Does it have to involve an affinity for apple pie, cheesesteak, football or Jessica Simpson? What if it was flavored by tortillas, chorizo, pan dulce and fiestas, as mine is? Would it be in dispute that I am in fact claiming an American identity?
As a 7th generation Mexican-American I am bi-cultural, and I am not alone. My worldview is a mixture of influences that stretches far back into the 1800s. One of the things that pains me greatly, though, is the fact that I am not fully bilingual in English and Spanish. You see, my parents never spoke Spanish in my house because they grew up in an era when it was considered taboo.
Mis abuelitos (grandparents) on both sides of the family told me stories of getting smacked in the head by teachers when they would speak Spanish. It was considered a hindrance to job success in American society for them to be bilingual. So in that climate of fear and hate, they didn't pass the richness of the Spanish language to their children, my parents.
It appears we are reentering that climate in the 21st century. Meet Zach Rubio:
Most of the time, 16-year-old Zach Rubio converses in clear, unaccented American teen-speak, a form of English in which the three most common words are "like," "whatever" and "totally." But Zach is also fluent in his dad's native language, Spanish -- and that's what got him suspended from school.As I have mentioned before, there are storms of hatred and racism brewing in this country and my fear is that they will flood the nation based upon political calculation and divisiveness.
"It was, like, totally not in the classroom," the high school junior said, recalling the infraction. "We were in the, like, hall or whatever, on restroom break. This kid I know, he's like, 'Me prestas un dolar?' ['Will you lend me a dollar?'] Well, he asked in Spanish; it just seemed natural to answer that way. So I'm like, 'No problema.' "
But that conversation turned out to be a big problem for the staff at the Endeavor Alternative School, a small public high school in an ethnically mixed blue-collar neighborhood. A teacher who overheard the two boys sent Zach to the office, where Principal Jennifer Watts ordered him to call his father and leave the school.
Watts, whom students describe as a disciplinarian, said she can't discuss the case. But in a written "discipline referral" explaining her decision to suspend Zach for 1 1/2 days, she noted: "This is not the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school."
Since then, the suspension of Zach Rubio has become the talk of the town in both English and Spanish newspapers and radio shows. The school district has officially rescinded his punishment and said that speaking a foreign language is not grounds for suspension. Meanwhile, the Rubio family has retained a lawyer, who says a civil rights lawsuit may be in the offing.
To the racist overlords that are trying to steal the bi-cultural identity of Americans like Zach Rubio and myself, I say toma.