Charles Dominguez: How I came to embrace my roots in a trans-border state

My family has lived in Arizona since it was in Mexico. But it only became my home recently

Before the land negotiations that followed the Mexican-American War in 1848, the area of land we currently consider Arizona was part of the Mexican state of Sonora.

Under the terms of the Mexican Cession, the United States took possession of Arizona, and as a result of this land grab, many Mexican people, who wouldn’t be granted full United States citizenship until 1930, now were living in the U.S.

These people didn’t cross the border — the border crossed them.

This is the story of my family, and only in the past few years have I and other close relatives started to understand how deeply it’s shaped my identity, worldview and passion for political activism.

This understanding began to take shape in high school, when I was assigned a paper on my family’s immigration story.

But as I learned, my family doesn’t have a grand immigration story. We've been here for generations. As my classmates told stories of their ancestors adventuring across oceans and states in pursuit of the American dream, I found myself searching for my identity — both in this country and within my own skin.

In this process, painful memories resurfaced, and I found myself wanting to reclaim my identity.

Even though my family is originally from what we now consider Arizona, I remembered classmates throughout my life telling me to go back to my country, as well as the fights that ensued whenever someone called me a “beaner.”

These experiences growing up left mental scars, and my high school years had been so busy that I’d forgotten — or suppressed — how uncomfortable I was with my brown skin growing up.

So for the remainder of high school, I dedicated my free time to political activism, as I attached myself to political campaigns and movements across Phoenix.

My family’s history helped me understand the arbitrary and malleable nature of borders, and I have remained passionate about human rights, civil rights and immigration while in college.

By my senior year, I had grown increasingly comfortable in my brown skin. It was then that I gained a clearer understanding of what it means to be a Mexican-American person in this country, an experience I underwent alongside my mother.

The catalyst of our joint evolution was a series of talks my school held on issues of race and racism in the U.S.

Leading up to the talks, members of the school’s administration wanted to meet with students of color on campus to allow them the opportunity to voice any questions or concerns.

I attended these discussions, and felt good about my contributions, but I was surprised by how my mom reacted when I told her that I’d gone.

“Wait, why’d you go?” she asked. “You aren’t a person of color.” 

This threw me for a loop.

Throughout my life, my mom has been one of my greatest role models and teachers. I consider her one of the most intelligent, caring people I’ve met, and I’ve been lucky to have her in my life.

But she didn’t get it.

I was confident about my position on the matter — Mexican-American people undoubtedly qualify as people of color in this country — but, at the time, she felt just as strongly about her own position.

I considered her upbringing, and how she and my father had both grown up in a mostly homogenous small town of Mexican-American people. Under those terms, I understood her viewpoint. 

I agreed to disagree and we dropped the subject. 

But while I was more comfortable who I was, when I got to college I was still trying to reconcile my Mexican roots with my personal identity. As a Mexican-American person, while my immediate family always felt connected to our heritage, I never felt like there was a body of land that I could consider home.

This internal conflict persisted but ultimately came to a head during the 2016 election season while I was a sophomore in college working for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

During the campaign season, my mom had began talking to me about current events and, more specifically, the racist rhetoric many politicians were using.

My mom has always been politically engaged, and I’ve never doubted that her views are motivated by a belief in everyone’s fundamental human dignity, but I was caught off guard when, one day, she referred to herself as a person of color.

I hadn’t talked to her about race since the conversation we’d had in high school, and I was surprised that she’d reached this conclusion on her own.

While I hadn’t wavered in my beliefs, it was powerful and affirming to hear that my mom and I were on the same page.

The guidance she offered next was even more valuable to me.

I told her about some of the experiences I’d gone through in my life — being tormented by classmates or harassed by police officers — and, at first, she just listened.

But after a moment, she countered with advice that seems obvious now: This is my home, and I must be proud of the person I am.

The sentiment was simple, but complete.

Since that night, I’ve always tried to carry my mom’s advice with me, and it’s shaped how I’ve chosen to spend my time at ASU. As a college senior, I’ve gotten more politically involved, and I know my personal convictions will continue to guide my career path post-graduation.

These days, I often marvel at the natural beauty of Arizona and recognize that this land, transformed, is the same land my ancestors breathed in centuries ago. 

It feels like home.


Reach the columnist at cldoming@asu.edu and follow @chuck_dominguez on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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