Thoughts on national, digital and personal identity


On national identity

Today is Canada Day. This is my third as a Canadian resident. To me, July 1st is a celebration of my immigration to the great country that is Canada - and the celebration of the many who have lived and died here since 1867.

I was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I will always be a Guatemalan. In a few years, I may become a Canadian citizen and I will be very proud to do so. You see, my wife is Canadian. My son, who is soon to be born, will be a Canadian. My in-laws and many of my best friends are Canadians. Mike Myers is not one of them but he's a Canadian too. 

Territorial identity has always been very important for human beings. We like borders and cities; anthems and flags. The human race is quite gifted at the art of both celebrating the places we call home, and poking fun at such places in self-deprecation (or desperation, at times) when we must. 

I have a strong love for the places I've called home. Not just Guatemala and Canada, but also the United States, where I lived for over a decade. This may sound weird, but I also have love for the countries of my grandparents and ancestors - from Costa Rica and Honduras, to Mexico and Spain. I apparently also have Jewish, Portuguese, Italian and German blood. And when it comes to world events like the World Cup and the Olympics, you'll be sure to find me cheering for Latin Americans (after all, most of us speak Spanish, and we do have quite a few similarities).

Over my 31 years of life I have been fortunate to travel to many places, spending months at a time in places like Maui, HI and Hastings, England. No matter where I go and despite some of my favorite cities being pretty awesome (Visca el Barça! Visca Catalunya!), my heart will always be in Guatemala City. And yet, my heart will always also be in New Westminster, BC (where I live today), Jersey City, NJ (only 5 minutes from NYC yo!), and Dallas, TX (where I first arrived in North America as an 18 year old student at SMU). 

During my travels, both for work and pleasure, I've learnt that many people do not travel. I've met plenty of Texans, New Yorkers and British Columbians who have no interest in ever leaving their home towns - and they would not dare ever moving to another country. 

For me, immigrating to two different countries (even though my move to the U.S. was only 10-year temporary), has helped shape who I am and what I care about. 

I've realized that my identity is closely aligned with the place I call home. However, when I think about it, I realize that 'home' is where those whom I love are. Canada is where my wife, our puppies (and soon our son) are creating a life together. Guatemala is where my parents, grandparents and most family members live. And the U.S. is where my only brother lives. These places have given me much more than I could ever give them: Friendships, memories, opportunities, and experiences. And yet, I'm not sure any of these places value me in the way I value them. Eighteen years in Guatemala did not result in any kind of tenure medal. Years of paying taxes and waking up for Black Friday sales in the U.S. did not result in any 'thank you' notes. Canada gives me great healthcare (thanks Canada!) but nobody welcomed me when I landed on a plane to say 'Thanks for giving up everything and joining us up here, so far from the equator!'

Nope, nations are not there for us.

Nations are there for us to give back to them. Great nations are created from people who work diligently, creatively and selflessly to make them better than when they found them. Great nations are places that inspire and help  other nations. Great nations are places where you can not only find jobs, but create them. Great nations are places for people who want to build instead of destroy. Great nations are for innovators, not lovers of the status quo. Great nations are for people who ask 'What can I do to make this land better for my self, my family and anyone else who may ever want to call it home.'

I've called many places home. I'm fortunate to be a Guatemalan and I always will be. I'm fortunate to live in Canada and I cannot wait to officially become a Canadian citizen so I can give back to the place my children will call 'our home.' 

And I will always have a soft spot for immigrants - especially those who have struggled. All of us immigrants have felt scared, alone, confused. We've all had our regrets and we've all had our victories. Immigration is a key element of a globalized society where we are all closer to each other than ever before in history - both literally and figuratively. 

As I celebrate Canada Day today, I celebrate the human race being more welcoming to each other than ever before in history, and I celebrate everyone who has played even a small role in the story I call my life. 

 

On digital identity

The web changed everything. It may not be as obvious now, but 100 years from now our descendants will talk about how a convergence of technologies and a bunch of startups transformed human behavior forever. 

I was 11 years old when my dad first got Internet at home. I remember spending a Summer helping my parents set up their retail company's first computer system during the day - and learning HTML each night. I didn't know how to 'copy / paste' text and we did not have a printer so I would manually write down HTML code on a notebook, and then enter it into a digital notepad. It was an expensive few months of Internet access fees before my parents found out. I eventually learned how to 'copy / paste.'

I grew up with the idea that my personal identity extended onto the Internet. Sometimes I 'surfed the web' anonymously; other times I represented myself as a cooler, older, much more interesting version of Esteban Contreras. It wasn't until I was a senior at SMU that I first realized that my offline identity was going to be interconnected with my online identity permanently.

Enter: Facebook.

My first thought about Facebook was "That's silly, MySpace is way better - what's with the awful white background?" But I very soon realized that Facebook was going to change everything. I made up my mind that I was either going to build my own Facebook or work at Facebook some day (neither of those ever happened but I've been working with/on and studying Facebook ever since). 

Facebook was by no means the first social network, but it was the first social network to have a whole lot of personal information that people wanted to share, that a lot of people wanted to share - initially with our university friends, then our High School girlfriends (at least for me - and yes, I eventually married mine), and then everyone else - even our parents / grandparents (some of whom may be reading this - Hi mom!).

Facebook and other social networks and digital marketplaces have been key to a drastic transformational shift in how we live our lives, personally and professionally, all over the world. From a business, societal and technological perspective, Facebook is a force unlike anything we've seen before - and it has played a role in how other companies, from Snapchat to Airbnb, are enabling us to do things we couldn't do in the past, all while creating micro-changes in how we see ourselves and the world around us - in other words, adding new dimensions to the concept of identity. 

The Internet has always been about identity. From email to search engines, there is no point to the Internet if we cannot privately or publicly make our lives better through it. For me, the Internet was a way to connect with a big world beyond Guatemalan borders and it eventually became a way for me to differentiate myself and develop skills that would become essential to making a living in far away places. I did not grow up rubbing shoulders with Texan executives so the only way for me to stand out during and after college was to use the Internet to my online identity's advantage.

Now that we are all comfortable managing our public online identities, the web is enabling new kinds of opportunities, and blurring the lines between our nationalistic and digital selves. For example, Estonia is proactively working to build a 'digital society.' Forget shipping products to Estonia, Estonia wants to give you and your company an "e-residency." The government of Estonia offers citizens of other countries a government-issued digital identity so your business can conduct itself as a native Estonian one would. And yes, you can pay your Estonian taxes digitally as well.

 

On personal identity

It is clear that our sense of identity is changing. The world is getting smaller and technology is bringing us closer. Now, our modern identities are also being threatened.

In my opinion, it is important to differentiate our true selves from our false selves. It is harder to think of this in the context of national identity but it becomes apparent when we realize that human beings are struggling with our newly found digital selves. From self-centeredness and self-pity to self-justification and self-righteousness, us humans can be quite ridiculous and even harmful on the Internet. Kids bullying each other, adult men and women taking absurd gym selfies, and impressionable teenagers thinking that maybe, just maybe, everybody's lives are perfect - everybody's lives except their own. But we all know everyone's life is not as awesome as it seems online. In fact, our digital selves can erode our true selves by turning us into happy joyful jolly photographs - followed by ice cream binging and tears in the real world.

As the concept of identity changes, our core values are more important as ever. For my wife and I, our core values are faith, family, love, hope and freedom. And there are many other values we hold dear: Creativity, integrity, adventure, community, and perseverance, for example. 

The last few weeks I've wrestled when wanting to share my views about topics that are creating great division among my own social networks. I've struggled because I don't want to leverage these global, ethical and legal discussions for my own benefit - to look good in front of those who can relate with me, or to bring down those whom I disagree with. I have the urge to do so but the idea of thinking more deeply about my true identity - both online and offline - has kept me from doing so. 

It's quite easy to think about the concept of identity but it's hard to figure out who we really are, and to acknowledge the fact that sometimes we change over time and sometimes we're not exactly who we thought we were. Despite the shifts at a global and technological level - not to mention our own internal turmoils - I'm pretty clear on the values I hold dear, and I'm pretty clear about the fact that I want to live my days on this Earth being who I am - with a single identity (as best as I can) both online and offline. We all get one life and every moment is an opportunity to choose the role we will play.

Copyright © Esteban Contreras. All rights reserved.