Americans had some spectacular news to celebrate over the Fourth of July weekend: the triumph of democracy in Mexico.
For the first time in 71 years, an opposition candidate has ousted the ruling party from the presidency. Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who sports cowboy boots and a John Wayne swagger, swept to victory as leader of the conservative opposition, the National Action Party, or PAN.
Many of my relatives in Mexico are die-hard PAN supporters. In the old days when dissent was downright dangerous, my uncle Edmundo Gurza had his knee broken for daring to run for mayor of my hometown, Torreon. He left the hospital and went straight to a protest rally in a wheelchair. Later, he was elected to Congress and drew fire for interrupting President Lopez Portillo's 1981 state of the union speech with: ''You lie, Mr. President.''
So today I'm happy for their ultimate victory, and the promise of further change that comes with it. The positive reflection from this landmark election may even cast a new light on Mexicans living in the United States.
I hope Mexico's political make-over will prompt Americans to look more favorably on their neighbor, and by extension, on immigrants like me who still feel a degree of loyalty to our country of origin.
I hear from people perplexed or angry about immigrants who don't assimilate. We're even denounced as traitors for allegiances crisscrossing our common border.
''I am wondering why you wish to undermine the very country that allows you to write your column ... The USA,'' wrote one reader fuming about my articles extolling cultural traditions. ''You should decide which is more important: (Admiring) salsa music and 16th century costumes or belonging to the most important country ever established in history.''
Hey, what's wrong with life, liberty and the pursuit of great salsa?
In the United States, patriotism requires a belief in the founding principles contained in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It is allegiance to a system of self-governance, not necessarily a culture. In Mexico, patriotism is more sentimental. It evokes passion for the homeland and respect for its people, language and customs.
A Mexican patriot could well love his country and hate his form of government. An American patriot could never do the same.
As long as the two political systems were perceived as fundamentally different, Americans understandably drew lines of allegiance in the sand.
Which side are you on? The side of truth, justice and Superman? Or the side of corrupt governments, crooked elections and the ''Chupacabras,'' the mythical bloodsucking creature that became a metaphor for Mexican politicians sucking their people dry.
That borderline now is blurring, thanks to Mexico's millennial election.
In fact, Mexican politics is looking more and more American. The 2000 campaign featured a first-ever primary, endless polling, celebrity endorsements by singers and soccer players, and even some media mudslinging among the leading candidates. More important, the vote was relatively free of fraud and people had faith in the results. The transition of power promises to be orderly too.
Mexico has emerged as a vigorous democracy with a multiparty system based on the will of the people and respect for the rule of law. The only thing missing is apple pie. Otherwise, our neighboring governments are starting to have a lot in common.
Maybe we won't have to choose sides after all.
''Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent,'' wrote Horace Kallen in a 1913 essay on international Zionism. Kallen, the Harvard-educated son of East European immigrants and professor at the New School for Social Research, was an early proponent of cultural pluralism in the United States.
Today, multiculturalism is revising notions of patriotism as ''my country, right or wrong,'' argued Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation. That kind of patriotism ''makes you hate other countries'' and defend your own, even when ''you think it's behaving in an immoral and unjust way,'' he said in a debate about patriotism recounted in Saturday's New York Times.
Multiculturalism allows for competing allegiances and embraces loyalties at all levels: love of family, tribe, culture, country and international community. Said Navasky: ''The most valuable kind of patriotism is one which honors the other relationships rather than competes against them.''
Patriotism, he concluded, is the struggle to make your country a better place. As the Mexican elections proved, that definition works on both sides of the border.
(Gurza is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.)
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