April 29, 2021
I remember the first time I felt like an American.
On my cross-country trip to New England to begin my graduate program, I stopped at Port Huron, Michigan at an address handwritten on the back of a black and white photograph of my paternal grandparents. In the 1920s it was the home of Victoria and José Santana. These two young immigrants from the central coast of Mexico settled in the furthest edge of the U.S.-Canadian border to pursue a better life. A decade later, they were forced to return to Mexico with their American daughters in the face of the anti-Mexican hostility that emerged at the onset of the Great Depression.
Standing in front of this small wood-frame house, in a town built by steel mills that fed a burgeoning automobile industry, connected me to the American history that seemed to belong to someone else.
While I was born in this country, I always knew that for people like me, being American came with a condition. At an early age I was told that in this culture being American often equals being White. That was the message when I witnessed my father being held at gunpoint by White police officers for being a “wetback” in a town he supposedly did not belong in. I was reminded of this condition when my own daughter was reported to law enforcement by a White neighbor because he did not believe that she lived in the community where she grew up. For people of color, being American often has its limitations.
Today, in the rise of violence against Asian Americans, we are reminded of the unequal conditions placed on who gets to enjoy all the privileges of being an American. The presumption of who can be an American is also seen in the visceral hate spewed against migrant children seeking protection in a country they believe will embrace them, as this nation has for generations of refugees who crossed the Atlantic before them.
I was reminded what it feels like to be an American when the verdict for the murder of George Floyd was announced.
American history has demonstrated that fairness for a Black man in the judicial system is not to be expected. In this case, the American legacy of racial injustice was interrupted by the American value of equal justice.
As a foundation committed to equity and racial justice, we know that this moment did not happen in isolation. It took the work of activists, community organizers, youth, and people of all backgrounds to demand that justice be served for a Black man. It is their courage and the work of our nonprofit partners that gives us hope that we can still become a nation where everyone receives the same rights and privileges promised to all Americans, without condition. This remains a fight worth fighting. We are proud to be part of this struggle with them.
Miguel A. Santana
President & C.E.O.