We're All Natives
by Mark Renz
As I was coming of age I was constantly reminded that I should be proud of my roots. You're a Cracker, locals would say. Be proud!
And I was proud, at least until I got old enough to think for myself. That's when I began to notice that a bigger deal was made out of who my ancestors were over the last few hundred years, than the common ancestors every human on this planet shares going back thousands of years. Trace our roots even further back and we share our most basic compounds with every living organism ever to exist. But more attention was paid to where we came from recently, which school we attended, which sport we may have played, or which church was ours.
When I was seven, I played little league baseball at Billy Bowlegs Park in East Fort Myers. Our team was called the Tarpons. It was pounded into me that the other team was the one to beat. They were the enemy, figuratively. Of course I was taught good sportsmanship. Play like a gentleman, shake hands with the other team – even if you lose. But they were still the enemy.
It was subtle but the underlying message I picked up from my coach, parents cheering us on, and my fellow teammates, was that anyone who wasn't on our team was to be treated with a polite air of contempt. We, however, were special. If we didn't look at them as an enemy, we ran the risk of dropping our guard, of being perceived as weak and therefore beatable.
Things were no different when my folks moved our family from Florida to Pickerington, Ohio. Once in jr. high school, I was pressured to join the football, basketball and track teams. That I stunk in all three sports did not bother me. What did was the same old “We're better than other kids and other schools” mentality.
In the spirit of competition, we sat on opposite sides of the gymnasium from the other school. The home team had bigger audiences and more "GO TIGERS!" signs for a greater edge. And woe be it until he or she who got caught cheering a great play the other team might make. To me, the kids and schools on both sides of the gym in Ohio, sure looked and acted a lot like the ones I left behind in Florida.
While growing up in Florida, I often heard adults complain about those “damned yankees” who were unacceptable because they didn't appreciate or understand “our” way of doing things. In Ohio, I heard similar complaints about those “Southern rednecks”.
My parents later moved us back to Clewiston, Florida where I felt alienated from both groups. I had lost my accent and rarely said “y'all”. My fellow southerns would often say, “You're not one of us.” I began to feel as if they were right.
After we kids were grown, my parents moved to North Carolina, where they faced difficulties in being accepted there because they weren't natives of the past 100 years.
Particularly perplexing to me is how people can place so much emphasis on the city or state of their birth—even their nationality or skin color-as if they actually had a hand in determining such matters. The fact that I was born a white male in Fort Myers, Florida, is not—in and of itself—reason for me to be proud. We weren't rich but we certainly had access to better schools than the poorest of the poor in the U.S., not to mention Third World countries.
That I was tall and thin throughout my youth had less to do with my eating and exercising properly and more to do with the genes handed down to me from my ancestors. That I am human at all, was not my call. I could have easily been born a tasty chicken bound for a KFC take-out order.
I am often called a Florida native because I was born here, my Mom was born here and her mother came here at the age of 6. Yet my biological father was born in Panama, my stepfather in Ohio, and his father in Germany. My wife Marisa and her mother were born in Puerto Rico while their ancestors come from Spain. Marisa's father came from Americus, Georgia and had former President Jimmy Carter as an occasional playmate while her great uncle was a famous confederate general.
At what point do we really become a native and why should it even matter? Labels are great when they help bond people together in times of need. But if we're not careful, they can push us apart.
Some of my neighbors today call themselves natives, although their ancestors go back only about 100 years. The Seminole Indians are often referred to as Florida natives, but their ancestors moved here from Georgia, Alabama and other states. No one knows for sure where the Calusa Indians, who occuped Southwest Florida for over 2,000 years, originated. Or their predecessors several thousand years before that, or the first known Floridians estimated to have arrived on the Peninsula over 12,000 years ago.
Humans in one form or another, have been evolving and on the move for over 4 million years. Who gives a hoot if you're from New York, Florida, Texas, China or the Middle East? Who cares if your great-grandfather was Albert Einstein, Seminole leader Osceola, Adolf Hitler or Martin Luther King?
If we want to be proud of something, let's be proud of who we are as an individual. What have we done to make it a smarter, safer, more compassionate and tolerant world? What have we done to bring people together rather than divide them? If we insist on being proud—which we shouldn't—why not be proud of being a good steward of the environment and not letting greed get the best of us?
Not one of us is truly a native of anywhere. We all came from someplace else somewhere down the line. We all share a common ancestor. From our origins as an infamous family like the Hatfields or MCCoys, to their ancestors who may have been peace-keepers from another country or race—and eventually another life form and another form before that—we're all natives of time and space. Really, it doesn't pay to take our roots too seriously.
So the next time someone asks you where you're from, tell them what they want to hear if you like. But then remind them of our common roots and treat them as you would close family. That may be our only hope for a united future.