"Both and Neither": A Conversation on Dual Nationality and Jona Gonzalez
By: Gabe Lezra and Elizabeth Cotignola
Editor's note: This is an email conversation, lightly edited for clarity and reproduced here between our Ballon d'Order founders Liz Cotignola and Gabe Lezra. Liz and Gabe are both dual nationals and discussed their shared experience in light of Jona Gonzalez's recent decision to choose to play for Mexico over the United States.
I imagined this article as a sort of conversation about the Jonathan Gonzalez situation, but also a broader one, focusing on some of the bigger-picture issues at play. Just to refresh our reader's recollection, 18 year-old Jonathan Gonzalez, a highly-touted central defensive midfield prospect playing in Liga MX, decided to declare for the Mexican national team ("El Tri"), moving his allegiance from the US Men's National Team where he had previously played at youth levels. Gonzalez was born in California to Mexican immigrant parents: like many Americans, Jonathan is a dual citizen, with loyalties and love for two countries. So are we: my family is from Spain and I was born in the States; your family is from Italy and you're a Canadian citizen.
One thing that really strikes me about the discussion surrounding Gonzalez's decision is the way that some analysts and fans have brushed off the question and problems of dual citizenship to focus on the sleight or harm Gonzalez is doing to the United States. This discussion belies one of the burdens of dual citizenship, at least in my life, which is that this duality is both a blessing (in that I have two homes, two countries to call my own, two cultures I draw from) and a curse.
It's a curse, in some ways, because (and I'm not trying to universalize this issue exactly), the dual national is always both part of the two countries and not part of either country. Whenever I return to Spain I have a distinct feeling of otherness--not exactly that I don't fit in or that I'm not home or comfortable, just that this place I love and call my own is not everything I am. The same goes for the United States: when I come back to the States from Spain (or anywhere else) I feel this sense of otherness very strongly--that this place that is on my passport and birth certificate is home and not-home at the same time, that it is me and not me. What's interesting is that I see this very internal process, this internalizing of the sense of otherness being externalized in the furor over Gonzalez in some sectors of the media landscape: this kid is being forced to publicly reckon with a part of his identity that I've always kept very internal.
I'd be interested to know if you have the same experience. My feeling of being both of the culture and outside the culture is a product of my dual citizenship--and it's a feeling that I've had essentially my whole life. Do you relate to this experience?
Your note reminded me of this line from Rudyard Kipling's** poem "The Native-Born":
While these words capture the essence of patriotism: love for and loyalty to one’s “native soil”, one’s nation above all others, the poem in its entirety is a celebration of the English who were actually born in the Colonies, though their parents had emigrated from Britain and still thought of England as “home," and a plea for them to realise their ties, as parts of the British Empire, with Mother England. Paradoxically, then, the Native-Born is both an expression of patriotism and an ode to the dual-national.
I'm intrigued by this Kipling poem because, while it seems to apply to us, it also applies equally to someone like Jonathan Gonzalez: our “native soil” can be found in two different countries. Like Gonzalez, our national identity has always been – and will always be – dichotomised. American soccer fans reacted to Gonzalez’ decision with the carefully reasoned reaction and nuance they do to all other momentous news. There was, of course, the completely justified anger that the United States Soccer Federation had unequivocally dropped the ball. Then came…the other stuff. To more than a small segment of Yanks, Gonzalez instantly became a villain whose transgressions merited the revocation of his citizenship. He’d chosen Mexico, they argued, so he couldn’t be an American. One could not be both!
What happens, though, when it is not, as Kipling writes, one nation that “should prove beloved over all?” What happens when, like for me and for you, and for Jona Gonzalez, our love and loyalties are divided equally and unreservedly between two countries?
Your discussion of the dichotomies of the dual national really resonated with me. I've written about my relationship with “la patria” elsewhere, and how sport has allowed me to access and understand that part of my identity in full. Like you wrote about Spain and the States, Gabe, Italy feels at times like the only place where I am not bound to be some sort of other; yet, while I am on Italian soil, I am, for all intents and purposes a foreigner. My parents, among the first wave of mass Italian immigration to Canada, spent their lives with a foot on either side of the Atlantic, straddling two countries, two cultures, and two different notions of identity; this balancing act is one of the many experiences I inherited from them.
So this furor you describe over Jona Gonzalez’s decision does feel immensely personal to me too--because like you, I've seen my life’s experience – the internalisation of this perpetual state of otherness – externalised in this kid's public deliberation about his sporting loyalties. This kid (and you're right to say he's still very much a child) is being forced to publicly reckon with a part of his identity that we have internalized and come to terms with over a course of our lives. And, let me add that it's a dilemma that we, with the benefit of an extra decade or so of life experience, have yet to resolve.
It is possible to love two countries. It is possible to love two countries in equal measure.
**Of course, Rudyard Kipling has also given us the much more problematic treatise on imperialism that is The White Man’s Burden. He’s a problematic, racist arse, but a talented writer.
I really do love this Kipling poem, even if I detest the man himself--another example of a duality that follows anyone with a keen interest in identity, art and politics. This discussion has reminded me how even people with singular nationalities can struggle to cope with some of the dichotomies in their own cultural experience: from white Americans who wrestle with the enduring national shame of slavery and the legacy of brutal white supremacy they benefit from, to, for example, a Spanish people wracked by the recent trauma of fascism and benefiting from the ill-gotten gains of a vicious and globe-spanning colonial empire. I think one way to sort of square this circle is to think of our cultural and national identities as moving, evolving things rather than fixed, binary stations.
One of my favorite poets, Antonio Machado, was obsessed and transfixed by the notion of a moving, ever-changing cultural heritage, which worshiped certain idols of stoic permanence when it should be venerating and celebrating the shifting, changing nature of identity. He wrote, for instance:
For Machado, the southern Spanish religiosity was too preoccupied with a vision of religion (identity, too--"cantar de la tierra mia") that was unchanging, affixed--literally. The Christ Machado sings to (and the culture he celebrates) is the Christ who walked on water (one of his favorite metaphors for culture and identity, incidentally), who changed and changed the world with Him, not the Christ crucified, affixed, stoic, unchanging.
Perhaps this, then, is the experience we're trying to convey when we discuss the dichotomies, contradictions of being dual nationals. That for us, or for me at least, this aspect of my identity has been in constant flux, constantly being shaped both by my life experiences, but also by the way people have reacted to my existence. Going between countries growing up my vision of who I was, and, thus, where I was from, was always partially defined in the negative--by being actively othered by the people who I interacted with. I can only imagine you've had similar experiences--and Jona Gonzalez has certainly had them, if not more acutely, because as a child of Mexican immigrants he would acutely feel the pressing crush of white supremacy on top of his internalized otherness.
Perhaps, in some way then, the experience of the other is one of flux, whereas the experience of the in-group, those who may struggle with other aspects of their identity but who know for sure this is who I am and where I am from, is one of certainty within a turbulent world. What Jona Gonzalez is experiencing, then, is being very publicly defined--and being very publicly affixed, unable to continue to evolve and change as his relationships and identity change.
People are generally very quick to assign categories--you're either an American or a foreigner; you're either a man or a woman--when in reality the boundaries of these categories are constantly shifting, so much so that at a certain point the distinctions collapse entirely. What we're seeing, then, is the very public categorizing of an identity that really defies categorization because it is constantly evolving: I know that if I was forced to "choose" my nationality when I was Jona's age I would probably have made a different decision than I would have at 22, 26, or now at 29.
I'll leave you with a final Machado poem, about the ephemeral nature of the past and the hold it still has on us: