“I love America.”
This is one of the first things I told my wife Natalie during our first date. I can’t remember why I said “I love America”, but I do remember what happened next. Natalie laughed.
She told me she’d never heard anyone say that before. She couldn’t believe I was serious. What was there to love, she asked, about America?
It’s not that she hated America or thought there was anything wrong with America. Natalie just didn’t believe there was anything exceptional about America.
Natalie was born in Los Angeles, California. Her mom was born and raised in Acapulco, Guerrero in Mexico. Natalie’s step-father came from Durango, Mexico. But despite being born in America, being an American was the same as being a citizen of Mexico like her parents.
I too was born in Mexico; in Reyes, La Paz, right outside Mexico City. I remember the poverty of starving dogs and the daily trash fires that I saw every time I stepped out of my home. I also remember the struggle of having to fetch water from a huge hole in the ground, which we used to clean, cook and shower. And I will never forget the 10 feet concrete wall that surrounded our home affixed with broken shards of Coca-Cola bottles cemented at the top to prevent burglars from entering in the night.
I was 8 years old when I came to the United States. When I saw my uncle’s single-family home where my dad, mom, brother, sister, and I would share a small 10×10 bedroom, I thought it was a mansion. As my mom likes to tell me, La pobreza en Estados Unidos es la riqueza en México – Poverty in America is wealth in Mexico.
But America isn’t just about being wealthy. There is poverty here in America as well. What makes America different are the institutional and cultural values we share. Here in America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed if one is willing to work hard for it.
There are plenty of Mexican people who have the right values. But the Mexican system does not allow people to rise above poverty unless unusual circumstances exist, or you go into politics. The norm in Mexico is that if you were born poor you will die poor.
So when I told Natalie that I love America, I meant that I love that I finally had the opportunity to believe in myself and chart my own course in life. Because believing in yourself is power. And just like I will always believe in myself, I will always believe in America.
Photo: Gabriel Nadales with his wife, Natalie.