An Open Letter To Ruben Navarrette, Jr.

By Guest Contributors Alexandro Jose Gradilla and David J. Leonard

U.S. Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano. Courtesy: examiner.com

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.

Womens’ tennis gold medalist Serena Williams. Courtesy: madamenoire.com

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.

Sincerely,

Alexandro Jose Gradilla,
Chair & Associate Professor in the Dept. of Chicana & Chicano Studies
Cal State, Fullerton

and

David J. Leonard,
Associate Professor in the Dept. of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies
Washington State University

  • hjstjok

    bravo! Well written, and so true.

  • 9jah

    I love Nigeria like no other. But in the Olympics, where the emphasis is on national pride, it would be bad form to fly anything but the stars and stripes (if I did indeed choose to don the USA jersey). It is not the worst thing in the world, but Manzano was out of line.
    This has nothing to do with being of dual citizenship or whether Mexico did nothing for him or America did everything for him (in other words, the issue is not about Navarette’s weak ass arguments). The dictate of the Olympics is precisely to represent one’s country (whichever it is). You don’t win under the banner of one country and fly the flag of another country that is also in the same Olympic Games.

  • http://www.facebook.com/osonegro.brownberets Oso Negro Brown Berets

    Of the several open letters to Ruben Navarrette regarding his shameful attack on Leo Manzano, this is my favorite. Ruben is the personification of ethnic self-hate. You stood him up on stage, skillfully removed all his props and extinguished his talking points one by one, then you stripped him bare and left him in a fetal position. He deserves every bit of it, too.

  • nancy

    so very well said profes. Navarrette obviously lives in a black and white world of false dichotomies, one in which he believes that raising one flag negates the other – what a simplistic, self-serving argument and one that ignores the nuanced reality of those of us who are bilingual and bicultural.

  • NBlsg

    Bien escrito, bravo!

  • Pricilla Gonzalez

    Bravo Alexandro & David! Thank you

  • Pingback: Chairman Gradilla of Cal State Fullerton Gets Racialicious on Ruben Navarette’s Anti-Manzano Madness! | Don Palabraz

  • http://www.facebook.com/josegonzalezandproud José Luis González

    Ruben seems to be stuck in our generation’s hegemony. Soon we’ll break those mental borders and hopefully people start understanding that even though we are diverse human beings we share a very common denominator- the hope to be equally inclusive of all and not just tolerant of each other.

  • http://twitter.com/PamAime Pam Aimée

    Such a well written letter. I totally agree with you (even though I’m not chicana, but Mexican born and raised in Mexico City) I’m proud the way you express your support and how you make you point clear. Thanks to you and to many others the multicultural world that we live in is less black and white. Bravo mil veces!

  • OAT

    Thank you! When i read Ruben’s column last week I struggled to understand what Leo did wrong to elicit such hate and condemnation. As a Mexican-America who is proud to represent both countries does that mean that I am a trader too? I think this article once again invokes much need dialogue not just on immigration but acceptance and not assimilation.

  • http://twitter.com/followthelede Follow the Lede

    Yes, yes, yes. Everything I wanted to say only better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1151905383 Yolanda Estrada Muñoz

    CHICANITA TAMBIEN: I am 53 years old. I have lived through punishment for speaking Spanish in schools and being labeled as “remedial” because I didn’t know English when I started school. Well, I graduated salutatorian in my high school class. I am proud of my accomplishments and I owe them to my hard work and dedication and to the great teachers I had in my little hometown. That being said, I never had any personal issues with being Mexicana. I love both cultures and I was lucky that my parents would take us to Mexico to visit my relatives on an almost yearly basis. I don’t need therapy because I don’t know my identity: I think the ones who do, personally, are the ones who want to be something they’re not. They want to whitewash their identity and their culture rather than embrace it. I love this country but I’m not blind to it’s faults. And I love the culture of Mexico, although I find their government and treatment of the poor and the indigenous deplorable. It’s amazing that Leo is being crucified by our own AND by those who are bigoted anyway. What I find “interesting” is that I see people with the Confederate flag quite often…and NO ONE says anything…and THAT is worse because of the underlying racism and hatred that the flag is symbolic of.

  • Frank

    This isn’t the first time this has happened, it will not be the last. Congratulations to the medal winner. He earned it. How he celebrates is his own choice. Insert politics into it, and it becomes enamored with identity, flags, etc. He didn’t create the divide in how we see who he is, we did. We made this a for or against issue, when, in fact, the runner held up to his end of the bargain, pushing the limit of what is physically and mentally possible. If Manzano can hold up his end of the oath for the games and reach higher, stronger, faster, he has earned the right to celebrate how he feels fit. What he doesn’t deserve is the right to be claimed racially, politically, socially, or culturally as a protagonist or antagonist of national iconography. Both sides need to take a step back and evaluate how we’ve turned the passion of an elite athlete into a dramatic telling of who he is based on flags. And if it truly comes down to flags, then we’ve served no purpose in forwarding cultural discourse beyond what the games and their victors represent.

  • gg

    Excellent, EXCELLENT piece!

  • Anonymous

    This is such a fantastic article by Alexandro Jose Gradilla & David J. Leonard.

    Seriously, what a great response to Navarrette’s horribleness.

    After reading Navarrette’s article, I felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach, punched in the face, and spat on. But after reading this Racialicious piece, I felt like I had just immersed myself into a magically healing pool of water in a sacred mountain, my wounds had been healed, and that I had completed a detox cleanse. Thank you.

  • Chols

    Bravo! Well said and needed to be said.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the authors of this article – Ruben Navarrette is completely wrong in his criticism of Leo Manzano. Ruben absolutely missed the mark – unless his goal is to draw attention to himself with distorted facts and absurd conclusions about Latinos and how we feel about our identity and how we should behave as ‘good Americans’. The one that needs a therapist to examine his own insecurities and internal demons is Ruben Navarrette – that pobrecito seems like a messed up a Latino to me.

  • Clara Morena

    That article struck a nerve with me. As a mixed woman my( Usian ( Anglo) Daddy and Mexican (Mestiza) mother.)
    In my unveristy, I was criticized for hating my white side and for using the Spanish pronunciation of words( like San Rafael or San Jose) and using the Spanish pronunciation of my name
    I was working with some US veterans I
    ran into a veteran who served his country and was a Latino heritage and
    he introduced myself by his name by using the Spain sh pronunciation. That single moment, meant ALOT to me, he was proud of his service and the same time he wanted to acknowledged his roots. I a

    Being USian and Mexican should not be a contradiction. Thank you
    Leo Manzano. And thank you for posting this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shelley.burian Shelley Burian

    Wonderful! I first saw this story reported on Yahoo and was shocked by the virulence. One of the things I don’t understand is why its so difficult for people to acknowledge that issues of nationality, personal identity and cultural heritage ARE COMPLICATED for so many people, but especially immigrants and those which deep ties to different places, but who have no “official government recognition” that they have a right to claim a culture as a nationality, such as in the great editorial on the experiences of indigenous peoples? Why is it so impossible for someone to have a love for two countries and to honor the special blend of experiences which makes them who they are?

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.perez.3388 Joe Perez

    His medal counted towards the US (the country he is representing)… and he is paying homage to his roots… I agree that in our Latin American Countries (I am from El Salvador), our authorites pay little to none attention to athletes… nevertheless, if I won an Olympic medal, my contribution to the country who gave me the chance to participate (not the one who gave me everything, because nobody but the athlete is responsible at the end) would be to help them in the global medal competition… the medal counted towards the US… besides that he could freely wave which ever flag he wanted… I know I would… I would proudly wave El Salvador’s Flag, but would be forever grateful with the country who allowed me to participate in the games… and would wave its flag too… to show respect…

  • Gabriela

    Great article!! This is a perfect synopsis of Reuben’s pov: “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.”
    Thanks for taking him to task.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cesar.m.saenz Cesar M. Saenz

    very good article for me this is an action i would commit myself to show pride for both my lands but where i see the other mans article is wrong is that he did have the mexican flag but the American flag was on his back to show he does have love for both . Its like the question who do you love more your mother or father i could never answer those questions…

  • http://www.facebook.com/yirlarubi Yirla Rubi Gonzalez Nolan

    Love, love, love this piece!

  • Juan

    I rather admired what he did. A touch of it ALMOST calls back to the Olympic Black Power Salute, and like it, a part of the statement feels that “yes I’m a USian yet this is all that entails ME–not a single country but both countries brought me here today.” *shrug* That’s how I’m feelin it.
    And the comment section over there: septic but expected note for note. The statements there are so textbook of racist asshatery you’d expect for this matter.

  • http://www.hoosiernation.us/ Matt Parrott

    Ruben’s trying to lull the suburban conservatives into to false belief that Mexican invaders are keen on integrating and eager to embrace their new nation and identity. Essentially, he’s begging you buffoons to hold your anti-White and anti-American fire until you can see the whites of their eyes.

    Keep waving your flags and chanting about your beloved homeland as loudly and proudly as you can! It makes my job easier.

  • http://www.profilactic.com/profile/egoiste egoiste

    bravo. I think, too, I’d ask him why he had no problem with most every athlete waving the flag of Nike.

  • happyappa

    From CNN article: [It's illogical to show your allegiance to one country while demanding accommodation from another.]
    It’s also illogical to force someone to give up their culture to be a USA olympian. As if you can only have one or the other. How selfish to use someone’s athleticism by telling them they can’t have Mexican pride too.

    This reminds me of the American Reed siblings who are half Japanese. 2 of them skated for Japan at the 2010 winter olympics (dual citizenship). I read an article that implied it was weird, and the commenters thought it was wrong they were skating for Japan!

    This is what I imagine Ruben Navarrette Jr. saying: “Wave the confederate flag everybody! That’ll show you’re Amerian! Wooohoo!”

    From CNN article: [After his victory, he tweeted, "Silver medal, still felt like I won! Representing two countries USA and Mexico!"]

    Go Manzano. You are NOT a contradiction!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Adrianas Adrianas Mata Anaya

    What a well-warranted, wonderful response. Thank you.

  • Consuelo S. Manríquez

    Bravo!

  • http://latinorebels.com Latino Rebels

    This is an amazingly well-written and well-researched piece. Thank you, Racialicious, for publishing it and sharing these points of view that speak to what we feel is the majority opinion of most Americans. Also thank you for the cross-link!

  • ChicanitaTambien

    I didn’t find the commentator’s comments flippant or mocking at all. The line about us Mexican-Americans needing therapy to sort out our feelings on both countries is, well, in my experience, pretty spot-on. It’s part of a long monologue in the movie “Selena,” if you want to see an inner dialogue made vocal. That topic alone is something my friends and family in the community have discussed at length, sometimes joking and sometimes not, in pretty much the same words as the writer.

    As for the runner holding up the Mexican flag and the American at the same time, yeah, that did make me cringe. Mexico, where I used to live, barely supports its own athletes. It certainly doesn’t give monetary support to Mexican-American athletes, and emotional support is negligible. Again, just in my own experience having lived extensively on both sides of the border.

    There are indeed Mexican-American athletes competing in Mexico for the Olympics, and in national sports, whose only connection prior is having a single grandparent born there. So despite speaking only English and being raised entirely in the US, they compete in Mexico where they get the advantage of being a very big athletic fish in a tiny, underfed bowl. There are always ongoing controversies about this in Mexico, and for awhile there it seemed like half the women’s soccer team was comprised of women from San Diego or Iowa who hadn’t set foot in Mexico until they were given a starting role on the field, and paid much more than their counterparts there.

    I cannot under a million circumstances imagine one of those athletes waving a Mexican and a US flag at the same time without getting torn to pieces by the Mexican press. It would seem, I think, like the runner’s actions, exceptionally ungrateful to the country that extended its resources to get them to competition in the first place.

    • aepm

      Very well said Chicanita. It seems our friends in the ivory towers should spend a little more time with us down here in the real world…

    • happyappa

      But Manzano was also torn to pieces in the American CNN article.

      I’m not sure why you think he is very ungrateful. You’re focusing a lot on the olympics in Mexico, but it’s entirely possible his love for both countries goes beyond just athletics. Do you think he should throw away or even hate Mexico to respect America?

    • Theangler

      I agree.