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World Cup brings Mexican flags back to streets of Los Angeles

After years of relative political banishment, the red, white and green flags are flying in a display of cultural pride. Some find their symbolism less inflammatory in the context of sports, not politics.

June 25, 2010|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times

The Mexican flag is back on the streets of Los Angeles after several years of political exile.

Four years ago, Miguel Haro was among half a million people who marched for immigrant rights in downtown L.A. At the urging of organizers and Spanish-language disc jockeys, he left his Mexican flag at home and waved an American flag instead.

Concerned that the Mexican flag carried the wrong message, Mexican American political leaders and other activists launched a largely successful effort to have people at public events, particularly protest marches, wave the American flag, believing it to be a better symbol for their case.

But with the World Cup in full swing, Haro proudly has affixed his Mexican flag to his Toyota RAV4 and cheered for the team of his parents. The American flag is fine for politics, he said, but this is soccer.

"My allegiance is to America, no doubt about it, and I'd think I wouldn't have to prove it," said Haro, a 25-year-old utility worker. "But when I wave the Mexican flag for soccer, it's strictly cultural. It's showing I'm proud of my Mexican background."

After years of being downplayed at large political rallies that regularly punctuated the L.A. landscape, the World Cup has given the Mexican flag some of its big event presence back.

The red, white and green banners hang from cars on the freeway, wave inside countless bars and eateries during games and are even held proudly by cyclists riding through downtown L.A.

With the Mexican team having survived preliminary rounds and scheduled to play Sunday against Argentina in the Round of 16, fan loyalty — and flags — are likely to be at a highly visible peak.

To some, it is a disconcerting image.

In Southern California's huge immigrant communities, home-nation flags are ubiquitous.

During the World Cup, sales have been brisk for South Korean flags as well as countries with big soccer followings such as Brazil, England and Spain. Displays of those banners are largely noncontroversial.

But the Mexican flag is different. The American political debate over immigration — illegal immigration in particular — is largely a debate over Mexicans. And few symbols in that debate have carried as much political weight as the Mexican flag.

The presence of Mexican flags at protests and marches over the last decade became flashpoints, with critics saying the displays suggested that immigrants felt loyalty to Mexico rather than the United States.

"Anytime a flag gets caught up in national politics, it becomes a potent symbol," said Jaime Regalado, a political science professor at Cal State L.A.

But the widespread display of the flag at soccer matches — and the relative lack of controversy surrounding it so far — suggest that the symbolism is less inflammatory when put in the context of sports, not politics.

In a Volkswagen commercial, a parade of fans, including American and Mexican soccer fans, march loudly down separate streets while hoisting their nation's flags, only to meet in the middle, where they face off tensely. Then, after a moment, they happily exchange their national team jerseys.

Reality may not be quite that cheerful, but David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Institute, said sports fans "regardless of their background and ethnicity tend to compartmentalize sports and other, everyday activities."

"Showing your heritage during a sports event," he added, "is very different than showing your heritage in a controversial way during a political demonstration."

These days, the flag is also big business.

"The Mexican national team is one of the great sports brands in the United States," said Michael Hitchcock, managing partner of Playbook Management International, a sports marketing firm.

The display of the flag is a major part of that branding, he said. When it comes to advertising, "it's all about the country's flags and national teams fans," he said.

Some longtime immigration activists are pleased to see the flag back on the street after years of relative political banishment.

Activist Javier Rodriguez, 60, said he didn't argue for replacing the Mexican flag with the American one at major rallies. But he was not happy about how the Mexican flag came to be demonized by some.

"The flag just infuriates the other side," he said.

Rodriguez said immigrant-rights organizers have debated the polarizing effect the Mexican flag has at large gatherings since at least 1994, when Proposition 187 was on the ballot. But the 2006 downtown rally was the most dramatic example of the move to replace the Mexican flag with the American flag at rallies because the event was so well organized and received so much media attention.

Beyond the debate over politics or even soccer, the Mexican flag has a far more personal and bittersweet symbolism for many who have been waving it during the games.

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