Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Wrestler pins down U.S., cultural pride


Now that the flame has gone out on the Olympics in Beijing, it’s worth taking a moment to applaud the U.S. Olympic team.

Not only for dominating so many events and winning the most prizes overall – 110 medals, 36 gold – but also for winning the argument back home over the contributions of immigrants and their children.

The immigration debate has digressed from how to keep out undocumented people to how to keep out those who have documents as well. After all, the real concern is the changing culture, and millions of legal immigrants have helped spur some of those changes.

Still, immigrants don’t come empty-handed. They bring their hopes for a better future for their children and a work ethic that often puts natives to shame. And they apply these things to a million different pursuits, including Olympic gold.

Thirty-three U.S. Olympic athletes for these games were immigrants, a number of others were the sons and daughters of immigrants.

Among the immigrants: Sudanese refugee and 1,500-meter-runner Lopez Lamong, who served as the flag-bearer for the U.S. in the opening ceremony; beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but now lives in Ventura, Calif.; and gymnasts Nastia Liukin, whose parents brought her from Russia in 1992 and who now lives in Parker, Texas; and Alexander Artemev, who was born in the Soviet Union and now lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Children of immigrants included: gold medal decathlete Bryan Clay of Kaneohe, Hawaii, whose mother emigrated from Japan; gymnast Raj Bhavsar of Houston, whose parents came from India; and Kevin Tan of Fremont, Calif., whose parents fled China for Taiwan and then California.

But for my money the best U.S. immigrant story of these games was to 21-year-old wrestler Henry Cejudo, all 5 feet 4 and 121 pounds of him.

Cejudo, who was a long shot to win any medal in Beijing, won the gold in freestyle after defeating Japan’s Tomohiro Matsunaga. Cejudo celebrated by breaking into tears and – after family members in the stands tossed him an American flag – wrapping himself in Old Glory and parading around the arena.

The road to that victory lap was long, hard, uncertain. The son of illegal immigrants from Mexico, Cejudo was born in Los Angeles but moved around the American Southwest.

Raised by his mother after his parents separated when Henry was 4, he grew up poor and eventually looked to wrestling to save his life. It did.

So did the United States of America. In his moment of glory, Cejudo didn’t forget that. He proclaimed his love for his country and settled the question that pokes at so many immigration restrictionists – that of alleged divided loyalties, the same suspicions that made life difficult for German-Americans and Japanese-Americans in the 20th century.

“I’m proud of my Mexican heritage,” Cejudo told reporters. “But I’m an American. It’s the best country in the world. They call it the land of opportunity – and it is.”

Cejudo had one advantage: his mother, Nelly. She didn’t coddle him or tolerate excuses. Instead, while working two and sometimes three jobs, she pounded into his head what it took to be successful in this country.

“I never played the victim,” Cejudo said. “My mom taught us to suck it up. Whatever you want to do, you can do, and that’s what I did.”

That’s my kind of mom. And Henry is my kind of American. This country could use more folks like these. As it is, we have an overabundance of people who have more advantages than they realize, but who blame others for their failures.

Those who want to seal off America have a crass term for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. They call them “anchor babies” who help keep their undocumented parents rooted here.

Some restrictionists even want to amend the Constitution so that, in the future, children born in this country to illegal immigrants would be denied U.S. citizenship in order to make it easier to deport them.

It’s a dangerous and despicable idea. Besides, the activists miss the point. It’s not the parents who are anchored in the United States. It’s their kids – people such as Henry Cejudo.

He made his choice. He’s not going anywhere. And if you want to pry that American flag – his flag – away from him, why, you’re going to have to wrestle him for it.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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