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Of Flags and Men

Eavesdropping on two Chicanos in the midst of a national debate

July 23, 2006|Stephen D. Gutierrez | Stephen D. Gutierrez teaches English at Cal State East Bay and is the author of "Elements," a collection of L.A.-based stories.

Back in the '70s we took sides, young Chicanos, waving the Mexican flag every chance we got, but it wasn't so easy, either. We got flak from our parents.

They had grown up in the '30s, in the '40s, right here in L.A., and some of them couldn't even pronounce the word "Mexican" in mixed company without cringing, as if they had swallowed a sour ball in front of a crowd judging them for poise and elan. And they told their kids the same sad story. "We are Mexican, we are not. Never deny your heritage! Watch me deny my heritage! Mi raza primero, but don't forget the good ol' U.S.A. We are Mexican Americans, not Mexican Mexicans, no matter what they say, los gringos. Mexican Americans."

They had fought the big wars a generation earlier. They had pride and confidence, the men and the women, from the battlefields and the home front. They swelled with patriotism that they had been through this with the rest of the country, but still felt lonely and confused.

"We're Mexican! American! When I was fighting the Japs . . . In Korea . . . Man, I knew this dude from Arkansas I hung with . . . Some of those Italians from New York, crazy . . . But they still hate us down here, ha?"

"Yeah, no. What are you saying, Rudolfo? Leave it alone."

And the Mexican flags went up. They went up in the '60s, in the '70s, in a little working-class town outside of L.A. called City of Commerce. Rich industry polluted our skies. We were happy. The men were working and the kids full.

Now they started hearing a chant. It started softly, then grew louder and louder: "Chicano power! Chicano power!"

And the kids liked it. "We're Mexicans! Don't be ashamed of the race! Fly the flag!"

"No, I'm not going to fly the damn flag," said fathers who had fought and mothers who had waited. They had no patience for the Mexican flag. "Not now," they said, "it's not ours anymore."

But the kids insisted: "¡Chale, la revolucion es ahora! The revolution is now!" testing the limits of their Spanish.

All that shame and half-baked allegiance to the U.S.A. had to go.

The Mexican flag went up. Usually a small one and not too prominent, but up it went on windshields and sewn onto Levi's. And alongside it, ah! the American flag! Plastered on by parents who refused to neglect it.

And worn by Chicanos who finally claimed it, sporting it ironically. It was the cool thing to do. It meant you really didn't believe in it but kind of did. On those frayed Levi's and jeans jackets, tattered and proud, in poster-bedecked rooms black-light lit and humid with dope.

"There it is, man, our flag," we marveled at the ease at which we adopted it, entering unnoticed the great confraternity of the American people.

"We're in," we might have said, before we even realized it. Before it sank in.

The American flags went up and up and up and up: They got bigger, and many more flew along the streets in Commerce, well-paved streets with modest homes and trim green lawns, new cars in the driveways and no crime on the streets, to speak of, in my own neighborhood.

Remember that argument about the Mexican flag? Dead. The children had grown up and left or stuck around and bought in Commerce, where they wanted the property values to stay high and the streets clean. Only in the U.S.A.

The Mexican flags got folded and packed in trunks alongside the moth-eaten souvenirs of the times, bongs wrapped in serapes weighed down with the old man's mementos from WWII.

And shock waves hit.

"Did you see, man," I heard someone ask one day during the World Cup soccer tournament and a trip home to Commerce, fast changing now, more immigrants moving in and working in the neighborhood, "the Mexican flag at the gas station? They flew the Mexican flag, man! A big old Mexican flag over the American!" Shock and awe. Anger.

Who do the Mexicans think they are? And who are we?

"Americans ought to do something, man," came the answer. "We shouldn't let this happen."

A Mexican flag flying over dirty L.A. at noon settled the question.

"That's not our flag, man, that's wrong."

And now we find ourselves at this crossroads. Flags. Allegiance. Race. (Whatever that means anymore.)

"Aren't you concerned, man? All these mexicanos who want this to be Mexico again? I hear them talking. I've talked to them."

"Not all of them, man," we speak working-class American--excuse the man's, man, and listen to me now, man--"I know all kinds of mexicanos who just want a better life here."

"I hear you. But I hear some rumblings from down south about a 'bronze' nation stretching from Mexico City to Los Angeles, and California finally being 'ours' again."

"Really, you heard that? That's messed up. I don't want this country to turn into Mexico, do you?"

"No, that's what I'm saying. There's a real threat now. We'll be Mexico in 20 years."

"Damn, dude, you sound like a racist, one of these talk show hosts."

"No, I'm not. I just don't want my country to be Mexico, do you?"

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