Young father is proud to be American, but wants to pass on Mexican heritage
Antonio Cortez was born in Mexico but raised in Whitewater. His parents brought him to the United States when he was 4. Today, he feels like a tourist in Mexico. Still, he identifies himself first as Mexican, then as American.
"Just because I have pride in being Mexican does not mean that I do not want to be an American," he said. "I gave up my loyalty to Mexico when I took the oath of citizenship to the United States. I love this country. But I also love my country of origin."
He believes in hanging on to his cultural heritage so he can pass it on.
"If I lose my heritage," Cortez said, "then it will be lost forever to my daughter and my grandkids."
Cortez lives in Whitewater with his wife, Diana, and his 14-month-old daughter, Julianna. He is looking forward to taking her to school, to dance lessons and to catechism classes at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where he and his wife are members. He is excited to fill the shoes of an all-American dadówith a few twists.
Young Julianna will understand both English and Spanish because her parents are raising her to be bilingual.
"It would be a misfortune for her not to know Spanish," Cortez said. "It will benefit her to know both languages."
When his daughter is old enough, Cortez will return to Mexico to teach her about her Mexican heritage. He will show her the headstones of her great-grandparents in San Jose de Otates, Guanajuato. He will explain how the family legacy stretches beyond borders.
"I will show her where her roots come from," Cortez said. "It is always important to know where your family comes from so you can learn to value the sacrifices that the previous generation made for you. I want her to know the sacrifice that my parents and my grandparents made."
Their lives were not easy.
"My mom has wanted to go back to Mexico since the first day she came here," Cortez said. "I remember hearing stories about how they were discriminated against at work because they looked different."
Cortez felt the sting of discrimination when he got to middle school.
"I got called names and was told to go back to Mexico," he said. "It took me off guard. I thought: 'It really is true what my parents said. They will discriminate against you because you are a Mexican.' There was quite a bit of it in high school, as well."
He attributes the name-calling to ignorance.
"As you get older, you learn to ignore it," he said.
"People tell me, 'Hey, Antonio, you are a cool guy, but I don't like Mexicans.' I say, 'Get to know people for who they are, not by how they look. There are a lot of great people out there you can meet. Don't focus on stereotypes.'"
He knows other immigrants who are working for "the dream of happiness."
"They did not leave their homes because they do not like where they came from," Cortez said. "They came to work for a better life."
He knows that education makes all the difference. Cortez graduated from Blackhawk Technical College with a degree in marketing and works for a collection agency.
"Education opportunities are so much better here," he said. "If my family had never come to the United States, it would have been 10 times harder to succeed."
He believes in giving back to his community. The 26-year-old helps care for children of immigrants learning English six hours a week.
"It reminds me of when I was a child, and I saw my parents learning English," Cortez said. "I want the adults to be part of their children's education so the children can succeed to their full potential."
He is rewarded when he sees how people improve over time.
In December, the Cortez family celebrated Christmas in all the ways that most U.S.-born citizens do: outdoor lights, family gatherings and gifts. There was a twist: They also celebrated the Feast of Guadalupe, a traditional Mexican holiday.
"We celebrate all the American holidays," Cortez said. "We have a Memorial Day cookout. We have a Thanksgiving Day dinner."
He owes a lot to his grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and became a citizen.
Cortez and his parents became legal permanent residents of the United States with the help of Cortez's grandfather. Legal permanent residents have the right to live and work permanently in the United States.
But Cortez wanted more. He studied to become a U.S. citizen. On the day he took his oath of citizenship, he thought fondly of his grandfather.
"It was because of him that we came here," Cortez said. "Becoming a citizen was one of my goals. But at the same time, I was fulfilling my grandfather's dream."
Cortez chose to become a naturalized citizen to have the same rights as U.S.-born citizens, including the right to vote.
His grandfather did not live to see the citizenship ceremony, which included Antonio's two brothers, but he was there in spirit.
"All I can remember hearing as a child is that my grandfather wanted us to be citizens," Cortez said.
"He told us it was the American dream."