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How Donald Trump made me proud to be Hispanic

For most of my life, I downplayed my heritage. Then Trump came along.

I come from a Hispanic family. My grandfather was born in Mexico and fled to the United States during the revolution. Two of my other three grandparents are American-born with Hispanic roots. My full name — Jose Ricardo Alcantar — makes this heritage obvious.

For most of my life, I didn't identify with any of that. Growing up, I liked basketball and chicken nuggets and reenacted the American Revolution in a three-cornered hat in my backyard. For my first name, I went by "Ricky." It seemed a little off from "Thomas" and "James," but not too far. And I said my last name with an American accent: "Al (like the name), can (like 'can do'), tar (like the sticky stuff)." It was just easier.

But Donald Trump has done what 30 years of growing up with Hispanic genes could not do: He has made me Hispanic.

I grew up reading British literature and Greek and Roman mythology and studying Western Civilization stuff. Until I was 8, I thought our family must be British. When my father told me, "No, mijo, you're American, but you're Hispanic too," I was confused.

My disconnection from my Hispanic heritage continued into college. When professors called roll, I kept missing my name the first semester, it was so unfamiliar to me. This "Jose" was some guy I never knew. The other Joses looked different and talked different and could all, to a person, speak Spanish. I couldn't. (At least much or well.)

Today I live in my hometown of El Paso, Texas, minutes away from Mexico, and every day I'm reminded that I don't fit in on the other side of the border. I look white. I'm not Mexican. My skin and taste buds and language and soccer team betray me.

But then a man named Donald Trump entered national politics. And he said that Mexico wasn't sending their best people over; they were sending rapists and criminals. His rhetoric against the country got sharper and sharper. Then he went after Muslims. Then he wished out loud he could punch protestors in the face, offered to pay legal bills for people who would do it, and called young protestors in Chicago a bunch of "thugs."

I know, I know. There are two sides to this. The most generous reading of Trump and Trumpism is that these are individuals concerned about border security. They simply want to see their families protected, terrorists prevented from entering the US, and laws followed. It's all so perfectly reasonable and understandable and not racist in the least.

I'm an evangelical Christian. I'm even an evangelical pastor. I got a Republican mug as a gift for my first birthday (I still have it). I am pro-life. I will not officiate a same-sex marriage based on a conscience issue. I am grateful for the American Founding Fathers (some of them were even Christians). I love Chick-fil-A. I (usually) vote Republican.

I live on the border and see that the immigration system is broken. I see that not all immigrants are good people, some are terrible people, and some have no interest in America except what they can get from it. I have many friends who work for the federal government in border enforcement, who are good people who've dedicated their lives to helping and not hurting our country. Everything in my background should orient me to sympathy for Trump's positions. I get it.

Except for this: I feel it.

I feel, for the first time, that some people would look at my birth certificate and name and wonder if I was really an American.

When I listen to Trump and his supporters rail against immigration, I wonder if what they're really saying is: We don't want Mexican Americans in this country, because they are not real Americans. When I listen to Trump promise to fix the problem, and people chant at his rallies, "The wall. The wall," I wonder if what they're really saying is, "Keep Mexicans out."

I don't judge every Trump supporter as being a racist. But this is the truth: A lot of racists support him, and he only denies them when absolutely pressed, and with the softest language in his vocabulary. This is the truth: He knows that racism and xenophobia are animating sections of his supporters and is making absolutely no effort to stop it.

When he says Mexico doesn't send its best but sends rapists and criminals, this is what I see: my grandfather at lunch with me 15 years ago. He's slower than he used to be but still strong and smart. He's been hardened by a tough life, and there are creases on his face because of it. But there's a softness in the eyes because he's sitting across from his grandson. He's given me my first job at age 15, cleaning out old files at the warehouse. And I find myself, finally, really listening to the stories he would tell me growing up.

He tells me what it was like to leave Mexico in the fires of the Mexican Revolution. He tells me what it was like to grow up in a California school with only one other Hispanic student. He tells me that he couldn't speak any English. He tells me about how the kids at recess would play wall ball and he'd try to join in, only for the white kids to push him out of the way. So he pushed back. And they all started hitting. So he hit back.

He says it simply: "I fought in school every day that year. But I wasn't going to let them push me down again."

And he didn't. He became one of the first Hispanic customs brokers in our area — maybe in the US. He built a business in El Paso that employed dozens of people. He invested money all over our community. He was intensely proud of being American. My city is better because of him. My country is better because of him.

When Donald Trump says he's going to Make America Great Again, I can only think this:

My grandfather is what makes America great.

So when I hear Trump refuse to immediately deny David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, I see my grandfather's eyes. When I hear Trump say he's going to investigate paying the legal bills of a man who sucker-punched a black protester, I see my grandfather's eyes. When Trump retweets, again and again, a bunch of white supremacists, I see my grandfather's eyes.

So I will thank Donald Trump for this: He has made me Hispanic.

I still can't speak Spanish well. I still don't like guacamole. I still cheer for the US soccer team. But I am Hispanic.

There's a lot I still have to figure out: How do I raise my boys now as a Hispanic guy who married a girl whose family came over on the Mayflower? I'm not sure, but I know this: They'll hear the stories of the Mayflower and the stories of my grandfather, and they will love them both.

How do I pastor a church of (mainly) Republican evangelicals in a city of (mainly) Democrats? I'm not sure, but I know this: My Bible tells me that every life made in the image of God matters to God, and it must matter to me, and I pray it matters to my church.

For years I didn't know how to say my last name when I introduced myself at church, because two minutes south of our church is the international bridge to Mexico, and two minutes north is one of the largest military bases in the US with many federal border enforcement workers. This means on Sunday morning, people born in Mexico have coffee with people who grew up in Kansas, and people whose parents never voted Republican sing next to people whose parents never voted Democrat.

My last name looks like the people who grew up two minutes south; my face looks like the people who work two minutes north. And I think I'm finally okay with that. The fact that I'm Jose doesn't make me less American. The fact that I'm not Mexican doesn't mean I'm not Hispanic.

I will thank Donald Trump for this — he has given me my name back: Jose Ricardo Alcantar. And I've never been prouder of it.

It is what makes America great.

Ricky Alcantar is a pastor and writer in El Paso, Texas. He's proud to live in what Cormac McCarthy once called "one of the last real cities left in America." Find him on Twitter at @rickyalcantar.

This essay is adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.

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