Becoming American in the Age of Trump

By

On January 20, 2021, I was finally able to breathe out after prolonged inhalation. It felt for four years as if my numbed body had been refusing to write about Donald Trump, but now, I have found the courage. The news outlets in the United States haven’t stopped giving me nightmares, despite the departure of Trump. The deportations, the pandemic, racism, and a myriad of problems continue under President Joe Biden. Still, there is one less burden of the president inspiring groups of white Americans and extremists to take power.

Although I became a citizen over a year ago, I still felt for too long like I could be kicked out of the country at any moment. On WhatsApp, friends and family alerted us to delete photos or memes mocking Trump in fear the government might take away our visas when we crossed the border. These murmurs reached as far as Maryland, where I live, and made me hesitate to write these words for many months.

Although, in theory, there is freedom of expression in this country, as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm (1945), “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” People in power have more privilege. In other words, as the Dominican writer Julia Álvarez said at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in 2019: “The land of the free, but not for everyone.”

These two phrases roam in my head. Even though I obtained citizenship under the Trump presidency, I have felt like a farm animal all this time, without a voice.

 

On June 18, 2019, I became a US citizen. That same day, Donald Trump announced that he would make a second run for the Presidency. My hands were shaking as I read the news on my cell phone on the way to Baltimore, Maryland, for my citizenship ceremony. Later that day, the White House posted a photo showing the progress of the wall at the border. I asked myself repeatedly, did I really want to be an official part of this country and be witness to this? What if Trump went farther and signed an executive order stating that no Mexican could be a citizen? What if he made me renounce my Mexican citizenship?

I got to my appointment without problems. An hour later, I exchanged my Green Card with my alien number for an envelope with information about the ceremony, a little American flag, and a welcome letter signed by Trump bearing the seal of the White House. The letter made me nauseous. My stomach twisted when I saw the image of Trump on the screen we were directed to watch. In a pre-recorded video, he welcomed us by reciting someone else’s speech. I lowered my gaze, trying to avoid his gaze. When I heard his hypocritical voice saying, “This country is now your country,” a sharp voice within yelled at me that I was betraying Mexico.

After Trump’s pre-recorded video, the ceremony continued with our pledging allegiance to the United States. Later, we sang the national anthem, collected our naturalization certificates, and congratulated each other on being adopted into this new country.

In taking the oath, I swore I would join the country’s army and bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law. As I repeated the foreign words in my mouth, it was like stabbing all those civic honors in Mexico where many times I recited the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the school. That slick-haired girl who swore to honor the tricolor flag as a legacy of our heroes, to whom she pledged allegiance over and over again, never imagined that she would one day pledge her allegiance to another flag with horizontal stripes and white stars—a flag belonging to a country that has caused immeasurable harm to Mexicans.

Trump was not the first American president to do so. Too often we forget the signs that only a few decades ago hung in front of restaurants across the country: “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” They put the dogs first, before the Mexicans. Let’s not forget about Operation Gatekeeper, which militarized the border under Clinton’s presidency. But, through his explicitly racist language, Trump stripped Mexicans of our dignity and opened the White House’s doors to the existing racism and xenophobia that built the systems in this country. Trump didn’t invent racism, but he did add fuel to the fire and validate the sentiments of white supremacists.

 

Some might ask, why did you come to the United States? That reminds me of a question Valeria Luiselli asked Central American children and herself in her book-length essay Los Niños perdidos/Tell Me How It Ends (Coffee House Press, 2016): “Why did you come to the United States?” My answer is less complicated than Luiselli’s. I came here to work. I came to write. After studying for my master’s degree, I looked for work for months in different Mexican states—especially in maquilas in border cities of Tamaulipas, Baja California, and Nuevo León. I did not find anything. By chance, I found work in Arizona. In February 2008, with two packed suitcases, I arrived in Phoenix from Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, in a Tufesa bus, with the help of my mother and my sister.

I came to work. I’d heard that in the United States, a workday is only eight hours. I saw that firsthand during the first weeks, watching my colleagues stride down the hallways at 5 p.m. with their empty lunch boxes. In Mexico, at 5 p.m., we are only halfway through the workday.

I came to write. As soon as I arrived in Arizona, I enrolled at a community college to study creative writing. Courses which, in those days, I could not find in Sonora, only in cosmopolitan Mexican cities. In 2008, I still wasn’t shouting from the rooftops that I was a writer. I studied accounting and finance in Sonora before quitting my Phoenix job and writing so many years later.

I never imagined that I would stay indefinitely. The United States gave me a renewable work visa every year without a path to citizenship, but then I fell in love. I got married. I stayed.

 

At the citizenship ceremony, my feelings fluttered inside me, like when you are driving near the border and you hear the radio’s static changing to another station. You are listening to cumbias, and then suddenly, Taylor Swift.

As I sang the national anthem, I placed my hand on my chest. I wanted to do it with the fingers facing forward and the thumb underneath, as we do with the Mexican anthem—but I had to spread them over my heart. I wanted to start with, “Mexicanos, al grito de guerra,” but I had to instead begin with, “Oh, say can you see.” I’ve avoided singing this anthem at so many events. I’ve pretended to babble at baseball and basketball games, just as I do at church when praying a Padre Nuestro. But this ceremony was my christening, and so I had to sing.

I turned to see my Spaniard husband. His nationalistic feelings were probably very different from mine. The Spanish national anthem doesn’t even have lyrics. He quickly placed his hand on his chest and sang, reading from a flyer they gave us. Like us, seventy-one other people from thirty-four different countries sang the anthem for the first time as Americans. This was the first time I really sang with my hand on my heart–-and in theory, we should feel the lyrics, the music, the patriotism of being American. When I sang the final chorus of “land of the free and the home of the brave,” the image of George Floyd killed by the police came to mind. This followed by caged immigrant children and the words of Julia Álvarez: “The land of the free, but not for everyone.” My mental static, like the fluttering radio at the border, showed me images of immigrants on freight train cars, La Bestia, in Sonora, as I drove north after visiting my family. Mexico, too, has a long way to go regarding immigration policy.

“Today after the ceremony, we’ll be one,” said one of the officials. After the ceremony, we will be one. The unity America offers is part of the American dream many of us pursue. It is a hypocritical speech, like the pre-recorded one Trump gave in welcoming us a few minutes earlier. Trump’s language at his rallies often exacerbated the supremacist sentiments of his followers and inspired them to shoot down minorities. For example, the El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019 or the 2021 shooting in Atlanta—both driven by xenophobia and racism.

Although Trump signed my welcome letter, I understood that in receiving it, I was not accepting his personal ideals, nor was he mine. I agreed to defend the constitution–, not a specific president. I agreed to protect the laws of the United States against all enemies, domestic and foreign, which made me wonder on January 6 when watched as “Proud Boys” the Capitol if they had ever read their country’s Pledge of Allegiance. Would these “Proud Boys” be able to pass a citizenship test like the one we took?

 

We were interviewed and tested one month before the citizenship ceremony. To participate in the process is a privilege. Many people have many more years in this country, and they are not yet given this opportunity. After almost a decade of waiting to request citizenship, we waited more than a year to get our appointments. We pay more than $600 each for the application and paperwork. We frantically study for months the one hundred questions on history and civics. We memorize dates, presidents, and wars.

At the interview appointment, you are taken individually to a room with a government employee. Mine was the last appointment of the afternoon. Between yawns and without looking at me, the woman asked me to swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth with my right hand. She asked me each of the questions on the infinite-seeming form, and I answered in monosyllables.

Have you been married to more than one person at the same time? No. Have you been involved in any way with genocide? No. Torture? No. Have you ever been a member or participated in a paramilitary group? No. Have you been part of a communist party? No. From some terrorist organization? No. Have you ever worked in a prison? No. In a detention center where people are forced to stay? No. The image of the caged children came to my head again; what would those who work there say?

If required by law, are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States? I hesitated a bit. The “Proud Boys” would answer “yes” with pride.

I answered some history questions and wrote a sentence on an iPad to prove my English-language skills. Congratulations, the woman told me, and she took me back to the room where others were anxiously waiting for their relatives.

In the ceremony, we waved our little flags after singing the anthem, just as the supremacists did outside the Capitol on January 6. We congratulated each other, and the officials called us one by one to collect our naturalization certificate.

The naturalization certificate we received at the end is just a piece of paper. It is not an identity. It is the ease of leaving and entering a country that we still do not feel is ours. In all the paperwork they gave us, no steps or ideas of how to really become an American were shared. How does one come to feel American? Is singing the anthem with your hand on your chest enough to become a gringo? Is it enough to repeat that we are one nation, under God? Is it enough to be marching in the streets?

How does one come to feel American in the eyes of others? How can others see you as an American if you don’t see yourself  that way? My harsh accent will always give me away as someone who is neither from here nor there. Here, I learned to speak Spanglish. Being an American does not eliminate my Mexicanness. Lo mexicano will never be taken away from me—whatever being mexicano means. Sometimes, you become more Mexican when you leave Mexico.

Maybe we create our own concept of what it’s like to be Mexican after we leave. This is where my love for avocado and salsa was born. Here, I learned to cry when listening to a mariachi. Here, I studied Latin American literature. Here, I take photos when I see Bimbo products in stores.

In this country, we are not only Mexican—we are also Latinx and Hispanic. Our skin tone will determine the level at which we will experience discrimination (and so, how free we are). Something similar to the colorism and racism that Mexico suffers and denies (making it more challenging to deconstruct it). Here, we will be forced to select our race again and again: white, Black, Asian, or Indigenous. According to the paperwork, there is nothing in-between.

The piece paper they gave me at the end of my citizenship ceremony will not help when I fill out these forms asking about my racial identity. It won’t save me from microaggressions. But now, I can vote for our representatives. I will stop being an alien, on paper. Eventually, I will be able to request the blue passport with which I will be able to cross the border faster—and without worrying about erasing Trump’s memes, but still listening to the radio’s static inside and outside my head.

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Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick