By Guest Contributors Alexandro Jose Gradilla and David J. Leonard
Dear Mr. Navarrette,
We are writing to you in regards to your recent piece criticizing American Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano for waving his native Mexican flag alongside the U.S. flag following his performance in the men’s 1500-meter finals.
Like many people, we were struck by not only its divisiveness–its desire to undermine the life and successes of Manzano to make a political point–but your dismissive tone to anyone who doesn’t agree with you. We were also struck by your efforts to pathologize those who don’t agree with you, to seemingly mock and ridicule those who see the world differently than you (“Most Mexican-Americans I know would need a whole team of therapists to sort out their views on culture, national identity, ethnic pride and their relationship with Mother Mexico”). We were also struck by the simplicity of your discussion of history, immigration, and sports, which you seem to think is outside the realm of politics.
Ruben, you write, “This country took you in during your hour of need. Now in your moment of glory, which country deserves your respect–the one that offered nothing to your parents and forced them to leave or the one that took you all in and gave you the opportunity to live out your dreams?”
Waiter, can we have a side of facts with this hyperbole and cliché?
Yes, Manzano arrived in the United States at the age of 4. In 1987, his father, Jesús, who was working in the United States without authorization, secured permanent residency. Soon thereafter, he would gain his green card, ultimately sending for his family.
Leo was born in central Mexico, a place “where education ceased by fourth grade, running water did not exist and electricity was practically unheard of.” While certainly a life of poverty, to say that his country offered him “nothing” is one of tremendous disrespect. Worse yet, you erase history; you erase the ways that the United States and globalization has impacted Mexico. In recent times the United States through its neo-liberal policies such as the Bracero Program (1942-1964), Border Industrialization Program, a.k.a “maquiladoras” (1964-1996) and finally the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have slowly destroyed the traditional if not Jeffersonian agrarian society that provided self-sufficiency and subsistence.
All of these agreements, under the guise of “development” and “progress,” have forced people from their land, created environmental disaster, and provided a boon for Mexico’s underground economy–drug trafficking. The Mexican government provides little to no protection for its citizens against these economic polices. Labor rights and any illusion of a social safety net have collapsed. These policies are in place because it benefits the U.S. economy by providing cheap goods and cheap labor, to the detriment of the Mexican people.
Ruben, what do you mean that the United States gave Manzano the “opportunity to live out” his dreams. Manzano, like his parents, worked hard to secure everything he and his family has achieved. His parents work hard, with his father working as a machine operator at a gravel quarry and his mom holding down “odd jobs.” He, too, fought to get where he is today. Nobody gave him anything. According to the New York Times’ Aimee Berg:
All the while, Manzano needed to help his family financially. He got his first job at the age of 11. Later, his father would drop him off at school at 5 a.m. and Manzano would juggle practice at 6:15 a.m., his schoolwork and late shifts at an Italian restaurant until he became, in 2004, the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.
Had his family immigrated in 1999 or 2009, there would be no Leo Manzano, American silver medalist; there would be no American citizen Leo Manzano. In today’s political climate, one of racism and demonization, it is more likely he would have been Georgia or Arizona, pushed to “self-deport”, or otherwise subjected to harassment than live the purported “American Dream.” Even if one takes the position, as you do, that America gave Manzano this opportunity–that because of the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, because of immigration, because of the opportunity to attend the University of Texas, Manzano has secured greatness–please know that opportunity would be nearly impossible today, or at least impossible because of the Republican Party and its supporters (yes, the people commenting on your piece and those celebrating you on your Facebook page).
Strangely, you have given the “green light” to wave to both flags to Mexican Americans who are U.S. born citizens, such as Oscar de la Hoya. Sadly, it is a unique American tradition for ethnics to hate or disparage members of their community who are immigrants. Historian David Gutierrez aptly uses the metaphor of “walls and mirrors” to describe the tense and fraught relationship that has existed amongst Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants.
So when Manzano’s brief moment of raw pleasure and visceral excitement caused him to think with his heart and to embrace both flags, embracing the people, history, and cultural traditions that have shaped him. It is wrong to read embracing a “foreign” flag as embracing a foreign government, regime, or economic policies. Manzano has lived and survived globalization and neo-liberal economic policies, which, in turn, have made him a true global citizen with the vision that moves beyond “zero-sum nationalism.” Latinos such as Manzano represent the potential of a new worldview where the success of nation is directly connected to another. Your Cold War-era narrow nationalism is a relic of another era. Manzano’s vision represents the healing “the open wound,” to quote Gloria Anzaldua, that is the U.S.-Mexico border and we can see each others’ humanity as we look into the mirror, instead of the wall that you appear to prefer. Does that wall extend to other divisions?
Given your demand for proper respect for the nation, we assume you will join in demanding that the confederate flag be removed from all state houses; we assume you will join us in condemning those fans who wave the confederate flag at football games and NASCAR races. Ruben, we assume you would support the NAACP in its activism about the flag. Is a column in the works about that?
We are glad to see you are challenging the orthodoxy that ubiquitously denied the political orientation of the Olympics. If it was just about athletes from around the world coming together in a friendly competition wouldn’t two flags be the ultimate sign of international friendships and global connection be the coming together of flags? In your condemnation and righteousness–as well as the disgusting comments of many of your readers–you highlight the very political nature of the Olympics. From the flag waving to the national anthems, to medal counts and ideological competitions, it is clear that the Olympics are little more than “war by proxy.” His decision to pay thanks and tribute to both the United States and Mexico has elicited much rancor, much of which has been fueled by you. And why? Because in this scenario, you think he should pick a side.
This leads us to ask, who is obligated to “prove allegiance”? Do other athletes, whether it be Oscar de la Hoya or Aly Reisman, get a pass? Are you saying Manzano is required to “give thanks,” but not athletes who compete for other countries during the Olympics? Like Chris Kaman, the Michigan-born basketball player who competed for Germany at the 2008 Olympics? What about pole vaulter Jillian Schwartz, who went from being on the U.S. team in 2004, to competing for Israel in this year’s Games thanks to her “dual citizenship” (she visits Israel 4 to 5 times a year). How do your feel about Milorad Cavic? Although born in Anaheim, and holding a U.S. passport (as well as one from Serbia), he has been competing for Serbia for years. Where is your outrage? Where is the demand for these people to “show loyalty” and “respect” for what the United States has given them and their families? Our Google alert is set for that column.
We wonder if you have thought about the fact that the two athletes criticized for their celebrations in awake of Olympic medals were people of color. Both Manzano and Serena Williams, whose celebrated her Gold medal with a “Crip walk,” have been the source of endless criticism. Is it just a coincidence that these two athletes’ expressions of joy are cause for complaints, or does this tell us something about the ways that race operates in contemporary America? Are athletes of color, those imagined to be foreigners, to be “lucky” to be part of the America fabric, required to do that little extra, to give thanks to the nation irrespective of the history of violence and discrimination? As we read the comments found below your piece, we can’t help but thinking that this has everything to do with who waved the two flags–and that points to the danger in a column that inflames bigotry and an already sordid discourse around immigration.
Alexandro Jose Gradilla,
Chair & Associate Professor in the Dept. of Chicana & Chicano Studies
Cal State, Fullerton
David J. Leonard,
Associate Professor in the Dept. of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies
Washington State University