- On Nativity
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born while his parents were traveling to Bethlehem to register, as required by law, with the census. Fast forward 2,010 Decembers— giving or taking a few for the ecclesiastical debate and/or shoddy recordkeeping around the dawn of the common era—to the advent of my own son’s nativity. He wasn’t born in a Bethlehem barn beneath a great star but in Michoacán’s Star Médica hospital overlooking a bullring.
19.7°:101.2°; 20:23 hours; masculino; 2 kilos, 250; Apgar 9. The data of birth is quantifiable; a baby is weight, gender, and geography.
Too soon, I knew, he’d be more data. Too soon, we’d have to begin the process of certifying his identity, of classifying and designating and documenting a being who still felt like an extension of my body, our umbilical joining a residual cord, a phantom itch, a short in my circulatory wiring. But in those dim, reverential days and nights after his birth, my son did not exist anywhere but in my arms; he was nothing but sweet breath and drying flesh, his tiny fingers and toes printed with patterns unfiled anywhere. He had no name or nationality. Not on paper anyway. Not in Mexico, where the birth certificate would not be processed by the hospital, but by a public registry, which was of course closed for the holidays: el día del Virgen de Guadalupe, la navidad (y, for the bicultural kids, el día de Santa), and Three Kings’ Day. My child belonged to nobody but us, his family, to me and his father and his one older brother.
And I didn’t want to share my body’s claim of him with any body politic: not any country-’tis-of-thee or viva México, not any notion of nation or state. [End Page 63]
Country, as I wanted to see it, was a myth wrapped in a flag: a few blocks of synthetic color stitched together to symbolize the product of some great, invisible political jigsaw, a story reduced to star-spangles and stripes, to eagle, serpent, and prickly pear, to hammer and sickle, to crescent, to red sun. Country was lines on paper, a solid wall across shifting sand. I want to say country as identity wasn’t bone-level, that it lacked the ineffable heft of family.
And yet, I love my country with an esophageal spasm, an impulse trailing caveats. I see a soldier back from a war I do not “believe” in, and I go weak at knee and duct.
And yet, I love my country the shredding way I love the members of my family. During our turbulent teens, my sister threw shoes at my head and shrieked in public places how she wished I would cease to breathe air, but in spite of her trigger-ready dossier of evidence to the contrary, that same sister believes I am more exceptional than other people. I have been around enough to know that I am not more exceptional than other people, but I happened to be born on the side of a line that allows me to cross lines and still come home again.
And yet, for all I love the abstraction that is my own designated country, I also love the abstraction that is Mexico.
Native: natural state, what is inherent or born into us, produced by birth, indigenous, related to origin.
Nation: a distinct people, a tribe, or, literally, that which has been born; also, a political state.
In terms of place, of landscape and rootedness, of terroir, as the French say of the earth from which their wine grapes grow, the United States is where I originated. Or, to use that archaic phrase people refuse to let die, I was born on “American soil.” And I am American by the fact of my birth, the steeping of my childhood (blue clay and tannins of maple leaves), and the trace of my ancestry. But what does it matter that the blood from which I descend has for centuries drained and decayed into...