Reflections of A First-Generation American on the Fourth of July

Some of my most vivid childhood memories center on the Fourth of July. Besides Thanksgiving, it was one of the few holidays my family consistently celebrated. A lot of that probably stemmed from where we were: Lincoln, Nebraska, which is about as middle of Middle America as you can get. It was an annual ritual watching the firework vendors come to town and set up shop during the last week in June. They’d dot parking lots along the city’s main corridors, propping up makeshift warehouses of explosives under colorful tents that reminded me of the circus.

And that’s sort of what the Fourth is: a giant, nationwide circus. Whether you’re a master magician who can make an entire pot of potato salad disappear or a closeted pyromaniac who straps together fireworks in ways that are likely illegal, this most American of holidays is a chance to get drunk on patriotism and let your freak flag fly proudly. And while I was a pretty shy kid who gravitated more toward the sparklers and smoke bombs, I always considered the Fourth as my family’s way of embracing all that it means to be American.

American. I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately — almost nonstop since last year’s presidential election. In the months since, I’ve obsessed over not only what it means to be American but also who gets to be American. It is a privilege entirely rooted in luck. To be born in the United States is akin to winning the genetic lottery, and no community is more acutely aware of that than immigrants.

As a first-generation American, I straddle along lines that intersect multiple cultures, never quite belonging here or there. Both of my parents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s — my father from Mexico, my mother from the Philippines. From a very young age it was instilled in me that while my Americanness is indeed a privilege, it’s also much, much more than that. It’s an opportunity — perhaps the most golden of opportunities one could be afforded — and it’s one that must be seized. When you’re a first-gen, leading a life that justifies the sacrifices of your immigrant parents isn’t a suggestion — it’s a requirement.

And that’s what fueled — and continues to fuel — my fire. I had to do everything right. There was no other way. Since education was clearly spelled out as the only path forward and upward, I did well in school and went to college. I got internships and studied abroad. After graduating, I jumped headfirst into the workforce and have been climbing my way up the corporate ladder ever since. I’m now living and working in the nation’s capital. I have a loving and supportive partner, a nice home with nice things, and a job that is enjoyable and pays the bills.

This isn’t to say that my life is perfect or without struggle because, well, that’s just not the case. But I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and I should feel accomplished. I should feel proud. I should feel like I’ve helped legitimize my parents’ hardships by making a name for myself in a place that — despite their best efforts to assimilate — constantly doubted and ostracized them.

But instead, all I really feel is uncertain. I’m uncertain about what the future holds for this country. I’m uncertain about my fellow Americans who elected a narcissistic, bigoted bully to the office of the presidency. How can so many be okay with policies that actively promote the spread of fear and prejudice? How can we justify needless spending on walls that won’t work and on terror tactics that divide families? How do we move forward as one united nation when immigrants and other marginalized communities are continually excluded from the conversation?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that despite my successes and my birthright, I will always be viewed as an Other. When someone says they want to make America great again, the subtext of “again” is not lost on me. The “again” implies that it was formerly great — before diversity, before civil rights, before we started to atone for the sins of our collective past, before people like my parents left their families, homes, cultures, and languages behind all for a shot at a better life. When I hear that “again,” I hear, “You and your kind messed everything up.”

But what these people fail to see is that America is great because of us — not in spite of us. And that’s what I’ll be celebrating this Fourth of July.

Mekita Rivas is a multiracial writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. In addition to ROAR, her work has been featured in Bustle, GOOD, Racked, Romper, and Teen Vogue. She holds undergraduate degrees in journalism and English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her current projects include a collection of short stories and a feature film screenplay. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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