I’m One of Them

Richard Rodriguez was November speaker at the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall and he captivated the audience.
He told of his upbringing between two Mexican parents who didn’t speak English and of the catholic school where the nuns shoved English down his throat.
He owes them a lot since he has led a successful career as a writer, journalist, scholar and speaker. Richard Rodriguez is a controversial figure since he has openly stood against affirmative action that he believes is an obstacle to real assimilation.
And he spoke of course of America and being an American, topics I am passionate about.
Through a brilliant, funny and strikingly unique talk he told of an America getting brown, in perpetual change, fluid and complex at the same time.
Dozens of anecdotes punctuated his lecture. Among them a few echoed my personal understanding of what being an American means.
When Rodriguez told of the two distinct worlds that are home and school for kids born from immigrant parents, I could only think of my own children who day after day cross the bridge between two languages and cultures that only belong to their parents. Of course I cross the bridge too and it can be a pretty shaky one for both sides of the family.
Richard Rodriguez spoke of the American language with eloquence. In Europe, American is either associated to English or put down as a language not as pure as the British language. American has assimilated many more languages following the different waves of immigration that any other language has ever done and the rest of the world borrows from it more and more often. Even the French, who cherish their heritage, punctuate their newspapers and magazines with American words.
When Rodriguez said that anywhere in the world Americans are easily recognized but also able to spot each other, I could only agree.
Whenever I return to France I notice how I am growing apart from my fellow compatriots and how, more and more often, they don’t see me as a French native.
However I look physically the same and I wonder what makes them tick. It can only be my clothes, I think. With French clothes on, I will be French again. But I have to admit that it doesn’t work.
What makes me spot an American in a crowd can be a pair of white sneakers worn with a pair of jeans, being bare foot in the fall in Paris and of course a sweatshirt with the name of a football team. But an American like me knows how to avoid all these tags that yell, “I’m an American”, right? So what is it that makes the French doubt I’m one of them?
Rodriguez spoke of an American walk, an American slouch and an American smile. I pick the smile. It has to be the smile that targets me as one of them darned Americans who walk the world with awe, confidence, curiosity and naivety.
Yesterday when I left the auditorium, I looked around me. Americans of all genders, all sizes, all ages, and all colors surrounded me. They talked and laughed, patted each other’s back and joked in loud groups. I couldn’t resist smiling at them.
And as I made my way though this ebullient bunch of Americans, I thought with a mix of surprise and pride, “I’m one of them. I’m an American.”

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