My husband recently installed a flag rack on the back of his Harley-Davidson to fly an American flag. It snaps in the wind as he rides, proclaiming that this biker is a proud American. It matches the flag patches he has affixed to his leather vests and jackets, and the flag T-shirts he owns. He has more American flags in his possession than the average elementary school.
The first time he took a good look at the American flag was when he crossed the border in 1991. It meant nothing to him then. America, “Los Estados Unidos” was a land of dreams, adventure and opportunity.
The oldest of seven children, he knew he could find work in the U.S., send money back to Mexico, and put his younger siblings through school or buy his parents a house.
Like many other immigrants, his plan was to creep across the border through the canyons and hillsides of San Ysidro, sweep up the gold in the streets, and send it back to Mexico.It would take a year or two at most to make enough money to change his family’s destiny and then he would return home.
The first few years in the U.S. were a blur. He often worked several minimum-wage jobs at once: dishwasher, janitor, cook. Learning English was out of the question; there was no time and frankly no need to speak it. Who needs English when all of your friends speak Spanish? Who needs English when you never have time for anything but work? Who needs English when you live in the shadows?
English is for people who belong here. English is for Americans.
The second time my husband took a good look at the flag was 10 years later when we went to the immigration office to obtain his legal residency. Like so much about the Department of Homeland Security offices, the flag was large and intimidating. It said “America” in a loud and bold voice. It said, “If you have the right paperwork, and if you speak enough English and if you’re lucky, maybe you can stay here.”
I boldly strode through the corridors of the immigration office with the confidence of an American who learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten, who knows all the words to the national anthem, whose heart never skipped a beat at the sight of the white and green trucks of “La Migra.”
My husband walked quietly beside me, paperwork nervously clenched in his hand, waiting to see if he’d be allowed to stay in the country he’d inhabited for 10 years, the country in which his two children had been born, the country in which he’d recently bought a home.
The third time my husband really looked at the American flag was at his swearing-in ceremony to become a US citizen. Each new citizen was given a tiny flag to hold while they took an oath to uphold the Constitution.
As I looked around the room at the hundreds of people who left behind their homelands to become part of the fabric of our country because they believed that in some way it was better than the place they called home, I was choked by emotion. I knew that behind my husband’s oath was a still-shaky command of English, months of night classes, and hours of practicing the answers to the hundred basic civics questions: Who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner?” What color is the flag? Against whom did the colonists fight in the American Revolution?
I believed that though he’d walk into the ceremony a Mexican, he’d walk out an American. Certainly he held his flag proudly, and rushed straight from the swearing-in to the post office to obtain his American passport.
He was proud of how far he’d come since the night he slunk under cover of darkness into the U.S., and grateful for the wealth of opportunities he had been given here. Through a combination of luck and hard work, he’d been able to catch hold of a little bit of the American Dream.
Assimilation is a complicated thing, though. In the face of commentaries about how immigrants need to learn English, need to learn our customs or need to act like Americans if they’re going to be here, I remember that it took my husband 10 years after first stepping on American soil to become a legal resident.
It took 13 years for him to become a citizen, 15 years to cheer for the U.S. in the Olympics, 18 years to work in a job with primarily Anglo co-workers, 20 years to become completely fluent in English.
I knew for certain that he had become an American the day, 23 years after arriving, that he attached the flag to the back of his Harley-Davidson.