Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Cinco de Mayo stories (and a coda)

Two of the more intriguing stories this week concern Cinco de Mayo, the quasi-holiday celebrating a Mexican military victory against the French in 1862. Little observed in Mexico—Mexicans quite reasonably regard their independence day, September 16, as their principal patriotic holiday—Cinco de Mayo as a modern-day festival is largely an American invention. It appears to have its roots in the Californian Hispanic community as early as the 1860s, but it didn’t rise to prominence until a generation or so ago, when a few enterprising companies, breweries foremost among them, began to market their products in tandem with a largely fabricated holiday.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Corona, enchiladas, and mariachi bands as much as the next guy, and I’ll even grant that the Mexican victory at Puebla may have had an under-appreciated effect on American history by thwarting Napoleon III’s attempts to supply the Confederacy and thereby de-stabilize the Union. Moreover, while commemorating a single victory in a war that was ultimately lost may seem a bit strange, it’s no more bizarre than Texans’ obsession with a battle that was in fact a colossal defeat (the Alamo) or Irishmen’s concentration on the disastrous Easter Rising of 1916 rather than actual independence a few years later. Nor does the contrived nature of the event bother me: Chicago was dyeing their river green for over 30 years before Dublin really began any kind of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations other than in a truly religious context. Cinco de Mayo may be, in the words of HuffPo columnist Eric Lurio, “totally fake,” but it is also “harmless” and “as good a day as any to party”: the equivalent for those of Mexican heritage to Polaski Day for Polish-Americans or Columbus Day for Italian-Americans.

Sort of.

For one thing, Cinco de Mayo sort of wants to market itself as a pan-Hispanic celebration and stay specifically Mexican at the same time. And whereas St. Patrick’s Day revelers proclaim everyone Irish on March 17, Cinco de Mayo celebrants tend to hold the rest of the world at arm’s length: “we’re Mexican and you’re not… but buy our flautas, anyway.” Most importantly, there’s still some serious tension surrounding the extent to which Hispanics in general and those of Mexican heritage in particular have chosen to integrate (or not) into American culture. It falls a good deal short of racism to wonder why ballots or telephone instructions on getting an American passport need to be available in Spanish (but not in Chinese or French or any of the other dozens of languages which are the native tongues of American citizens), or why incessant illegal border-crossings from Mexico are not regarded as a threat to national security, but an absent-minded smoker who inadvertently tries to take a Zippo onto an airplane is.

Not surprisingly, then, emotions are a little raw on both sides. Hispanics in this country are indeed subjected to discrimination, and are not infrequently the victims of racism. Those who are in the country illegally are especially subject to exploitation. But, at one level, “official language” legislation and similar initiatives only seek to concretize what was standard practice for every other ethnic group ever to enter the US: if you want to be an American, be an American. Obey the law (including immigration law). Learn English. Don’t forget your heritage, but participate in the larger society. It doesn’t seem too much to ask, so while many of the manifestations of Anglo disgruntlement are exaggerated or even offensive, the stimulus itself is easy to comprehend.

And so we come to the draconian, probably unconstitutional, and politically stupid new immigration law recently signed into effect by Arizona governor Jan Brewer. First: an explanation of my choice of adjectives… Draconian: while the intent of the law is subject to dispute, it is clear that local police are required to demand papers of anyone who is “reasonably suspected” of not being a citizen; anyone thus suspected must have immigration documents on their person, and bigoted jackasses citizens can indeed sue any enforcement agency the tin-foil hat brigade thinks isn’t sufficiently aggressive in harassing apparently law-abiding folks. Probably unconstitutional: the new law claims for the state prerogatives constitutionally reserved for the federal government. Politically stupid: Gov. Brewer and bill-supporter John McCain are facing primary challenges from their right flank. Rather than do what’s right (or to articulate a cogent rationale for the law), they’ve decided to pander to the most xenophobic elements of their base. Note in particular the extraordinary hypocrisy of the tea partiers, who are all about smaller government except when governmental intrusion into people’s lives comes exclusively at the expense of the more darkly complected among us. The result is a profound alienation of Hispanic voters from all things Republican. These are, of course, the very people the GOP had hitherto been making a concerted effort to attract by emphasizing shared social values.

A crackdown on illegal aliens (I agree with my friends on the right that calling these people “undocumented workers” is akin to describing drug dealers as “unlicensed pharmacists”) may be necessary, but turning Arizona into a police state isn’t likely to win a lot of votes from people named Hernandez or Montoya. Real solutions, of course, are complicated, and probably involve sanctions (stiff fines and/or jail time) against those who employ illegals without a good-faith effort to determine prospective workers’ authorization to work in the US. They also involve a recognition of the positive influence such workers, legal or not, have had on local, state, and national economies. They inevitably involve considering the family as a valued social institution, with a concomitant commitment to making reasonable accommodations in order to keep families together—something the “family values” crowd is (needless to say) loath to do. Whatever the right policy is, sending Officer Bubba out to harass anyone who might be “foreign” isn’t the way to go.

Let’s be clear, here. This legislation is all about Mexicans, and all about demonization, alleged protections against racial profiling notwithstanding. Let’s face it, bills get passed because of a perceived need, and there is no one suggesting that Arizona is suffering from an infestation of Icelandics. So, if two of my students are walking down the street in Yuma, the one more likely to be hassled is the American citizen named Sanchez rather than the actual alien named Brynjarsdottír. That said, if Texas were to adopt such a law—and our governor and state legislature are both stupid and racist enough to do so—then Ms. Brynjarsdottír, who speaks fluent but slightly accented English, could be stopped and incarcerated for not bringing her visa to a late-night tech rehearsal. Anyone who thinks that couldn’t happen has never met a small-town cop.

And now… finally… story #1. The Phoenix Suns sported “Los Suns” jerseys for their NBA playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs on May 5, Cinco de Mayo. The impetus came from managing partner Robert Sarver, with apparently full support from the players. Canadian citizen and star point guard Steve Nash was especially outspoken about what he perceives as “a bill that really damages our civil liberties.” For the record, the Suns won that night (indeed, they went on to sweep the series—their first playoff series win, let alone sweep, against the Spurs in five tries), and analysts started talking about the team’s “toughness.” Coincidence? Perhaps. But a sense of something larger than the self is an essential element in any team effort, and the Suns may just have found it. Also for the record: replica “Los Suns” jerseys, previously marked down to clearance prices at local sporting goods stores, are now selling like proverbial hotcakes at three times their previous price.

Needless to say, there has been considerable furor over the Suns’ action. Rush Limbaugh blustered predictably: “get liberalism out of it,” he sputtered, describing the Suns’ protest as “cowardice disguised as supremacy” (whatever the hell that means), and above all employing the supremely ill-timed “politics and ESPN are like water and oil in the Gulf of Mexico.” Considerably more effective was the snark on under the headline, “Word ‘Los’ On Suns Jersey Compels Arizona to Repeal Immigration Law.”

A more measured approach comes from Michael McCarthy, who writes, “I’m all for the Suns wearing their Los Suns alternate jerseys to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. But Sarver said they wore the alternate jerseys to protest Arizona’s recent immigration law. The national TV audience was not given a choice whether they wanted to participate in the debate or not.”

The majority of the commentary, however, trends towards that of the Tampa Tribune’s Joe Henderson, who quotes Suns GM Steve Kerr as saying, “It's hard to imagine in this country that we have to produce papers. It rings up images of Nazi Germany.” Henderson himself concludes, “Yes, as a nation we need intelligent debate on the tough immigration issue, and we need a national policy that makes sense. That's really what Los Suns are trying to say, and they have done it well.”

I’m not sure about this one. McCarthy makes a good point. I don’t want to see sports turned into politics, although it is sometimes inevitable, whether we’re talking the Duke lacrosse team, the John Carlos / Tommie Smith black power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics, or the political careers of Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, or Jack Kemp. On the other hand, sports have often been influential in changing the debate—witness the profound influence of, say, Jackie Robinson—and, if the Suns team is really as unified on this issue as they are represented as being, then why not? After all, there’s nothing controversial about the uniforms themselves: they’d already been used twice earlier this season. Are we really going to fret that someone did a perfectly reasonable thing for the wrong reason? Ultimately, I think not.

The other Cinco de Mayo story is easier to parse. In Morgan Hill, CA, a group of five boys wore American flag clothing—bandanas, shirts, shorts—and were told that such apparel was inappropriate. So far, it sounds like something from my youth: in those halcyon days, clothing featuring a flag motif was often worn by protesters against the Vietnam War, and, because such designs tended to be found on the seats of jeans, or in other places where the symbol might touch the ground or otherwise be defaced, we were forbidden to wear anything with an American flag. Now, of course, such apparel is considered patriotic.

Anyway, these guys show up at school wearing this stuff and the Head Moron Assistant Principal tells them they’ve got to take it off, go home, or face suspension. You see, it was Cinco de Mayo, and expressions of American patriotism were deemed insensitive to Hispanic students. OK, I’ll say this once: Give me a damned break.

Yes, these students’ protests that they weren’t trying to spark conflict were, to coin a phrase, lies. But if we were to remove every disingenuous little jackass from high school, the halls would echo forever because there’d be nothing and no one there to absorb the sound. If, as the assistant principal is alleged to have said, there would have been nothing wrong with what they were wearing on any other day, the fact that it happened to be May 5 matters not a whit. (By the way, where was the actual principal for all this?) More to the point, these little jerk-offs got exactly what they wanted: publicity. It was a veritable Fox-gasm out there. Lots of pundits, self-styled and otherwise, intoned (can one “intone” in print?) that this is what happens when liberals run schools. No, this is what happens when craven idiots run schools. It’s a logic problem: if some school administrators are liberals, and some school administrators are craven idiots…

The righteous dudgeon was indeed thick on the ground on both sides. I was particularly intrigued by the comments of one Annicia Nunez, quoted in the AP article: “I think they should apologize ‘cause it is a Mexican Heritage Day. We don't deserve to get disrespected like that. We wouldn't do that on Fourth of July.” One wonders about Ms. Nunez’s citizenship. Is she a Mexican-American, in which case there’s certainly no reason to be upset at an expression of American pride, any more than an Irish-American would have a right to complain about the Stars and Stripes on St. Patrick’s Day? “We [American citizens] wouldn’t [“disrespect” the US] on the 4th of July”? How freaking magnanimous of her! Or is she actually Mexican, a guest in another land, partaking of that country’s resources, and complaining about the locals’ actually liking their own country? Either way, Ms. Nunez, you and yours are not owed an apology—not for what has been reported, at least. If there were threats or even taunts, maybe. But an adolescent in an Old Glory shirt falls well short of the disrespect you do indeed deserve if you are as egocentric and as ignorant of your own heritage and its manifestations as you appear to be. And if your appreciation of all things Mexican is really so profound that you are offended by that which is American… enjoy your trip south, and don’t hurry back.

There’s also, by the way, a local variant of this story. At Klein Collins High School in Spring, TX, a self-righteous little brat named Nick Collins tore down and threw away a Mexican flag that had been displayed in the school on Cinco de Mayo, got a three-day suspension, and had to pay for the flag. Gee, almost as if vandalism were a crime, or something. Then he went sniveling onto right-wing talk radio to whine about how he was sore abused. Needless to say, he got to play martyr, and Michael Berry, the host of the radio show, will pick up his financial obligation as a publicity stunt out of a deep concern for justice. Of course, other national flags had been similarly displayed without incident in the past, rendering suspect young Collins’s protestations that it wasn’t that he has something against Mexicans and/or celebrating Cinco de Mayo… or perhaps it’s just that his powers of deductive reasoning aren’t very advanced.

On the other hand, Collins's assertion that the display of the Mexican flag was disrespectful to the American flag because of its relative placement may have merit, and would have been a reasonable observation/complaint to bring to school officials. But the fact that he simply tore down the flag rather than talking to authorities, the disingenuous assertion that he'd measured the heights of the flags in question, and the secondary placement of this line of reasoning in Collins's own rhetorical stance all suggest that he was grasping at straws rather than making a principled argument.

One thing about all this kerfuffle… there’s plenty of people to cheer against.

No comments: