Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A conflicted Fourth of July in Mexico

On this Fourth of July morning I went to our flagpole and raised the Mexican flag first and the Stars and Stripes right below it.

This quiet ceremony was my way of celebrating America's Independence Day.  I also tried taking a picture of the two flags, side by side, so to speak, but neither they nor the wind would cooperate.  A lazy, uncertain breeze only got the two limp national banners tangled up, ironically summing up how I feel about spending my twelfth Fourth of July in Mexico.

I wasn't born in the United States, which in some people's narrow minds—particularly in the toxic political climate that is choking the U.S. today—denies me the right to call myself a "real American," But that is exactly what I am and how I feel—as much a Yankee Doodle Dandy as anyone other American.

I came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1962 when I was fourteen years old and went to school, fell in love, married, worked and spent more than two-thirds of my life in the U.S. What else would I call myself if not American?

Cuban? Hardly. I've been back to my home country, to try weave the precious few threads of my family still left in the island, and visit the landmarks of my childhood, including the home where I grew up. I admit to choking a bit too when, during my first return visit after nearly forty-five years, the plane caressed the tops of those ever-so-familiar palm trees as it maneuvered for a landing. The electric greenness of the landscape was exotic yet familiar.

But the initial patriotic buzz wore off after a few days when it became clear I wasn't really home but a mere tourist, perhaps better prepared than most given the cache of memories swirling in my head, but a tourist nevertheless. I could not even imagine how I could blend back into life in Cuba, as one of the natives.

For one thing, there's my accent. Some Cubans told me I sounded vaguely foreign. Americans have told my English sounds Cuban. And Mexicans tell me my Spanish definitely doesn't sound Mexican. Perhaps I should take some diction lessons and settle on one "native" tongue.

Regardless of what I may sound like, though, when I return to the U.S. I immediately feel at home, a place so familiar—my country. And after living in Mexico for more than twelve years, a yearning for home gnaws at my heart, more every day. I miss America, rubbery hot dogs, political discord and all.

Such old-school patriotism provokes puzzlement if not sneers from many Americans here, who swear they wouldn't even think of returning to the U.S., either because they love living in Mexico or find the political climate back home intolerable.

Truth be told, many of the Americans here who profess to love Mexico really don't have much of a choice. They couldn't afford to live in the States on a limited income, and so spend much time recasting financial necessity into a commitment of the heart.

The poisonous political climate in the U.S. is a far more immediate issue. Visitors from true-blue latitudes like Chicago, New York or California seem apoplectic with the turn the country is taking toward what they perceive an authoritarian even fascist state. Trying to reassure them is of no use.

But Republicans and other conservatives living here also talk about a U.S. beset by liberal conspiracies and fake news that have to be constantly monitored and exposed, via Fox News, Alex Jones and the myriad alt-right websites. They seem to be as freaked out about America's future as their liberal compatriots.

I must confess bafflement at the oxymoronic situation of vociferous Trump supporters living in Mexico and amid Mexicans, a country and a people endlessly vilified by the administration, which talks about immigration from south of the border as an infestation or plague threatening the survival of the U.S., and which must be fought by any means, including taking children away from the parents and holding them for political ransom.

Despite all the problems in the U.S., I remain optimistic about the country's future and tell kvetching visitors that at least living in American soil gives them the opportunity to resist, protest, jump up and down and scream their disgust or, better still, help register new voters.

A few days ago there was a large demonstration in Chicago to protest the Trump administration's immigration policies. Wish I'd been there, instead of Mexico, where
our liberal activism is limited to writing blogs and rolling our eyes about the latest news over guacamole and tortilla chips.

And on this Independence Day, the two-hundred and forty-second, I feel more conflicted than ever about living in Mexico indefinitely, let alone eventually regarding myself as Mexican.

"Is this the country where you want to die?" a friend recently asked rather dramatically. I did not hesitate to respond in my mind with a resounding "no".

I live here, enjoy the wonderful climate, a beautiful home, the lower cost of living and the quirks of living in a foreign country. And just as important, a wider circle of close friends than Stew and I ever had in Chicago.

Except we don't really live in Mexico, but in a Mexican-like
Potemkin tableau, created and sustained by English-speaking expats who gather in their own churches, art galleries and  restaurants du jour, spend their days playing bridge or exchanging emails and Facebook messages with other expats. News that a restaurant offers American breakfasts "just like Denny's" is considered worthy of note.

On the Fourth of July, some groups such as Democrats Abroad, even mount flaccid celebrations with some flag-waving and Pete Seeger songs. Last time Stew and I attended one of those we looked at each other and said, "Shoot me!"

Another reality is that in cases of medical or other emergencies, most expats of any political stripe hastily decamp to the home turf and the bosom of Medicare or a V.A. hospital, for first-class—and familiar—medical care.

A few expats I know proudly claim to have become Mexican citizens or being in the process of doing so. Curiously, I've never heard of anyone actually renouncing their U.S. passport.

Adopting Mexican citizenship seems like such an empty exercise. Most of these angry Americans,  liberals or conservatives, can't speak enough Spanish to call the fire department, or provide a coherent rationale for such a dramatic gesture in any language. They are far from being "Mexican" or being part of this country's culture.

On this Fourth of July I feel as American as ever, and mean no disrespect or disdain for Mexico or Mexicans, a country that has been home for twelve years.  But after all these years I remain as deeply conflicted at my experience here as the two flags struggling to wave on our front yard.

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