On Saturday at North Island the Navy will commission its newest guided missile-destroyer, a 509-foot technological marvel named for a Mexican immigrant who became a Marine sergeant and died at Fallujah.
The USS Rafael Peralta speaks volumes about both a Marine hero and the idea of America.
Born in Mexico City, Peralta was the son of immigrants from Mexico. He graduated from Morse High School in east San Diego in 1997 and enlisted in the Marine Corps, becoming an American citizen.
During the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, Sgt. Peralta was wounded by enemy fire, then threw himself on an incoming grenade to save the Marines around him.
In the divided America of 2017, when the President dismisses Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murders” and right-wing websites like Breitbart and Drudge Report scream about “illegals,” it’s important to remember that America has always been a beacon to the world’s poor and oppressed.
The founding principle of the United States — “that all men are created equal” — wasn’t qualified by country of origin, family background, religion, or color of skin, and generations of Americans fought to prove this.
The United States is not a traditional country created around an ethnic group in an ancestral land, like a Japan or an Italy. Instead we’re a nation of immigrants inspired by the idea that free people can establish their own “more perfect union.”
Americans rejected the European traditions of “blood and soil,” and instead built a nation around the ideas espoused by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
As Emma Lazarus‘ famous poem engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty puts it:
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!
… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter has criticized this “insane idea that all countries should send their losers to us,” as if successive waves of hard-working German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Cuban, Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian and Somali immigrants have not helped make America the most innovative and powerful nation in history.
Like generations before and hopefully to come, Rafael Peralta’s family immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. Their son repaid the opportunity with his own life.
The United States needs more immigrants like Rafael Peralta. His story, and the majestic Navy ship named for him, are both shining examples of the real America and an inspiration for all of us.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of the Times of San Diego, which is a proud contributor to the commissioning committee.