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Traversing la Frontera of Citizenship

If all goes well, I will finally become an American in the new millennium.

For more than four decades, I have clung to my Mexican citizenship while residing in the United States. At first, I had no choice--I was brought here as a baby. When I came of age, I had the option to renounce the land of my parents’ pride, land where my father’s father died.

But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

So now, I’m living under my 10th U.S. president but my passport still says Estados Unidos Mexicanos. I think it’s time I voted for the 11th.

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That will happen in the 2000 election, God and the INS willing. With the long delays in processing applications for citizenship and the soaring denial rates, some say I’d sooner be admitted through the Pearly Gates.

But I’m off to a good start. I mailed my petition for naturalization on Jan. 14. In the true American spirit of thrift, I did it just in time to avoid a whopping fee increase.

I got a little worried when my check didn’t clear for several weeks. Then earlier this month, I received the first official “Notice of Action,” dated March 9.

We got your paperwork, the government said. We’ve assigned you a number. We will notify you of the date for your interview. You should expect a wait of 365 days.

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Hey, what’s another year? I wasted a lot of time too. I already missed my chance to vote in this decade, which has been so hard on immigrants, those who do all the hard work, get all the blame and have no say. I want my voice to count in future issues that matter so much to the cohesion of our country.

Maybe my positions won’t prevail. But in caring about our society and how we treat each other, I have been rehearsing how to be a good citizen.

The ideals of citizenship are rooted in the writings of Aristotle and the democratic city-states of Greece. From ancient times, participation in public life has been a prerequisite. Voting, by itself, has never been enough.

Teddy Roosevelt, before he became president, echoed that theme in an 1883 essay called “Duties of Citizenship.” Yet, the Rough Rider’s thoughts on the subject also show how a nation’s notions of good citizenship can change in a relatively short time.

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The first essential quality Roosevelt enshrined was “manliness.”

“A race must be strong and vigorous; it must be a race of good fighters and good breeders,” he wrote, 37 years before women were considered citizens here. No other personal traits “can possibly atone for the lack of the great virile virtues.”

Well, count me in.

Roosevelt allowed that immigrants can make good citizens. Why, he even appointed a few European-born Americans to serve on government committees.

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“Of course, none of these men of Irish or German birth would have been worth their salt had they continued to act after coming here as Irishmen or Germans, or as anything but plain straight-out Americans. We have not any room here for a divided allegiance.”

Thankfully, manliness and ethnic purity are no longer official standards for modern citizenship. Early immigration law limited naturalization to whites, though racial restrictions were later changed. Today, even the idea of divided allegiances has evolved in our global era.

My father died without ever becoming a U.S. citizen. In his heart he always felt Mexican. Yet, he served in the U.S. Air Force, discharged honorably as Maj. Agustin Gurza. The old photos of him in his dashing blue uniform still make me proud.

Like him, I still feel partly Mexican. And that’s one of the reasons I waited so long. Mexico now allows dual citizenship. In 2000, I may even vote for my other country’s president as well.

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That disturbs many of you, I know. But consider these three words in the context of citizenship: World Wide Web.

On the Web today you’ll find various sites on the changing meaning of citizenship in a world where even corporations are called “multinational.” In June, England’s University of Leeds plans a conference called “Rethinking Citizenship.”

A group of student teachers in Australia and Indonesia have already done that. In an exchange of e-mail, they shared their expansive definitions of citizenship in nations embracing multiple cultures.

Even the United States has made it easier for its citizens to pledge allegiance to other nations. A series of laws signed by presidents Carter and Reagan knocked down old barriers to dual citizenship, the oath of loyalty to America notwithstanding.

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Actually, the concept of inclusive citizenship in America is as old as the country itself. It’s contained in three words stamped on every coin in the realm: E Pluribus Unum.

Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com.


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