Indivisible Man

What the new president means to me.

February 2009By Comments

Phases and Stages: Will Obama’s inauguration herald the dawn of a more inclusive sense of race and identity in America?
Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

Early on November 5, the morning after the election, I lay in bed wondering to myself if we had really just elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama to be president of the United States. Would the country’s forty-fourth chief executive actually be a “skinny black guy with a funny name,” as he often described himself during his two-year campaign? Maybe I had dreamed the whole thing. From my pillow I could see it was still dark outside; it seemed much too early to make any sense of this. I turned over and tried to fall back asleep.

But what if Obama had been elected? What if he had won by a commanding margin, the largest of any Democratic candidate in years? What if we had really gotten beyond the obvious differences and come together this one time? It seemed like something worth celebrating in a big way. I lay there for a moment with my eyes closed, letting myself be lulled by the idea of flying out to attend his inauguration (that is, of course, if he had won). I imagined trying to find a good spot to witness the swearing-in ceremony at the steps of the Capitol but the area being so crowded that I had to keep walking all the way to the other end of the National Mall toward the Reflecting Pool, where 45 years earlier Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Not that I know D.C. very well: I’ve been there only a handful of times, the last being eleven years ago, when I still worked in advertising. My agency was in town to present the initial phase of what was projected to be a $125 million ad campaign for our newest client, the Steel Alliance, made up of various steel manufacturers looking to retool their image. Some of us flew out a day early to rehearse the presentation, which would be held at the Mayflower Hotel, just down the street from the White House. After checking into our rooms, we met our client liaison and headed to the banquet room, where the hotel staff was already setting up the tables and another worker was up on a ladder, dusting the chandelier. The liaison was a slightly balding guy in his late thirties named Mike. His main role during the presentation would be to welcome the thirty or so clients and introduce the agency. We were going through our first dry run, with everyone sitting or standing in his or her appropriate place, when Mike asked if I minded too much if he introduced me just as “Oscar.”

It was a simple enough request. Only no one else was just “Matt” or just “Rick” or just “Allie.” Everyone else had a first and last name. Was it too much to want all of me included?

“I’d hate to trip over your last name,” Mike explained. Then he tried it and, as promised, skated past what should have been a hard c, then corrected himself with the first s, but finally stumbled when he tried to roll the r.

There had been other times when one of our account people had presented the rest of the team with first and last names but introduced me only as “Oscar.” Once or twice I had stepped forward and reintroduced myself, but this always led to the client’s asking me to repeat my last name. Then spell my name. Then say it again, slower this time. Then ask where I was placing the accent. On and on, while everyone else waited for me to untangle all those consonants and vowels.

And while Mike’s question that day in the Mayflower Hotel seemed innocent enough, it did feel as though one part of my name was more easily accepted than the other, foreign-sounding part. This was further complicated by the fact that because of my height and skin tone, I looked anything but foreign.

“Funny, you don’t look Mexican-American,” people would say, as if it had never occurred to me that there weren’t too many six-foot-five Mexican-Americans with light complexions. It might have been easier to explain, I suppose, if I were half Mexican. In a way, I guess it wasn’t so difficult to accept the idea that Mexican-Americans were usually shorter and darker—more like the woman using a hand steamer to remove the wrinkles from the table linens at the other end of the banquet room. The troubling part wasn’t that there was some truth to the stereotype but that somehow there didn’t seem to be much room for anything beyond the stereotype. And in this very real way, a part of me ceased to exist.

While someone else with my background might have been happy to blend in and go undetected, I felt the need to present a case for my last name. What I didn’t tell these clients was that my first name is not “Ah-sker” but “Oh-skar,” also in Spanish, and that my middle name is Homero. I normally don’t use my middle name, and my first name happens to look English to most people. So as it turns out, the only thing noticeably different about me is my last name, and now this was the part being turned away.

And here’s where it gets complicated: In trying to explain “what” I was exactly, I wanted first to be thought of as just me. I happened to have a particular heritage as a Mexican-American, and I was proud of that heritage, but I preferred not to be defined solely by it. I wanted people to look at me as an individual and not as an us or a they, as someone who was only part of a larger group. I wanted to blend in and stand out at the same time. I wanted it both ways: for people to notice that my name was different, as was my background, but not to think that I was different.

Because the core of my identity was not in either description, Mexican or American, but in that little unassuming hyphen that connected the two terms. Even now, more than 150 years after my ancestors crossed from the Republic of Mexico into the United States of America, I was a reflection of the journey itself, a journey between those two worlds that I continue to make every single day of my life, whether or not anyone, including me, is even aware of it. Much of this fluidity is the result of my growing up in a place like Brownsville, on the border between two countries, where life, for me, literally existed in two worlds, alike and radically different at the same time. In Brownsville, being Mexican could mean you were a Mexican from either this side (that is, Mexican-American) or the other side (that is, a Mexican citizen), though people rarely spoke in those terms: In Brownsville you were simply Mexican. Away from the border, though, people always wanted to know more, wanted to know what to do with a name that was so alien to them. And so began my journey. It would be the journey of someone informed by one culture but who lived in a completely different one. A journey taken day in, day out, with little regard to which world I might be in, that is, until moments like the one before the big presentation, when I was asked to leave one of my worlds behind.

Of course, that awkward situation might have been easier if I could have imagined that eleven years later a man born to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas would be moving into the White House. For the epigraph to his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama chose a passage from the Bible that echoes some of the challenges of being caught between here and there: “For we are strangers before them, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

It’s curious then that from the moment Obama took the national stage, the media have defined him not according to his unique and complex background but simply as a black candidate, even though his real identity has more to do with his connection to two worlds. What he really is is biracial: half black, half white. Saying he’s black oversimplifies what he actually represents. Because he is not only black but also biracial, he symbolizes a shift to a more inclusive and diverse model of how we see America, this land of immigrants.

When the pundits comment about Obama’s conciliatory nature or his ability to pull together disparate groups, what I hear is the story of someone who has spent his life learning to navigate between worlds, only in his particular case these worlds happen to exist within him. The fact that he can bring people together is no surprise. At some point during his 47 years, the two halves of his identity had to learn to understand each other so that he might understand the world he actually lived in.

And so on the morning after the election, as I lay there in bed wondering if Obama had really, truly won, I also thought of how my own journey and that of my children might be a little easier from now on. How the country might begin to accept that a person who looks different and has a
foreign-sounding name might not be so different and foreign after all. How once he was sworn in, we would turn to the White House and see a black family and how it would seem unusual, yes, but only because the Obamas were the first, not because they were actually different. And how just for a moment, as we watched our television sets and saw that young family walk hand in hand across the Rose Garden, we might also see a piece of ourselves. For as long as I can remember, I have asked myself if I was crazy for believing that I’m not so different. And unless this has all been a dream, the answer to my question arrived the evening of November 4.

But back to the Mayflower. There was still the question of what to do about my name. After thinking about it most of the day, I pulled the liaison aside and borrowed one of his note cards so I could write down my last name for him, this time spelling it phonetically. I even coached him a few times until he got more comfortable saying it.

So at the meeting the next day, when it came time to stand at the front of the banquet room and introduce me to everyone, he looked at his note card and stammered just a bit, probably not enough for anyone else to notice, before he opened his mouth and my first and then last name left his lips.

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