Thank you from a Borderlander in South Texas to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for his efforts to “make straight a wrong turn” by removing four Confederate-era monuments from his city.
I pray that Mayor Landrieu’s speech lives in our hearts, minds, and most importantly, the textbooks of our nation’s schoolchildren for generations to come.
“A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them,” said former President George W. Bush at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., less than a year ago.
Facing the legacy of a difficult war like the Civil War, its foundations and its aftermath, from all perspectives is hard work. Landrieu’s speech was surgically precise in exposing the cancer of slavery in the Confederacy. He is correct. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
Thank you from the former school-age child in South Texas who I once was. I sang the national anthem while wondering how “Jose” climbed up the flagpole to see “by the stars’ early light.” I felt the swell of connection and pride in being American. My second-grade imagination heard in the patriotic songs a rooting for me to learn my numbers and spelling, because the future had a place just for me in this nation on whose soil I stood.
The sense of knowing my country accepted and took me into account was underscored by President Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The roles of family, church, and school are important in a child’s development. My cultural inheritance was rich living on the U.S. border. It was informed by what I learned at the knee of my mother, who was reared in Mexico, the media I watched and listened to, and what I learned from books and in school. In my case, tamales and mariachis marched beside Benjamin Franklin, Paul Bunyan, Tom Sawyer, and Brenda Starr, the female newspaper comic-strip reporter in whom I saw my own star’s guidance to a career in journalism. My parade of pioneers were inventors, makers, and people who ask why.
I admired our founding fathers in the Northeast U.S. and also the settlers of the Americas and Southwest U.S. who came from España, leaving the old world for a chance to farm and prosper. If my ancestors could cross the ocean for a better life, could grow crops and raise cattle with the scant benefit of 17 inches of annual rainfall in the hardscrabble Chihuahuan desert, then I would proudly carry forward in whatever way I could contribute.
Would I become a nun like my teachers? Would I become a public servant in government like JFK? Would I write the great Mexican-American novel? Whatever I decided, I knew from living on the border with Mexico that I had a strong advantage in being a U.S. citizen. With so much effort and belief behind me, I felt encouraged to use my education and explore the opportunities it offered.
I had a wealth of resources in my education and the cultural treasures of my family’s Mexican and American cultures, but there was also another force within me that I had not understood until watching Landrieu’s speech.
My identity as an American was the fourth leg to complete my table of family, faith, and education. I now understand my “luck of the draw” in being born an American whose founders saw a place for me in the peace and prosperity of this country and its future. I finally see the role played by America’s education systems, colleges and universities, health protections, environmental safeguards, banking regulations, anti-monopoly laws, and policies that protect and serve all Americans, including “hyphenated” ones like me.
This inheritance was an invisible hand that rested on my shoulder, pushing and sustaining me to completion of high school and college, successful careers, and engagement in society.
Landrieu’s speech reminds me that the narrative I believed, that I was being lifted and carried by a movement in humanity stronger than race, culture, history, or personal wealth, truly did fuel my life’s journey through difficult times. My father’s union protected our family of five when he was killed in a smelter accident. Social Security provided for our family until we five siblings entered college or the military. There were grants, loans, and scholarships that paid the way for multiple academic degrees for my family including a nursing degree, two doctorates, one brother’s excelling in real estate, and another becoming the state’s second Texas Ranger of Mexican American descent.
What would it feel like to not have the backing of your country and its founders? What would it matter if the lift and support I felt ever-present in my personal story had never been there or been withdrawn?
Living on the border, I knew a little of what that might feel like from first-hand knowledge. The elite and racist old-Europe strain had taken hold in Mexico and on the border where I lived. I saw it in my own family, which favored light skin and male privilege. I saw in in school and in local politics, which were corrupted by power.
Later I experienced racism first-hand in East Texas visiting family, and in Austin where I studied. But as an antidote, I also benefited from Great Society initiatives like my mother’s evening adult education classes, my low-interest college loans and grants, and Federal Communications Commission employment rules that for a brief time opened doors for women and minorities to work in radio and television stations.
Landrieu’s speech prompts me to ask what national narrative would I have, had I been born African American? True, my family, faith, and education might provide the backing for my journey as a young person, but I would most likely lack my fourth leg of support, my sense of being accepted and taken into account as an American.
The removal of monuments of the Confederate era in New Orleans may prove pivotal in rectifying errors in our nation’s history. It’s only one step in a long journey, after all. The only way to know for certain is to wait and to see how the next generation of Americans hailing from diverse backgrounds perceives the country as supporting their humanity and progress, rather than celebrating enslavement and being on the wrong side of humanity.