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

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Russell Contreras

This photo provided by Russell Contreras shows U.S. Marine Pfc. Ciprian Contreras, of Houston, in a World War II-era photo before being injured three times in the Pacific theater. In an essay, Associated Press writer Russell Contreras says the July Fourth holiday as a Mexican American has always troubled him because of his family's history in the U.S. But remembering his Uncle Ciprian Contreras' heroics as a U.S. Marine at Iwo Jima in 1945, makes him look at America's Independence Day differently. (Courtesy of Russell Contreras via 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.

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.


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.