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Immigration column

America is Hot Dogs and Baseball and Polkas and Mariachis and...

Printed in the Kansas City Star on August 29, 2009.

This Monday is Mom's 85th birthday. She lives in her native Mexico now, where our parents retired after 30 years in America. Gracias Mama, for all your sacrifices, including bringing us to this amazing country.

Often lost in the immigration debate is appreciation for success stories like our family's. Among three generations of offspring, American-born or naturalized, we count a teacher, border guard, bank executive, fireman, dental professional, human resources executive, and two writers.

An All-American list, and I'm sure a doctor, lawyer, and Senator will be included some day.

Immigrant families like ours, from all over the globe, legal and illegal, helped build this country. Who built the railroads, manned the factories, served in the military, farmed our fields — and through it all created our culture — if not immigrants and their offspring?

My parents emigrated, legally, from central Mexico to Chicago in the1950s. The story told is that an old friend convinced Dad, who is now deceased, that the streets were paved with gold.

Relatively speaking, it was true. In Aguascalientes, Dad was a teacher. Here he worked in factories. Even so, he made more money in a week then he could in a year back home. He knew what the economic future held for his family if he stayed behind. Immigration is driven by economic necessity, not greed.

I love Mom's stories about the emigration. Dad came here a few years ahead and would send money and gifts home. The kids got toys, but she got a modern washing machine. She and her sisters marveled at it for days. Imagine not washing by hand!

They left their family behind for a strange new land where they knew almost no one. Language was a major barrier. Mom recounts going into a grocery store and struggling to describe an egg. She was saved by a Spanish-speaking customer.

This unfamiliarity is why immigrants cluster, and build local businesses where they can speak their language. This bothers many, but it's a natural survival instinct.

Mexicans are no different than past groups. The Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese and many others have had their enclaves, faced discrimination, learned the language and assimilated. All have added to the culture in a beneficial way.

Critics fear that our "pure" American culture is being muddied by foreign languages and customs. But we are by our very nature a mixture. Yes, America is hot dogs and baseball. And it's also polkas and mariachis, Oktoberfest and Cinco de Mayo, Yiddish and Spanglish, piñatas and dreidels.

In our family, very few of the second and third generations even speak Spanish. One niece, before she could apply for a bilingual teaching job, had to spend a summer in Mexico learning the language.

Critics ignore this successful Americanization process and focus on an ethnic pride that makes them uncomfortable. Yet, I can be proud of being an American of Mexican heritage. It's not one or the other with me.

In fact, being the son of immigrants gives me a greater appreciation for what we have here. I've visited Mexico many times and seen our alternative reality. I've seen poverty, corruption, and the unfulfilled promise of a hardworking people stifled by history or conditions.

We have plenty, and with that wealth should come compassion and humility. We like to say we are the "greatest country in the world." That may be true by some measures, but why the need to even claim it? Why not be happy for what we have, and recognize that we are all children of God?

There are other immeasurable ways of looking at quality of life. In Mexicans, despite the poverty, I see dignity and a quiet joy. We make thousands to their hundreds, and stress about our economy. They make do and are grateful. We run around like madmen, texting instead of talking. They invite you in for long dinners that are occasions as much as meals, where real laughter resonates instead of TVs.

Who knows what our life would be like if my parents never came here? All I can do is be grateful for what I have now. Gracias mama, for your sacrifice, and feliz cumpleaños (happy birthday)!