More years ago than I would like to admit, my dad’s sister was visiting from
Venuzuela Venezuela [You always spell countries as you first learned them, and in my case I learned it wrong. Ed. note: spell check, woman, spell check.] (of all places) and said something that truly puzzled me.
Now, I think I’ve spoken of this before: I come from a family of immigrants. Odd immigrants, as most Portuguese are sent from the home country because they’re starving or lack the skills to make it. Our family tends to go rather because we have wandering feet and are called by something out there, or just the desire to know what is out there. In every generation it seems to hit about half the children – a calculus my brother and I prove true, because there are exactly two of us.
Some of those who leave come back, though not all, and that too is odd for Portuguese immigrants, who tend to all plan on returning home in their old age. The last one in my father’s line who came back – after spending most of his working life in South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela was my grandfather.
My – now late – aunt, his daughter was visiting I THINK in the seventies, when a lot of other family – cousins, and second cousins, and great uncles – were coming back from various troubled places in the world, sometimes with only the shirt on their backs. I think my grandmother (who stayed home while grandad traveled, though they wrote to each other every single day) was trying to entice her only daughter back and she said something like “I hear it’s bad over there.” And my aunt said, “I prefer it bad there than good here.” (Though, mind, it was nowhere as bad as it is under Chavez, but one must presume she still preferred it, because she died there four [?] years ago. And her children still live there.)
At the time I was a kid and this was utterly puzzling to me. Why would you prefer to go far away from home, somewhere where things were supposedly “bad”?
I suppose if I went back this year, they could say the same about the US. In fact, mom and dad have at various times said just that, in a concerned tone, “why don’t you come back to where you have family that can help, now that things are bad?” (Yes, I know, things are bad in Portugal, too, but honestly they’re used to it. The country has TECHNICALLY been bankrupt for close on 900 years.)
They don’t ask it very seriously or very often, because they know the answer. What called me away from home was more than restlessness, or a feeling that I must go somewhere. What called me was rather the feeling that my home was always here, waiting for me.
Long before I first set foot in the US I had read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and I knew by heart the words to the Star Spangled Banner, which I still can’t sing without choking up. (And not just because I’m mid-range-deaf and the world’s worst singer.)
Another point of reference in the journey was the day I overheard mom tell a friend she was very worried about me (I was about fourteen I think) “because she thinks the world should work ethically and according to principles.”
If I had to describe what called me to America it was that: I was drawn by the idea of a nation formed on principles rather than a commonality of blood, and by the principles on which it was funded – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality under the law as the means to procure them.
Now, is America truly, throughout the ages, the shining city upon the hill? Well, no. America is created by humans (whether solely by humans is something you may take up with that peculiar set of my characters who call themselves Usaians and who – in my future society – maintain that America is part of a divine plan and if lost will return. They got very loud in my head when I typed that America was solely human. I am not, at this moment, prepared to argue with them) and maintained by humans. Humans are fallible. We can all point to times when we fell short of our funding ideals. But the ideals remained, and we – the majority of us, for the loonies like the poor shall be with us until the last days – agree they’re something to aim for. They are our reason for existing, the reason we are Americans.
“Bad” over here is still a “bad” in which most people believe in human rights. It is better than the “good” in most places. Most of you – most of us – will agree we’re going through a rough spot. But I believe in this brotherhood of principle that is stronger than any brotherhood of shared genes. And I believe we, my brothers and sisters in liberty, shall emerge from all this, perhaps a little battered but not defeated. I believe we’ll endure and continue to be a beacon to the nations, and to provide a home for those who – like me – are Americans tragically born to foreign parents.
My other aunt – mom’s next-younger sister – who lived for many years in France tried to tell me before I got married that I should convince Dan to move to Portugal instead, because “no matter how many years you live there, you’ll always be a foreigner, and you’ll know it, and they’ll know it.”
I’m not going to deny that at first things seemed very odd – but they were the processes of daily life, not the essence of the nation. The essence of the nation – how people work and how people relate – has always seemed if not perfectly rational, at least perfectly “like home.”
The first time I came back after having acquired permanent residency, I almost kissed the gentleman at passport control at JFK, who looked at the green card and said “Welcome home.” (I’m actually very sure I hugged him, much to his shock. Imagine doing that now, in an airport.) And the day I got citizenship (still have the flag) I felt that for the first time I TRULY belonged somewhere.
That is because of the difference between France, where – more often now in the default – race and land are still the fundamentals of the country and the United States, where common belief in a radical credo (if you don’t think the US Constitution is not radical, you need to read it again, with a fresh glance) is the reason for citizenship.
On this strange fourth of July – for Colorado – in which we can’t have fireworks or cookouts (but we can gather around the piano and sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Yeah, if your glass shatters that was me hitting a note disastrously off-key.) I’d like to give a moment of thanks to the men and women who formed this country and held it vital and strong through good times and bad (and the times we’d rather not even think about); I’d like to give a moment of thanks to all who died to keep the country independent and free; and I’d like to thank all of you, born-Americans for having allowed me to become one of you.
I’ll be here, in my corner, dissolving into tears at the closing lines “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
(Also blogging — different post — at Mad Genius Club)