The Best Sort of Patriotism Comes Out of Nowhere

By Tom Miller
Sunday, November 27, 2005

Once, back in the 1950s when I was a child, I remember riding down North Capitol Street with my Dad when he burst forth with some unexpected patriotism. He motioned to the U.S. Capitol in clear view a mile ahead of us, thumped his heart, and said, "It kind of gets you right here, doesn't it." I was a bit baffled at first, but yes, it did kind of get me right there.

It hasn't got me right there a whole lot since, though. Over the years, I've taken part in democratic institutions such as political conventions and inaugurations, not to celebrate the principles but to protest the principals. I've done my best to stretch the First Amendment and the Selective Service, always combating the center of power. It sometimes feels as if American patriotism has been seized by those who give it a bad name. Flamboyant, super-size devotion to country is not something I am comfortable with. Sure, I rise when the national anthem's played, but I cringe whenever a politician closes a speech with an unctuous "God Bless America." I can think of innumerable countries -- heck, whole continents -- that need God's blessings far more than this one.

It's when I'm in those countries that my feelings change. I've spent a good deal of time in the Americas, from the Mexican border and the Caribbean on down through the Andes, and it's overseas that I find myself standing up for the United States. It's an awkward and uncustomary loyalty, and its occasional eruption surprises no one more than me.

Last year more than half a million people were sworn in as U.S. citizens -- a figure that may grow some this year. Among the most recent were my two stepsons, now in their early thirties, who were naturalized this fall. The ceremony forced me to set aside complaints and criticism for one day and embrace the notion of becoming an American. At a time when I feel as though the bruises on America's body politic have turned to welts, and the welts to lesions, and the lesions to -- you get the idea -- I found that welcoming these newcomers into the fold, well, got me right here.

Juan Carlos and Leonardo left their native Cuba six years ago. Since then, as green-card holders, they've done immigrantly well. Juan Carlos has graduated from college and, now a married homeowner, has enrolled in a master's program in Latin American studies. Leonardo, who already had a degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of Havana, holds a position of some responsibility at a manufacturing plant. "You know," Juan Carlos said to me a while back, brimming with the newcomer's optimism, "you can be anything you want to be in this country if you really set your mind to it." And who I am to tell him different?

All immigration results from push and pull factors. My stepsons came to the States because their mother, whom I met in Havana while researching a book, moved here after we married. Regla became a citizen a while back, and we soon discovered a spontaneous pull factor. Upon her naturalization we rented a casita in a mountain town near the Mexican border for a celebratory weekend. She surveyed the videos on the VCR shelf: "Casablanca," "The African Queen," "The Caine Mutiny." "At last," Regla sighed, "I'm in the country of Humphrey Bogart."

All four of my grandparents emigrated to the States from Lithuania more than 100 years ago. This makes me a second-generation American, a standing I never really thought about until I spent countless fitful hours -- over more than a decade -- carefully filing paperwork for my wife and stepsons to move here, meeting bureaucratic deadlines and paying administrative fees to both countries. I visited Cuba a number of times for research, exploration and conferences, with each visit nudging the immigration process along. My travel expenses were covered, in part, courtesy of quality cigars, bought on the black market in Havana and sold on the black market here. It was a truly bi-national effort. (Attention Attorney General Gonzales: The statute of limitations has expired on those transactions.)

My stepsons were sworn in just 10 weeks ago with close to 500 others at a community center complex in Tucson that only days earlier had housed New Orleans evacuees and just a few days later would host the Dalai Lama. To get that far, they had had to prove proficiency in English (not a problem) and pass a civics test. Sample questions: What were the original 13 Colonies? What are the three branches of the federal government? (I coached them on that one: Larry, Moe and Curly.) Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?

The naturalization ceremony began with "Yankee Doodle," played on a harmonica by a soon-to-be American from Belgium. The whole bunch stood and swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, and agreed to bear arms on behalf of the United States. And they pledged their allegiance under God. Finally, the day's speaker told them, "Never forget the country you come from." I was so proud I wanted to walk the boys down the aisle.

We threw a party that night to celebrate, with red, white and blue crepe paper festooning our back patio. In between the congratulations, felicidades and the occasional mazel tov , we cranked up salsa and hip-hop on the stereo, and I played a recording of Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner." By the time the last guest left around 3 a.m., close to 100 people had come, many bearing gifts for the two in recognition of their new Americanness: Twinkies, apple pies, a Big Mac, a Cabbage Patch Kids doll, a copy of Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice."

I am the beneficiary of Baltic immigration from two generations ago and a benefactor of contemporary Caribbean immigration, and I can assure you of this: The numerous foreigners who cross our borders invigorate our workforce, stake out their own neighborhoods, and enrich our country with their language and with their culture. If that's patriotism, give me more. It kind of gets me right here.

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Tom Miller has been writing about the American Southwest and Latin America for more than three decades. His books include "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba" (Basic Books).

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