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What is a country but a home, a place of belonging made ours by the passage of time, shared history?
And in the case of the United States, the guarantee of freedom and due process in a Constitution and Bill of Rights that apply, not to one group, but to all, including the president and the newcomers among us.
This is what we’re supposed to be celebrating today. But Donald Trump’s presidency is turning upside down everything I valued — and thought a certainty, guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution — about my adopted homeland.
I’m not alone in my angst.
The real fireworks this 4th of July? National anxiety. We ask ourselves everyday: What’s happening to our country? This holiday only makes that question more poignant.
I became an American citizen at 21 during the unforgettable summer of 1980 when, as a University of Florida intern at my hometown newspaper, I got to cover the Mariel boatlift from Cuba, the Liberty City riots after the not-guilty verdict of killer cops, and the changing city of Hialeah.
It was a heady time brimming with social upheaval, and in the middle of it all, I paused all too briefly for two personal life-changing events: I tucked away Cuba in my heart and pledged allegiance to this country, the first in my family to do so. And, on Flag Day, I married my college sweetheart, the son of a Navy man who was a Connecticut transplant to Florida and his Japanese bride.
I can’t think of a more memorable 4th of July than that summer’s when my coming of age and my becoming an American waltzed through chaos hand in hand. I simultaneously handled wedding invitations and reader mail dripping with hatred on all the subjects I wrote about — in particular, my citizenship ceremony.
All this biography is to say that conflict has been familiar terrain in my life and work — and I know that growing happens in the midst of it and through the worst of it, and that healing comes after good people intervene to make things right.
But this is no ordinary presidency, no ordinary Independence Day, in the aftermath of the murder of four journalists and a sales associate at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis by a shotgun-wielding man who had threatened newspaper staffers before.
This was an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But the president — who has called the media “the enemy of the people” to deflect from his improprieties, shortcomings, and failures — at first declines to make the gesture of honoring these victims by lowering the flags, then yields only when faced with protests and backlash.
Slaughtering journalists and innocents is a hallmark of Third World countries and endangered, struggling democracies. Yes, all the signs are that we’re headed there.
What is happening to our country?
Every day brings on a new battle over ideology playing out on the megaphone of social media and distorted by a disinformation campaign — led and fueled by the president and an army of supporters I can no longer afford to dismiss as a fringe to appease my perturbation. Not when they remind me with evangelical zeal that they subscribe to the denigration of people and institutions for the sake of pursuing isolationist, nationalist, white-rule policies.
I thought our basic American ideology was firmly planted on the Constitution — and that liberal and conservative thought were philosophical points of debate and that the Democratic and Republican political parties were vital parts of a whole we call The Nation, and that in that safe place, our home, we were all in it together.
I never imagined there would be a day when the United States would be known around the world for embracing the world’s worst dictators and dismissing human-rights abuses. (At our worst, we played nice with dictadoruchos like Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista and looked away at the rise of evil like Spain’s Francisco Franco and Germany’s Adolf Hitler, only to intervene during World War II after German submarines were at our doorstep and Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.)
I never thought I’d live to see the day when fellow Cuban-Americans who lost their homeland to Soviet Union-funded communism would defend Putin-loving Trump with the same zealotry with which Fidel Castro’s rise was applauded.
How can the heroes of my cause, a free and democratic Cuba, turn into my bitter enemies because of Donald Trump?
But this is the kind of people some have become at the hands of a master manipulator of truth.
What country is this we’re celebrating?
Is it the one standardizing inhumane treatment of immigrants, wrestling children from parents, telling them “leave with your kid or leave alone,” the due-process amendments in the Constitution be damned? The one calling a former Walmart turned into a mega detention center for children a “shelter” despite warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics that incarceration will cause long-term psychological damage?
Or is it the one where the U.S. Supreme Court, which is supposed to protect us from the excesses of the executive branch and the powerful, affirms a Trump Muslim ban and a cake baker’s act of discrimination against gays?
This 4th of July, I’ll walk to the neighborhood park to mark the day with fireworks in the company of fellow citizens and family. The small hand of one of my descendants in mine, I’ll surely muster some of the optimism and cheer that the all-American moment demands.
But, underneath the ready-made patriotism, many of us feel a diminished sense of country, the loss of something vital, certain, and true.
This is no longer the country of refuge and hope that I pledged allegiance to so many summers ago.
Follow me on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago