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Column: A Mexican-American Hyphen

The U.S.-Mexican border, or la frontera, is an 1,800-mile-long, virtually imaginary line of barbed wire fencing, an undergrowth of mesquite or chaparral and an easily forded river.

Orators, both American and Mexican, like to describe the border separating their countries as one of the two only such unfortified frontiers in the world, the other being the U.S.-Canadian border.

To many Americans living in the Southwest and to many Mexicans living in Northern Mexico, however, the border is symbolic of the negative differences between the two nations.

Americans who know only the shady aspects of the border towns think of Mexico as a place where they can enjoy doing what is not allowed at home—but would be shocked, the morning after, if such goings on were allowed in “America.”

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Mexicans not lucky enough to be among the Latin affluent think of the American border towns as gold mines where nuggets can be picked off the streets. And when they discover this is not true, they blast the Americans as exploiters, unmindful that they had created their own false image of the United States.

These superficial and inaccurate concepts of both countries help only to widen the understanding gap between two peoples who are so close geographically and in many other ways far apart.

That may help explain why Mexican-Americans can feel a deep and agonizing ambivalence about themselves.

They can love the United States for reasons Mexicans can not understand, while loving Mexico for reasons Americans can not understand.

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Being a Mexican-American, a wag once said, can leave you with only the hyphen.

On the United States’ other border there are no such esoteric considerations.

Canadians may conceivably feel bitter about the fact that the British Empire lost the 13 colonies but this chauvinism is tempered by knowing that, after all, Canadians and Americans communicate easily and enjoy more or less the same material goods.

Chauvinistic Mexicans, however, are very cognizant of the fact that Mexico lost what is now the American Southwest to the United States in the Mexican-American War which even Gen. Ulysses S. Grant called “unfair.”

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Mexicans like to argue that if the United States had not “stolen” half of Mexico’s territory, Mexico would be as rich as the United States is now. This historical controversy, now for the most part taken lightly, might have disappeared altogether by now, it is said, if Mexicans and Americans spoke the same language on both sides of the border and so understood each other better.

Yet, many Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, who speak both languages and admire both countries, feel strangely foreign in their own land.

Members of other minorities—Italians, Irish, Poles, etc.—often wonder why Mexican-Americans have not been able to assimilate as well as they have.

They tend to forget that Italy, Ireland, Poland, etc., are oceans away from the United States while Mexico is very much in evidence to the Southwest’s eight million or so Mexican-Americans.

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This makes it difficult for the Mexican-American to think of Mexico in the abstract as, for instance, Irish-Americans might think of Ireland.

The problems of Mexico are and will remain relevant to the Mexican-American. Relations between Mexico and the United States can affect the Mexican-American in the Southwest materially and emotionally.

In the border areas, for instance, the large number of Mexicans crossing the international line every day to work in the United States can directly affect the economic lives of Mexican-Americans, who must compete with this cheap labor.

Projects such as Operation Intercept, a crackdown on dope smuggling across the Mexican border, hurt the pride of the southwest Mexican-Americans who feel the United States is trying to blame Mexicans for a problem which is to a large extent uniquely “Anglo.”

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The border may indeed be unfortified, but it separates two peoples who created the Mexican-American—a person many times tormented by the pull of two distinct cultures.


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