Every year around the Fourth of July I find myself reflecting on a beautiful speech by Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” I think solemnly and regretfully about the historical wrongs in our country, that a country could unironically celebrate its freedom, while 15% of our population ironically had no liberty to speak of. I think about my own Tampa’s recent history, and the intentional “forgetting” of Black cemeteries, now built over and “memorialized” by drab beige strip malls. I think of our shameful past, but I’m not weighed down with hate for our country but hope for what it can continue to be.
This country gave me a chance. My ancestors immigrated here and worked in the cigar factories of Ybor City. My mother worked as a single mother for 30 years in a gypsum factory in Port Tampa. She wore steel-toed boots and a hard hat to work every day to give myself and my siblings a fighting chance.
I found myself pregnant in high school, my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor instantly obsolete. I pivoted, attended Hillsborough Community College and received a two-year certificate in opticianry. I learned a valuable skill that provided me gainful employment and a way to support my own small family.
Eventually my mom had accrued enough bonds through her company that she was able to help me purchase a small eyeglass franchise and I became a small business owner overnight. I learned what it was like to pay others before yourself, what it was like to sign the front of a paycheck, not just the back. These opportunities, this path wouldn’t — couldn’t — have existed in other countries, but there are thousands of stories just like mine in America.
I’m thankful every day that I was fortunate enough to build a life here. However, recognizing America’s greatness and opportunity alone without acknowledging our unsavory past is the equivalent of being a fair-weather sports fan, and I don’t need to lecture anyone on the ethics of that. We must have frank conversations about America — warts and all.
James Baldwin once wrote that “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” America is beautiful because of her desire to get things right, to recognize valid criticisms and correct them, to leave this country better off for those that follow behind us.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In my lifetime, we have seen schools desegregated, interracial marriage become legal, Americans vote for a Black man as president (twice!), gay men and women are finally allowed to marry the person they love, and now women represent nearly half of our workforce. And yet, we still have so far to go.
This Fourth of July I fly my flag proudly in my front yard, and I urge you to do the same. I also urge you to criticize America, to hold each other accountable and to continue improving this country so that everyone can realize those inalienable rights enshrined to us 246 years ago.
I continue to love this country in spite of all the wrongs — historical and ongoing — not because I ignore them but because I believe in our collective ability to get things right. I’m a native Tampeño and a proud American.
State Sen. Janet Cruz is a Tampa Democrat.