I was raised in a different time. Born in 1942, I was taught by conscientiously left/liberal parents that my primary identity was human being, and that my secondary identity as a Jew was defined by our minority status; by an imperative to defend the rights of other minorities, particularly – this was Richmond, Virginia, circa 1947-57 – African-Americans. Once “the haters” get through with them, my father counseled, they’ll come for us next.
This purposeful “assimilationism” has been out of fashion for some time now, sidelined by the many genuine gratifications and simulations of more particular national, ethnic or racial identifications.
But I’m stickin’ with my mom and dad, the latter of whom helped pave the way for the young Arthur Ashe to take on all comers on the newly-integrated tennis courts of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation Department. Dealing just with the imperatives of human solidarity was a lot easier than finding and expressing “my identity” as a Virginia Jew of Russian-Polish origins.
A lot of this was enabled by the fact that my extended family had all come to America 40 or more years before I was born, happy to leave the area of western Russia in some years, eastern Poland in others. They simply severed local or national connections they never valued much to begin with. As for the religious identity, I had cousins who were religious, but my parents and I were emphatically “non-practicing” Jews.
“Culturally,” of course, we identified strongly with Jews from opera-singer Jan Peerce, to song and dance man Eddie Cantor, to boxers like Benny Leonard and baseball stars like Hank Greenberg, but with a “rooting interest,” not real self-definition.
We defined ourselves through values like civil rights and human rights. My dad wound up as Human Rights Commissioner of White Plains, New York and I followed a similar career orientation towards global justice as a journalist.
Easy for me, I was disconnected from my “roots” from the start. Harder is when your national identity straddles a border between two complex, diverse nations and your mispacha, Yiddish for extended family, is simultaneously proud to be Mexican and American, and is alive and kickin’ on both sides of a frontier that often encourages both mutual love and respect and historic rivalries and grievances.
How four friends deal with their own self-definitions of identity is at the heart of award-winning Dallas Morning News journalist Alfredo Corchado’s recent memoir “Homelands.” Alfredo and two of his friends see themselves as Mexican-Americans, the fourth member of the group is representative of a large minority of New Mexicans who define themselves not as Mexican-Americans, but Hispanic-Americans. Their identification implies that for their ancestors, Mexico was just a way station between Spain and the Land of Enchantment. Dealing with that alone is one hard job; reconciling it with three related, but different, Mexican-American identities was hard enough to strain close and valued friendships.
Quite a concept. Quite a story. And Alfredo Corchado tells it with empathy and power in “Homelands.”
Alfredo Corchado Jiménez is an award-winning Mexican-American journalist and author who has covered Mexico for many years, and is currently the Mexico City bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. He specializes in covering the drug wars and the U.S.-Mexico border, writing stories on topics such as drug cartels and organized crime, corruption among police and government officials, and the spread of drug cartels into U.S. cities. His new autobiographical book Homelands describes a group of four friends wrestling with the complexities of Mexican-American identity and personal fulfillment.
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism has noted that he has “described mass shootouts that no one else writes about, obtained and described videos of revenge executions, and revealed how the few arrested for the mass murder of women in Juárez are often innocent stooges.” Howard Campbell, author of Drug War Zone, has called Corchado “the top American journalist covering Mexico today” whose “knowledge of the Mexican political system, the drug trade, and modern Mexican society is non-pareil.” Corchado currently lives between El Paso and Mexico City but calls the border home.