Never Forgetting Where We Came From

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ruben navarrette jr online One of life’s recurring themes is the unsolved mystery of whether one can really go home again.
It has been 22 years since I headed off to college – but I never stopped looking back. I spent my teenage years obsessing about how to leave home and my 20s obsessing about how to get back. I’ve returned to my hometown in Central California dozens of times since then. On a few occasions, I even tried living there. But I always wound up running away. Or rather, running toward something else – a better job, brighter lights, more opportunity.


Each time, I felt guilty, as if – in turning my back on my hometown, family and friends – I was betraying who I was. I bet there are millions of people who feel the same way.
I recall an article about David Letterman in which the talk-show host admitted that every time he leaves his home state of Indiana to return to New York, he wonders if he could go home for good someday.

And, given the affection with which Bruce Springsteen sings about the New Jersey of his youth, I wasn’t surprised when, nine years ago, he departed his Bel-Air mansion and moved his family home to the Garden State.


Now, there is a television show that pays homage to those who try to go home again. ABC’s “October Road” follows the adventures of Nick Garrett, a successful novelist who, after spending 10 years in New York City, returns to his quaint hometown in Massachusetts. Convinced that what he’s been looking for is what he left behind, Nick also discovers that the road home can be bumpy. But he sticks it out because his years in the big city have taught him that “time spent away from your friends and your family (is) time you don’t get back.”

True enough. A couple of years ago, when I went home for my 20th high school reunion, it was with a touch of sadness for all that I had missed in the lives of people who were once as close to me as brothers and sisters – and all they had missed in mine.

These are familiar themes in a country where so many people are on the move. According to the U.S. Census, more than 40 million Americans change their addresses each year in search of better jobs, more affordable cities or a richer “quality of life.” Others move to be closer to family, or to be able to own a home.


That’s about 14 percent of the population. Among people under 40, the percentage is even higher. In fact, there are places – Atlanta, Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore. – that are becoming known as hubs for young people, while small towns in rural areas are graying and may soon have difficulty keeping their tax base afloat.

A few years ago, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa proposed recruiting illegal immigrants to help alleviate the state’s perpetual youth drain, which is caused by the fact that many Iowans take off for another state once they graduate from high school or college. Vilsack’s idea became a casualty of the immigration debate. But at least the one-time Democratic presidential candidate had the foresight to see trouble ahead and the courage to try to do something about it.


North Dakota is going through the same thing. According to a recent article in USA Today, only six of the state’s 53 counties saw population increases from 1990 to 2000. The state now finds it has more jobs available than it has people to fill them. And the situation is made worse by the fact that North Dakota, like Iowa, is losing its young people. So once again, some folks are looking for immigrants to bail them out. Others are resisting because they fear the cultural changes that immigrants might bring.

Immigrants do bring change. But in this case, they could also teach the native-born a thing or two about leaving home without leaving home behind. They came to the United States to give their children a shot at a better life, yet many immigrants obviously miss where they came from. That’s one reason they try to preserve their traditions, language and culture.


And I bet you thought that protesters waving Mexican flags were making some sort of obnoxious political statement. Nope. It’s a personal one, a way of saying to the place they left behind: “Don’t forget me – for I have not forgotten you.”

For those Americans who never forgot where they came from and still remember the road back, it shouldn’t be so hard to relate.

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