All of us who live in the United States but were born abroad have had the same experience. Someone asking us, “Where are you from?”
In the best of cases, it is genuine curiosity. Something in your appearance and your accent indicates you come from another country or you’re different. But other times it’s a matter of setting limits, of telling you that you’re not from here. That’s when it hurts, when it becomes a show of discrimination.
When asked where I come from, I usually say I was born in Mexico but now live in the United States. That tells part of my history. I am, above all, an immigrant (with a marked accent in English that betrays the fact that I learned it very late in life.) In Miami, where I live, work and have my family, there are so many Latin American immigrants it’s not necessary to justify our presence.
But it’s not always like that.
The author Reyna Grande – who recently published her Spanish-language novel Corrido de Amor y Gloria, recently told me about her experience coming from Mexico to California. “When I came to the United States at the age of nine, I was always made to feel ashamed of myself, my roots, where I came from, my Mexican history, my dark skin, my entire identity as a Mexican,” she told me in an interview. “But when I realized California was part of Mexico, that Spanish was spoken here before English, that was an empowering moment – that I did have the right to be here because we Mexicans were here first.”
The United States is an increasingly diverse country. By 2044, perhaps before, the non-Hispanic white population will no longer be the majority. That means we will live in a nation of minorities, with a variety of cultures, languages and customs. The different will be the rule. And Hispanics like me, already more than 62 million, will continue to expand.
“One out of every four people will be Hispanic,” I was told by Roberto Santos, the new director of the U.S. Census Bureau, the first Latino to hold the post and the grandson of four grandparents born in Mexico. “And we have to draw, from that diversity, strength for our nation. That is something to strengthen us, not divide us.”
Unfortunately, part of the U.S. population views that growing diversity as an imminent threat. They hear the most conservative media saying that immigrants will replace them. And that is false. We complement them, we don’t push them out of the way. But it doesn’t help when the most extremist leaders repeat the same lies about an invasion of foreigners.
Back in 2015, the then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told me during a news conference to “go back to Univision.” In truth, what he wanted to tell me was to go back to Mexico. He had not liked my question and tried to silence me. His bodyguard threw me out of the news conference, but he could not send me back to Mexico. Here, in the United States, my rights are the same as his.
I thought about all this because of what happened recently in London to Ngozi Fulani, a Black British citizen and director of a charity organization. She had been invited to a gathering at Buckingham Palace, about violence against women, when an aide to the royal family – Lady Susan Hussey, 83 – touched her hair and asked repeatedly about her origins. Not once, but at least six times. “Where are you from … Where do you come from … What part of Africa are you from … What nationality are you … Where do you really come from .. Where do your people come from … When did you first come here?”
Ngozi denounced the incident on Twitter and later told BBC5 that she considered the whole matter an “interrogation” and “abuse” and that she was “made to feel uncomfortable in her own space.” Ngozi was born in Great Britain and describes herself as being “of African heritage, Caribbean descent.”
The Royal Palace investigated the incident, and Ngozi was right. Lady Hussey apologized and was fired from her honorary post. Hussey’s age, Ngozi said, was no excuse for behavior so aggressive and discriminatory.
In Great Britain as in the United States, one of the things that most bothers those who resist demographic change and ethnic diversity is to tell them that this is also our country. They just won’t understand that there are many ways to belong to a country – not only being born there – and that because of migration, travel and globalization, the planet is increasingly mixed. The future is, inevitably and happily, about mixtures and combinations. The pure is disappearing.
The next time someone asks you where you come from, it’s enough to say: I am from here.