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For Mexican Americans, Dual Citizenship Can Be A Home Run Or A Strikeout

A mural showing Mexican, Puerto Rican, Native American and Black historic icons is displayed near the industrial corridor of Walker Square in Milwaukee in September 2020.
Sebastian Hidalgo
Un mural que muestra íconos históricos mexicanos, puertorriqueños, nativo-americanos y afro-americanos se exhibe cerca del corredor industrial de Walker Square en Milwaukee en septiembre de 2020.

During the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which the pandemic delayed to this summer, an incident involving Mexico's women's softball team — including two athletes from Texas — ignited a scandal.

The controversy highlighted a conundrum that many Mexican Americans endure: the divide brought on by their identity. Biculturalism and dual citizenship are changing: Globalization affects not only sports fields… It also affects the social arena.

The Mexican national anthem played at the opening of a softball match between Mexico and Canada. The teams competed for the bronze medal. But many of the players from Mexico didn't sing the anthem. Seventeen out the 19 players came from the United States. They possessed dual citizenship.

During the game, Claro Sports commentator Roberto González noted that at first no one in Mexico held high hopes for the team. But their consistent victories, bringing them closer to the Olympic podium, had made them more popular.

In the end, the Mexican team lost to Canada, missing the chance for Mexico to win its first Olympic medal for softball. But the media was supportive.

“Well done by the Mexicans," said sports analyst Kony Vargas. "Their effort was more than enough to gain their popularity and respect.”

That goodwill did not last long. Mexico's female boxing team tweeted that many of the softball players had thrown away their Mexican uniforms before they flew out of Tokyo.

Mexican Fox Sports analyst Fernando Schwartz said on air that he outraged over the softball team’s actions. He said it was disrespectful to Mexico and other Mexicans, and particularly towards other Olympic athletes with humble backgrounds, like the boxers who exposed them.

In social media, some people defended the players, arguing that throwing away uniforms was no excuse to attack them, and that they demonstrated that they were top-notch athletes regardless of where they were born or raised.

But others posted that throwing away the uniforms was treacherous and offensive. Some attacked them by calling them a second-class U.S. softball team or a bunch of spoiled and wealthy American brats. The president of Mexico’s Olympic Committee also considered the incident shameful and irresponsible.

The softball federation offered a public apology, arguing that luggage weight restrictions forced the athletes to discard their uniforms. And some of the softball players apologized and decided to quit the national team.

Mexico’s softball federation did not respond to TPR’s requests for comment.

“The problem is not how good or bad it is to throw away the uniforms, but the given value to those objects,” said José Antonio Carrera, sociology researcher and transnational citizenship expert at Mexico’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

He said that for the U.S.-born-and-raised athletes, the objects were probably not as symbolically important as the fact of being Olympic competitors.

“As borders blur, more people share two governments, territories or cultures,” Carrera said.

And national symbols such as anthems, flags or, in this case, uniforms, might be losing their unifying national values as compared to others, such as food, family or sports.

“And spoiler alert: Both the U.S. and Mexico have not been able to respond to migrations in a fully democratic way,” Carrera added.

He explained that dual citizens have been left at the expense of xenophobia and discrimination on both sides of the border — and sometimes with less opportunities.

“And if Mexico has no capacity to develop softball, why not try recruiting Mexican-American athletes, just like professional soccer teams in both countries recruit binational players?” Carrera asked.

He also said economic transnational citizenship continuously flows through investments and remittances, but the political aspects seem to be stuck.

According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, there were almost 37 million people of Mexican-origin living in the U.S. in 2017. Only 31% of them were Mexican Americans.

While most of the Mexican electorate overseas is in the U.S., the majority is not participating. Only about 76,000 of them voted during the Mexican presidential elections in 2018.

“Those who can get dual citizenship should take it as an opportunity that, despite its historic undervalue, may improve both nations,” Carrera said.

“I think dual citizenship doesn't do enough to acknowledge that there are cultural roots and relationships,” said Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. He specializes in immigration and Latinidad in the U.S.

He explained that the identity of people with two cultures is affected by how their backgrounds blend, but also by prejudices, like those Mexicans may experience in the U.S., or like the ones that the softball players faced.

“I always joke with my students with what I refer to as the Selena doctrine,” he said.

Pineda referred to a scene in the biopic Selena, in which the Tex-Mex singer’s father, played by Edward James Olmos, gave her a lecture about identity: “We got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It's exhausting. Damn! Nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican American.”

And Pineda, whose family came from Mexico decades ago, said those words resonated with many Mexican Americans, including him... and probably with the Olympic softball players too. But, he added, he could also understand the polarized reactions that many Mexicans displayed towards the athletes because the Olympics, like many sports, tend to become very nationalistic.

“As somebody who also studies crisis communication, I would have said that’s the last thing that you want to do," he said. "I mean, find a way to ship those uniforms home, quite frankly, because something like this is embarrassing at the minimum. And at a moment when everybody's trying to be their best and represent their country — whether it's their original country or adopted country or the country of their parents — little things like these do carry a lot of weight.”

Pineda said that while the U.S. was reluctant to open borders, Mexico showed little interest in attracting dual citizens. He said countries like Ireland or Spain have tried to connect with many generations of their nationals while offering something attractive, like free education.

“The challenge is always going to be: the more politicized this is, the less likely we are to have a more fluid nation-state,” he said.

But despite the barriers, Pineda concluded, the bicultural population will always enrich the two countries with a different sense of identity — one that goes back and forth from both sides.

In that kind of game, everyone wins.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Rodrigo Cervantes is Mexico City bureau chief and reporter for KJZZ in Arizona. Contact him at @rodcervantes