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From the President

Born on the Fourth of July

By Luis J. Rodriguez
President, State Bar of California

Luis RodriguezWhen one hears “Born on the Fourth of July,” many things run through one’s mind: lyrics to a song, a feature film from the ’80s, devotion to our American homeland and, of course, mom and apple pie. These are recognizable cultural symbols of our patriotism. Yet, we all know that patriotism goes much deeper.

Patriotism is born out of pride for what our society represents. For Americans, it is our democracy that from its birth was formed by an environment that attorneys live and breathe – the rule of law. Yet the rule of law is not a straight highway to justice. It is many paths with infinite directions and can been seen through many vantage points.

Just as the rule of law can be interpreted through many vantages, your personal vantage point can also alter how you view the very American Fourth of July holiday. For me, this day has always been a red-letter day because a person very close to me was born on it, not in the United States but in Mexico.

Socorro Rodriguez was born in Ciudad Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua on July 4. I cannot give you the year because, well she is a lady. More importantly, she is my mother. Her birthdate, along with her life experiences, provide an interesting vantage on what we believe it means to be an American.

Just across the border from El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juarez holds a significant place in Mexican and American history, and my mother’s family lived there through the Mexican Revolution. It has seen the likes of men like Gens. John J. Pershing and George S. Patton and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. As a child and later as a young adult, my mother experienced World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars from across the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo as it is known in Mexico). When President John F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated and the borders were closed, she was working in El Paso.

She and my father became U.S. citizens on the day that I was sworn into federal court. But despite her late-in-life decision to become a U.S. citizen, she taught my brothers and me the value of being Americans. She wanted all her sons to be born in the United States. Both my younger brothers were born in El Paso and I in Los Angeles. But she also taught us to work hard, stand up for ourselves and be proud of our ethnic heritage. She strongly believed that by being American citizens, we would have a much better life, and she was right.

With the gift of experiencing history firsthand, her birthdate, her love for  America, one can almost predict the unsettling question, “Then what happened?” My mother is a strong woman who has faced bigotry throughout life, stared it down and stood her ground with great pride in being an American. 

As a young Mexican woman living in the Southwest, there were certain places where, she would say, “Mexicans and dogs were not allowed.” She does not like to talk about those places or people, but through her love, she has taught me about compassion and acceptance. She has also taught me about the defense of others and defense of ideals. When we were kids, I remember a neighbor being upset with my brothers and me. Our mom came to our defense only to be told to go back to her country, to which she proudly responded, “I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m in my country!”

Recently she experienced something that reminded me that things have not changed much, yet it also reminded me why our mom is so special. She had just parked her car to do her grocery shopping when a lady tapped on my mom’s driver’s side window. My mom’s initial thought was that the woman needed directions. As soon as my mom rolled down her window, the other woman started screaming saying, “You’re an idiot, you’re a dumb woman. … How could you vote for that person? You’re stupid, and you should go back to Mexico!” My mother, expressing her freedom of speech with a bumper sticker, had revealed the recipient of her vote for president. When my mom told me this, I was enraged, and asked her if she was OK.

She said that she was fine. In fact, my mother was no wilting flower. She got out of her car with cane in hand and followed that other woman into the store. There, my mother made it very clear that she was an American and “this was her right as an American … to vote for whom she wanted to vote!”

So I guess that the twist is that being born on July 4 in Mexico really did serve as a classic example of what it is to be an American. As her son, it’s in my blood. After all, I do love apple pie (a la mode), and I do love my mom.

Happy Fourth, everyone.