Of flags and Cinco de Mayo

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Last week, Americans of all nationalities celebrated Cinco de Mayo; some, like me, acknowledged the day by enjoying margaritas and carne asada.

Others, like the Mexican students at Live Oak High School in Northern California, observe the day by wearing the Mexican colors of red, white and green. In a gesture meant to display American pride, five Live Oak students—Daniel Galli, Austin Carvalho, Matt Dariano, Dominic Maciel, and Clayton Howard—decided to wear American flag T-shirts and bandannas. After receiving complaints from some Mexican students, Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez asked the boys to turn their shirts inside out. The boys refused, were threatened with suspension, and asked to leave the campus.

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I am old enough to recall a time when wearing the American flag on a piece of clothing was seen as disrespectful to Americans. Even images of the flag worn as fashion were viewed as a vulgar desecration of a cherished symbol. But times have changed.

Over the years, attitudes have not only relaxed, but they have completed a 180-degree turn. The flag has become an oft-used element in fashion design, and wearing the flag is now considered a display of patriotism. An image burned into my memory is one of the actress Halle Berry wearing a form-fitting gown comprised of small American flags. Disrespectful or not, if that image doesn’t make you stand up and salute, nothing will.

Yes, times have certainly changed. I doubt that anyone ever imagined a time in this country when American children would be criticized for wearing the American flag not because it offended traditional American sensitivities, but because it was seen as disrespectful to Mexicans.

Principal Rodriguez said that the request was made in an effort to prevent fights from breaking out. What remains unclear is why wearing an American flag on one’s shirt would provoke violence—even amongst testosterone-filled teen boys. Daniel Galli and his buddies were minding their own business. If it is the opinion of the principal that just the sight of an American flag on Cinco de Mayo will produce conniption fits among Mexican children, it seems clear to me that he does not have a very high opinion of the Latino students that attend the school.

If it is an educator’s job to promote critical thinking among his students then the administrators at Live Oak failed miserably. Here was a “teaching moment,” here was a real opportunity for Rodriguez and Principal Nick Boden to provide a lesson in patience, priorities and the true meaning of tolerance. But multi-culturalism has turned people into thin-skinned grievance junkies—babies that cry at every cross look or unkind word and must be coddled lest they toss themselves on the floor and begin kicking and screaming. So, rather than suggest to the aggrieved students that they ignore the red, white, and blue T-shirts, enjoy their day, and get back to class, Rodriguez and Boden indulged the multicultural temper tantrum, which ironically, played into the worst stereotypes of Mexican people. “You had better take those shirts off. You know these Mexicans, they will pull their knives at the drop of a hat!”

The following day some 200 Mexican students walked out of class in protest. As they marched down the street waving the Mexican flag, they demanded the boys’ suspension. And once again, rather than demand maturity from the Mexican students, the protest was greeted by the district superintendent with promises to hold a rap-session, where the students would be encouraged to express their feelings. I would like to suggest that rather than encouraging cross-cultural understanding, the school district should instead encourage a cross-cultural Algebra tutoring session. Given that Live Oak is underperforming the state average on both the California Standards test and the California High School Exit Exam, such an endeavor seems far more necessary and certainly more practical.

Responding to the ongoing drama at Live Oak, a young Latina declared that wearing the American flag on Cinco de Mayo was akin to Mexicans wearing the Mexican flag on the Fourth of July. The essential point that this young woman misses is that should she be strolling the streets of Mexico City on July Fourth her donning of the Mexican flag would indeed not raise many eyebrows. We are, as it happens, not in the country of Mexico; rather we reside in the United States of America.

The sight of the American flag in America—even on Cinco de Mayo—should not be a source of offense to Americans of Mexican descent, but pride, providing of course that one sees him or herself as an American first. Here is the point this young woman, the school administrators and a handful of sympathizers seem forever not to grasp. Americans do not want to be an extension of Mexico! Indeed many of us have had a peek south of the border and do not like what we see. The political culture and the values that support it hold little interest for those proud of our flag and “the republic for which it stands.”

Among many Americans, there is a growing sense that immigrants to this country have no interest in becoming Americans. Illegal immigrants are largely seen as people who disrespect our laws, language, and traditions. They are viewed as taking advantage of everything this nation has to offer and yet refusing to assimilate into our culture. The political class says these fears are unfounded, and the elite label such thoughts as bigoted. And yet we are treated to stories like this one, wherein American children are sent home from school for wearing an image of the American flag. Should we believe the political elites or our lying eyes?

(Joseph C. Phillips is author of “He Talk Like a White Boy” available where ever books are sold.)

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