of it. According to Portes and Rumbaut, the deciding factor in whether second-generation immigrants achieve success is whether they are able to adopt U.S. cultural and social norms while simultaneously honoring and preserving the traditional cultures of their families. In academic circles, this is known as selective acculturation. It is a notion similar to multiculturalism, although more substantive in practice: The goal isn’t for Mexican culture to be a colorful sequence of parades and piñatas adorning the stolid, white, Protestant, Anglo mainstream, but rather to be a reservoir of deeper meaning for immigrants, offering them a foothold of purpose, history, and connection as they interact with often hostile and predominantly white institutions. Selective acculturation, which includes fluent bilingualism and the reinforcement of ethnic identity, could be a cushion against a nihilistic descent into the anarchic, deadly belonging of gangs or drugs.
It is not often discussed today, but the European immigrants who arrived between 1890 and 1920 also experienced a backlash, and in 1924 the U.S. passed a law stipulating that the maximum annual number of immigrants who could be admitted to the U.S. from any given country was 2 percent of the number of immigrants from that country living in the U.S. in 1890. This was strategic. In 1890, the immigration boom had not yet begun. The numbers from which the law drew its quotas were very small, and this had the effect of essentially cutting off immigration from 1924 until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act finally lifted the national-origin quotas. Turn-of-the-century European immigrants therefore had roughly 40 years to assimilate without any new waves of immigrants refreshing ties to their home countries or reinforcing ethnic enclaves. The experience of Mexican immigrants today is fundamentally different.
Ever since the U.S. annexed part of Mexico, new immigrants have mixed with the second, third, fourth, fifth, and further generations. These successive waves of immigration have affected Mexican Americans in ways that don’t necessarily fit any existing models. Whereas ethnicity became an optional trait for European immigrants of the second generation and beyond, the constant arrival of new immigrants from Mexico and the brutish treatment they often receive from the U.S. media serve to strengthen Mexican-American identity, constantly reinforcing the ties of second-, third-, and fourth-generation immigrants with their ancestral cultures and also with the plight of struggling newcomers. The racist cultural positioning of anyone with certain ethnic features as Mexican and as potentially “illegal” (most notably embodied in Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070) makes shedding ethnic identity nearly impossible even for third- and fourth-generation immigrants. The nearly 2,000-mile border the U.S. shares with Mexico complicates their ability to entirely disconnect from their pasts. And rapid-fire advances in communication and transportation facilitate increasingly transnational lives.
All of these factors render it both extremely difficult and increasingly undesirable for second-generation Latinos to blend into a white cultural mainstream. The conflicted Americanness they carry with them — even when in Mexico — is not an Americanness those so accustomed to proclaiming the country’s greatness would recognize or understand. It stretches the limits of my own understanding even when I am part of a bilingual and bicultural family. It is an Americanness that sees the U.S. as a unique cultural and social space of possibility, of becoming, of fusion and malleability, and simultaneously as a space where historical violence and erasures must be constantly acknowledged and confronted. It is an Americanness based less on a mythical, traditional foundation than on constant re-invention, the twinning and fusing of seemingly opposed forces: resistance and celebration, hope and skepticism, inclusive patriotism and ethnic pride. It is an Americanness that, by valuing inquisitiveness and adaptability, has the potential to heal social rifts and transform the nation.
In Mexico, Vianney did not experience the innate sense of rightness and belonging that she’d expected to feel, the country like a key unlocking her true identity. Instead, she experienced a growing confidence in her own abilities. She had overcome a racialized and rigged economic system in the U.S., and now she was navigating her family’s culture with dignity, curiosity, and confidence. It was not easy. Her metaphors for her daily life in Mexico were often a troubled mix of jungle exploration and war: “It’s like going into a river at night,” she told me, “without really knowing how deep it is, how cold it is, but if I don’t throw myself in there and put a bulletproof vest on so people don’t shoot my ideas down, I’m never going to make it to the other side.”
She swam, in her bulletproof vest, in the dark and the cold, as she always had. She is a swimmer.
This is the difference between Vianney and me, between Vianney and most of the people I grew up with, who never even knew there was a river, much less what it meant to cross. Vianney embodies two fundamental American traditions: the dream of triumphing over adversity to achieve success, and its nightmare shadow of xenophobia, fear, and hatred.
Mexico gave Vianney what the United States could not: the ability to believe in herself. It did this not by granting her unequivocal acceptance or answering the persistent questions of belonging posed in the U.S., but by forcing her to come to terms with her ambivalence. It allowed her to acknowledge that she was American, but an American for whom Americanness did not mean unquestioning assimilation into white institutions, but solidarity with the many people excluded from these institutions. It granted her a new faith in herself in spite of the hatred and oppression. It familiarized her with in-betweenness, a state deeply and violently resisted in the U.S., where patriotism is feverish and flavorless, where you are with us or against us, where, at this moment in time, simply speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab is enough to elicit righteous white rage.
Undoubtedly the success of future generations of immigrants is dependent on education and immigration reform. It is equally dependent, however, on a shift in the way we talk about immigrants — no longer depicting them as “illegals,” as a problem to be solved, as a threatening underclass. It depends on the willingness of white Americans to break down the monolith of white cultural myths and assumptions, to be seen as well as to see. It depends on a new appreciation of straddling cultures and worlds, and an increasing awareness of the erasures and exclusions that have been as much a part of American identity as the stories every U.S. kindergartner learns in school.
This requires humility, and an acceptance of the fact that many privileged white Americans have inherited an Americanness that is an illusion and a scam. I think of Vianney’s mother counting money at the kitchen table, and I think of growing up in the suburbs without ever questioning whether I would go to college or how. I think of calling my dad from Lima, Peru, so that he could wire me money after I’d been robbed; of how much of an adventure it was to be alone and penniless in South America. I never earned my Americanness. I inherited it, which might be the most un-American condition of all. Vianney, and the rising class of second-generation immigrants of which she is a part, earn it, in spite of the rhetoric of hateful rejection and the practical, concrete obstacles in their way. And many are not even sure whether what they have earned — access to this society and its institutions — is really all that dreamy, especially if it is built on the systematic oppression of people like them.
By the end of her year in Mexico, Vianney’s experience of the corporate world had soured her on the idea of law school. “In that type of profession, you have to look out for you,” she told me. Instead, she wanted to teach music to minority kids, kids struggling with poverty, kids who, like her, were likely to be labeled delinquent, and abandoned. She wanted to “just give it to them real, no sugar-coating: Your chances of making it if you don’t work really hard are low.” She wanted to increase those chances.
“Growing up in Los Angeles, in the hood,” Vianney told me, “you’re not really taught to, you know, be the best.” But at the end of our year in Mexico she said to me, with real conviction, “I know that I’m good enough. I can be certain that I’m good enough. I can finally say that.”
She returned to the United States in August of 2016, when the message being blared to Latinos was precisely the opposite: Not only were they not good enough, they were rapists, drug dealers, “bad hombres.” Vianney, with her hard-won confidence in herself, and her renewed commitment to help those left out of American progress, came home to the feverish chanting of Build the wall! Donald Trump’s victory in November — despite his losing the popular vote by a historic margin — has legitimized and strengthened a vision of the United States in which only white people belong and have ever belonged. The most popular, foundational myth of the United States as the land of freedom for the world’s oppressed has been eclipsed by the ever-present but thinly buried myth of white dominance and superiority.
Yet as people of color and immigrants supplant whites as the majority over the next 30 years, white Americans will need to accept and embrace the fact that a fundamental part of American identity is multicultural consciousness. They will need to make peace with the notion that the United States has long drawn much of its unique energy, creativity, innovation, and potential from Americans’ enduring love for somewhere else.
To Trump and his supporters, Americanness is not an aspirational quality, earned through hard work and a respect for diversity and equality, but an innate characteristic residing in a glorified past and possessed only by whites. Their America does not include people like Vianney. Nor does it include my daughter, who proudly says things like “I want otra manzana please!” and who is equally at home amid the fireworks and brass bands of a Mexican street fair and the hushed propriety of a U.S. lecture hall.
This most recent triumph of virulent nativist populism could end up squandering the potential of a generation that has a unique capacity to heal social rifts, fight poverty, and transform America, a capacity born not from a simplified knee-jerk patriotism for pledges and flags, but from the creative friction between cultures, identities, and feelings of belonging. At a moment when Hispanics make up nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population, second-generation Latino immigrants should be a source of great hope for our nation. Their in-betweenness can be a bridge to a more creative and compassionate and just world. I pray that white Americans don’t burn it down.