Since the Vietnam War, I have not claimed "American" as my identity. Although I am a psychologist, meeting facilitator, and Chicano ceremony leader who has provided assistance on community problem-solving and strategic planning throughout North America and abroad, I have not felt the United States was my community, and I never fully offered my services, wisdom, and energy to "America."
In late 2001, shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I began serving as facilitator for the Positive Futures Network's retreats, the State of the Possible. The experience has been transformative.
As a youngster growing up in California, I felt tremendous pride in being American. I looked forward to facing the flag each morning at school and saying the pledge of allegiance. I felt a deep connection to "the land of the free and home of the brave." And I was proud of belonging to a country that stood for courage, freedom, and goodness.
So the damage to my spirit ran deep when teachers, fellow students, and even the school curriculum said I wasn't American. I was "Indian" or "Mexican-American." To me the underlying message was, "If you're not white, you're not American."
Despite the hurt of these racist messages, I wanted to live what I saw as the core American values -- to be responsible, to be my best, and to give back to the community. I actively participated in school, church, family, and Boy Scouts. Later, I worked several jobs to support myself through college. As is the case for many others, my university experience expanded my awareness of our nation's history -- including the slaughter of native people, the institution of slavery, and the campaigns to undermine other governments to ensure cheap labor, natural resources, and markets for U.S. corporations. Then, in the mid-1960s, my generation was called to kill and die in Vietnam.
While some might be able to separate U.S. government policy from the American people, for me, "American" came to mean people who support waging war or, at best, people who choose to live conveniently ignorant of the terrible effects that some of our country's policies have on others. At age 19, I traveled to Chile to join the revolution and returned home with a guiding question: How do you create change within the belly of the monster?
My response was to claim my Chicano identity with deeper passion and focus my work to advance justice, love, and respect within my community -- not for the nation as a whole. During the 1970s, I co-founded several mental health centers committed to Latino family empowerment. Later, I organized various councils of Latino community healers and activists committed to leadership development and community healing.
I was often approached to run for political office. Repeatedly, I chose not to serve. I now realize that among the reasons were the scars of racism, my distrust of the political system, and an insufficient vision of our nation's potential. Unconsciously, I felt that to be involved in the political process would mean selling out my commitment to justice and respect for all.
This was where I stood when I agreed to help facilitate the State of the Possible retreats. These are sponsored by the Positive Futures Network (publisher of YES!) and supported by the Fetzer Institute. Since 1999, they have been held twice each year to bring leading citizens together in diverse groups to consider how we might advance justice, sustainability, and compassion in our nation and the world.
In each of the retreats that I facilitated, I sat amidst a group of people more diverse than any I had experienced. The gatherings included indigenous people, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and European Americans; artists, corporate consultants, community activists, entertainers, ministers, political representatives, and labor organizers; Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, pagans, and persons who are simply spiritual; youth and elders, gays and straights. The only characteristic these people shared was a history of extraordinary dedication to the common good.
At these retreats, we talked about what the U.S. of America is and what it can be. We spoke openly about the country's history, its racism, and the suffering it has inflicted on others. We talked about its ideals -- about the metaphor of America that has inspired the world -- about the beauty of the land, and about the generosity of the people. We talked about the noble and compelling call of Jefferson's declaration that all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights, and about the bitter irony of those words being enunciated by someone who held people in slavery.
At my first State of the Possible retreat, Grace Boggs, an elder with more than 60 years as a civil rights activist, articulated a challenge -- America, love it enough to change it! Her words sank in. I could feel something in me begin to shift.
Over the months, I began to ask myself new questions. Why had I developed such a disdain for this country? How many more people felt similarly disconnected? If I had not become so alienated and had instead chosen to be politically involved, how much more could I have contributed to advancing justice, respect, and wellness for my own community and the larger U.S. community? If millions like me had not surrendered their connection to national identity, could we have evolved a more caring, just, and respectful nation?
I saw that the wounds of racism, exclusion, and dishonesty had resulted in alienating me and others like me from an identification with this country. We could battle for the environment, for civil rights, for women, or against corporate globalization, but not for the larger vision of a better U.S.A.
It became clearer that the U.S. of America is both a metaphor and a government, a history and a people, and that I have choices regarding my relationship to each. I will not ignore the policies and practices of exploitation -- past and present. But I am consciously choosing to forgive the injustices to make room for a truer U.S. of America -- one fundamentally committed to respect, justice, and wellness for all.
My vision now is to live in a world in which we honor each other and Mother Earth. I need to do my part as a spirit being, a human being, a family and community member, and a national and world citizen. And I need to hold each of these memberships as equally precious. While my purpose has been to advance justice for my own community, I now see that it is time to also claim my stake in our nation's evolution. It's time for me to reclaim America.
Roberto Vargas is principal consultant for New World Associates and founder of the Porvida Council, which works to integrate the practice of spirit connection and cultural activism. He lives in California and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.