June 6, 2012

A Conversation About Identity

VII. Sandra Lilley: Wonderfully American

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Join the conversation about ethnic identity on the Pew Hispanic Center Facebook page.

The nation’s more than 50 million Latinos, or should I say Hispanics, do not see themselves as — or purport to be — a monolith. Not only is this not surprising, but I would argue, so wonderfully…American.

You see, what is lost among the endless dissection and parsing of the “Latino population” or the “Hispanic vote” is a simple fact. What attracted so many of us to willingly put down roots in the US mainland was our fervent desire to work, participate, fall in love, prosper, and more importantly, weave ourselves into the great American fabric. If it wasn’t us, it was our parents, or grandparents, or perhaps great-great-great grandparents.

What kind of person leaves the known for the unknown? Why, the same kind of independent-minded, scrappy person who left behind family, church, and village some two hundred-odd years ago to become part of the great American experiment.

“Democracy…produces that which the most skillful governments are frequently unable to awaken,” said Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy…which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits.”

Centuries later, we might be tempted to separate, exclude or try to “explain” Latinos. The danger is to overlook the simple fact that, in their diversity, U.S. Hispanics are uniquely and intrinsically American.

In her book The Trouble With Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, political theorist Cristina Beltrán argues Latinos can work to make communities better, despite differences among them.

Only this, Beltrán argues, can capture “the undocumented Guatemalan labor activists living in North Carolina; Puerto Rican libertarians attending college in New Jersey; young Chicano environmentalists attending Morrissey concerts in Los Angeles; Nicaraguan evangelicals supporting conservative ballot initiatives in Florida; Mexican American senior citizens registering voters in Colorado.”

How wonderfully American.

Sandra Lilley is a writer and producer at NBC Latino.

Views in this conversation series are those of each author alone, and not the views of the Pew Hispanic Center, which is nonpartisan and non-advocacy.