AMERICAN DIARY: July 4 hurts, until I remember my WWII uncle

RIO RANCHO, N.M, (AP) — The July Fourth holiday hurts me every year. Waving flags seems out of place, and wearing anything stars and stripes makes me feel like Apollo Creed in "Rocky." Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless The U.S.A." doesn’t invoke patriotism inside of me, and I never take advantage of those exclusive, one-day mattress sales.

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Yes, I relax, maybe throw some meat on the grill and take my family to a New Mexico desert mesa to watch fireworks among coyotes and rabbits. Independence Day pageantry doesn’t make me feel American, though; thanks to birth and chance, I have no other place to go.

There’s a rage inside of me.

I’m angry that my elders had to go to segregated, dilapidated Mexican American schools and most died barely literate. I’m angry that my adopted mother endured racist taunts as a child and suffered broken ribs after a white boy tossed her from a merry-go-round. I’m angry my father still avoids the sun, so he doesn’t get “too dark” like he was warned as a kid. I’m angry I went to juvenile detention when I was 16 and was repeatedly asked by police what my gang affiliation was. I’m angry that Grandmother Ruth died at 56, believing deep down the things said about her — that maybe she deserved to be separated, perhaps she was subhuman, perhaps she was ... incapable of love.

I’m angry about today.

Then, every July Fourth, I remember Uncle Ciprian.

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Marine Pfc. Ciprian Contreras took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945 during World War II. Before that invasion, he was injured in the leg at the Northern Mariana Islands. On Feb. 21, 1945, he suffered a concussion blast and was left for dead. Eventually, his body was evacuated.

He was still alive.

Recovering somewhere on a ship, Ciprian tried to regain strength. Then he heard a voice on the intercom. The Marines needed whoever they could to go back to the battle. If you can stand up, they said, we need you to fight.

I’ve tried over and over to put myself in Ciprian’s place at that moment. Back in Houston, his Mexican-born father and Texas-born mother couldn’t vote or go to certain restaurants because of Jim Crow (who wore a sombrero in Texas). The Ku Klux Klan and the Texas Rangers had terrorized family members, and being in the wrong town after dark could result in a lynching.

I would have said: I’ve done my part. You are not worth all of this. I’m finished.

He may have thought all of this. He may have held the same rage. But after he heard that call, he took off his bandages and got up. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’ll go back in.”

Days later, he suffered another concussion.

Despite the discrimination and racism, he saw something in the United States. He saw something redeemable, something transcendent, something to risk his life on. What did he see?

His brother, Carlos, my grandfather, also saw something. He begged his mother and father to sign a permission form to join the U.S. Army at 17 and he took part in the invasion of Nazi Germany. He sent a photo back to his mother with fellow soldiers. “In this good old army they do everything possible for their boys ... Keep praying for us,” Cpl. Contreras wrote.

Carlos found kinship and also saw something. But what did he see?

Ciprian and Carlos came back. Both earned mechanical engineering degrees, thanks to the G.I. Bill. They continued to encounter racist slurs and were often called “chief” because they “looked” like Native Americans. Specific neighborhoods refused to sell them homes. They still had to pay a poll tax to vote.

By the time I was mature enough to ask Ciprian and Carlos important questions, they were gone.

Ciprian died in 1997. Carlos developed Alzheimer’s disease around the same time. I tried to find out more from my grandfather once, but he started shaking at my questions. His caretaker told me to leave. I came back five minutes later, and Carlos greeted me as if we hadn’t seen each other in years.

Months later, two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York, where I was attending grad school. Carlos saw the images on television and picked up his frail body. He punched the air and declared he was ready to fight again.

“What’s he doing?” my brother Adam, then 8, asked my mother.

“He’s in his own world,” she said.

But what world was that?

Carlos died in 2002.

Ciprian’s grandson and my cousin, Cruz Contreras, pondered these questions. The frontman of the Tennessee-based Appalachian rock band The Black Lillies, Cruz wrote the song “Broken Shore” in honor of Ciprian in 2015 when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug traffickers.

“I have to remind people my grandfather’s last name was Contreras. That my family sacrificed a long time ago for this country,” my cousin told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Ciprian’s decision to go back into battle still left him in awe. “What," he asked, "would drive somebody to do that?”

“Please, Lord, don’t leave me here in the valley of the gun,” the song goes. “Which way is heaven and which way is hell? It’s so hard to tell.”

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These days, my family celebrates America’s Independence Day, not with flags and esoteric concepts of liberty, but with stories about Ciprian and Carlos. My father recently found the April 16, 1945, Houston Chronicle story about Ciprian’s actions and posted it on Facebook.

We also use the day to share — in person and online — stories about other heroes we find.

We’ve learned about Ralph Lazo, a Mexican American teenager who volunteered to go to a Japanese American Internment camp in solidarity with an injustice he saw. We’ve learned about William Ellis, the former Black Texas slave, who became a Mexican millionaire. We share clips of Jose Feliciano singing the National Anthem at Game 5 of the 1968 World Series and 7-year-old Jacqueline Jaquez singing it in Game 7 in 1991. We discuss that time I took a photo of United Farm Worker co-founder and longtime activist Dolores Huerta standing for the Pledge of Allegiance on my birthday in the New Mexico Statehouse. ( “Why wouldn’t I stand?” she asked me with a wink.)

There’s a different United States, and we are in it. It’s not revolutionary. It’s not revisionist. It’s just us. It’s not only about the Declaration of Independence, which calls Indigenous descendants of the Americas like my family “merciless Indian Savages.” It’s about another July Fourth. It's about ours.

My family has expanded beyond our Mexico roots. That makes me proud and worried. An officer occasionally needs to stand outside the Houston school that my Jewish nieces attend because of anti-Semitic threats. My Black Mexican American cousins are followed around in stores. A Chicana Hawaiian cousin struggles with seizures and rising health care bills. An uncle, whom I’ve never met, is serving a life sentence for murder.

The fireworks go off, and I remain wounded. I’m angry, and I wonder if this is all worth it. I don’t want to pass this rage onto my daughters Ava and Elena, 6 and 3. Temptation pulls me to dreams of other lands and tells me never to look back. Which way is heaven and which way is hell?

But there are stories to share and miles to go before we stop. As a journalist, I am called to do my part.

My Uncle Ernest Eguia, himself a WWII veteran and a liberator of the Nordhausen Concentration Camp in Germany, told me just before he died: "Always remember, whatever you do in life, it’s not about you.” He said nothing else.

The fireworks go off, and I remain wounded. I look up and try to see something. It’s blurry. But it’s there. Then a voice inside urges me to act. “I’m fine,” I whisper. “I’ll go back in.”

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Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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This story has been edited to correct a song name, “God Bless The U.S.A.” not “Proud to Be an American.”