Why Populism Will Not Make America Great: The Making of a Mexican-American Dream

Photo by Michael Dougherty (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Pacific Standard, Sarah Menkedick profiles Vianney Bernabé, exploring what it means to be second-generation Mexican American today — a person with deep roots in Mexico and feet and future planted firmly in America. Educated, ambitious, and principled, Bernabé is destined for success. Menkedick posits that if America cannot reject this myopic resurgence of nativist (white) populism to embrace the skills and culture of Bernabé’s generation, it does so at its own peril.

Vianney embodies two fundamental American traditions: the dream of triumphing over adversity to achieve success, and its nightmare shadow of xenophobia, fear, and hatred.

What these young Latinos become will be determined not only by their own struggles and achievements, but also by the willingness of many Americans to rethink their fundamental conceptions of Americanness, to recognize the dangerous fiction of an essential, unchanging America defined solely by white culture.

Mexico gave Vianney what the United States could not: the ability to believe in herself. It did this not by granting her unequivocal acceptance or answering the persistent questions of belonging posed in the U.S., but by forcing her to come to terms with her ambivalence. It allowed her to acknowledge that she was American, but an American for whom Americanness did not mean unquestioning assimilation into white institutions, but solidarity with the many people excluded from these institutions. It granted her a new faith in herself in spite of the hatred and oppression. It familiarized her with in-betweenness, a state deeply and violently resisted in the U.S., where patriotism is feverish and flavorless, where you are with us or against us, where, at this moment in time, simply speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab is enough to elicit righteous white rage.

She returned to the United States in August of 2016, when the message being blared to Latinos was precisely the opposite: Not only were they not good enough, they were rapists, drug dealers, “bad hombres.” Vianney, with her hard-won confidence in herself, and her renewed commitment to help those left out of American progress, came home to the feverish chanting of Build the wall! Donald Trump’s victory in November — despite his losing the popular vote by a historic margin — has legitimized and strengthened a vision of the United States in which only white people belong and have ever belonged. The most popular, foundational myth of the United States as the land of freedom for the world’s oppressed has been eclipsed by the ever-present but thinly buried myth of white dominance and superiority.

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