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I used to be confused by my mixed identity. But mixedness will heal America

Jean Guerrero
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Whenever I misbehaved as a child, my Puerto Rican abuela blamed the Mexican in me. My Mexican classmates called me gringa. My gringa came from my mom, who spoke English with a Puerto Rican accent. I did not know what I was. You’re American, my mother said. You’re not Mexican. You’re not Puerto Rican. You’re American.

We lived near the border in San Diego, California. She wanted me to feel I belonged in this country – a sense she’d been repeatedly denied. My mother faced discrimination as a physician after she came to the mainland. She had put herself through medical school by joining the National Health Service Corps. For most of her career, she was paid less than white colleagues who had barely finished their residencies. But she believed in the promise of the United States.

“I’m a doctor and a US citizen”, she told the US customs officers who threatened to slice open her car seats in search of drugs when she was returning after a trip to Tijuana with my father, an immigrant from Mexico with a green card. She wielded her citizenship like a shield, tenuous as it felt against an ever-present danger. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, my mother would say, with conviction. Because of my mother’s body armor, I did not identify as Latina as a child, though we had piñatas at our birthdays and ate arroz con gandules at home.

Back then, California was a microcosm for the resurgence of white supremacy we are seeing nationally today, causing Latin American families to hide their brown or Blackness behind labels like Hispanic. In the nineties, a white backlash against the “browning” of the state manifested as bipartisan attacks on bilingual education, affirmative action, and state-funded services for people without legal immigration status. Neo-Nazi groups multiplied. The governor spoke of a Mexican “invasion.” The idea that multiculturalism was a threat to civilization spread like a virus on right-wing talk radio.

I was 13 during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I watched the Twin Towers fall on TV from San Diego. A Jewish teenager named Stephen Miller watched from two hours north of me. Later, he would become Trump’s senior advisor and speechwriter and I would write a book about him. Meanwhile, he demanded that his school recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I painted US flags on my face. I awoke at dawn to be in a massive human flag at Qualcomm Stadium. For Halloween, I wrapped myself in red, white, and blue as a US cheerleader.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized American identity does not need to function like a sword hacking away at our differences, or a snake digesting them. In his 1996 book The Coming White Minority, Dale Maharidge explores the view that multiculturalism presents “two stark choices: the United States sticks with a white-centered melting pot, or degenerates into separate conflicting societies.” He reveals an alternative to assimilation. He quotes a researcher who imagines it as “a continuous cauldron of activity, rebirth, reformulation.”

Multiculturalism is not a threat to civilization. The only thing it threatens is extremism. As America becomes more mixed, we will have a greater capacity for empathy. People with hyphenated identities are familiar with multiple ways of being; they can readily inhabit different people and diverse realities.

It seems so obvious now as I sit on the grass with my five-year-old niece, who is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Black, and American, fluent in Spanglish and Shel Silverstein. I teach her about electromagnetism with a lab kit I purchased to pass time in the pandemic. In her unicorn pajamas, she attaches wires to battery terminals and tiny bulbs alight. A delighted smile grows on her chestnut face; her curls glow in the sun. She intuitively grasps that opposites attract, that uniting them can create continuity and cohesion.

We play with magnets and parallel circuits. Her multiculturalism strikes me as the opposite of a threat. Perhaps it is even a superpower: the ability to move between worlds, between countries, between points of view – what we need to save the country.

Americans are losing our collective sanity due to a breakdown in our willingness to communicate with one another. We are trapped in echo chambers. Corporations shape our politics, purchases, and preferences with disinformation and AI-based advertisements. Polarization is profitable, so the powerful have no incentives to unite us. The threat of domestic terrorism is escalating as people fall into post-truth rabbit holes about QAnon and “white genocide.” Democracy is in danger.

Maybe you’re a third-generation immigrant like my niece, or a first- or second- one. Either way, you have it, too: the magic that might save us. Perhaps you were taught to reject your mestizaje. But it is what allows you to imagine and bring forth a world without binaries: blurry and multitudinous, like you. You can heal a divided nation.

Perhaps in your life you’ve had people call you a half-breed, a wetback, a beaner. They made you feel like a mutant. They don’t understand that your mixedness is your strength. You have the blood of the colonizer and of the colonized. You are the bridge that can make America sane again.

  • Jean Guerrero is an investigative journalist contributing to NPR and PBS NewsHour. She is the author of Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda

  • This essay is part of PEN America’s We Will Emerge project, a collection of essays speaking directly to voters around the country in advance of the US election. This project is made possible with the support of Pop Culture Collaborative’s Becoming America. You can read the full version of this essay here