Latino Americans love this country–but does it love them back?

SAN DIEGO — At the risk of setting off more fireworks, I’ve spent the days surrounding the Fourth of July trying to answer a question that has perplexed U.S. Latinos for generations. Whether the yardstick is starting businesses, creating jobs, spreading opportunity, serving in uniform or displaying optimism in hard times, America’s largest minority has shown time and again that we love this country.

But does the country love us back?

Honestly, sometimes, it’s hard to tell. This nation of second chances offers unlimited opportunities to those who are willing to work, hustle and innovate. In the United States, people may be born in poverty, but that doesn’t mean that poverty is born in them. Our society is one of the freest on Earth, which we’ve learned has its downside; we have been known to use that freedom to do things that harm us — like shouting down opposing views rather than debating and refuting them.

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds that about 70 percent of Americans say the level of civility in Washington has gotten worse since Donald Trump became president. Only 6 percent say it has improved.

There are times when Latinos feel cradled in America’s warm embrace — just like the waves of Germans, Irish and Italians before us. But just like those other immigrant groups, living in this country hasn’t been all ethnic celebrations and parade floats.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, immigrants got mixed signals from America. They were often pushed away, discriminated against and prohibited from living in certain neighborhoods. And then, a generation later, they’d get lectures about how they should assimilate and not segregate themselves.

Today, the same thing happens with Latinos. We’re told that we’re not full-blooded Americans, that we’re more loyal to our ancestral homelands, and that we’re not as good as our countrymen.

I’ve even heard someone stupidly say that a federal judge born in Indiana to parents who were born in Mexico couldn’t be trusted to do his job fairly because he is “Mexican.”

A fellow journalist — who was born in Mexico but has lived most of her life on this side of the border — tells me she’s writing a book in which she asks America if it’s finally ready to accept her. Another friend, a lawyer and academic, was recently fired from a university because, he says, the liberals who run it turned out to be — on race — not as liberal as they pretend.

Readers complain that Big Media, while professing to be enlightened, is in the dark on those occasions when it gathers a half-dozen pundits to discuss Latinos but doesn’t include any Latinos.

My 75-year-old parents lived through the indignities of segregated schools, job discrimination, English-only laws, and signs in restaurants in the Southwest that said “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.”

But, in time, my parents also learned that America could redeem itself by finding its way back to its founding principles. And like most Mexican-Americans, they raised their kids to be crystal clear about the fact that we have only one country, one flag and one allegiance.

And yet, my father will often note that, these days, prejudice is still alive and lurking below the surface.

Some of it has developed into a more malignant strain of racism or ethnocentrism. With the nation’s 56 million Latinos now accounting for 17 percent of the population — on its way to 25 percent in a couple of decades — white Americans and African-Americans are feeling disoriented and displaced.

But my father is right about one thing: In the politically correct post-civil rights era, insults and slights are served up more politely than they used to be.

We all have our own story. Mine is all about gratitude for my U.S. citizenship, even if one snarky reader did refer to it as a “technicality.”

I love my country for the greatness it reveals, and the potential it has to be even greater. And you know what? I think America loves me back, and that it shows its affection with every blessing it bestows.