American Olympic athlete Leo Manzano won a silver medal in the 1500 meters final in London. When he did his victory lap, he was carrying a US flag and a Mexican flag. Manzano is an American citizen, but originally from Mexico. Some people felt that it was wrong - downright unpatriotic - of Manzano to fly the flag of another competitor after his victory for "America."
Did Manzano do anything wrong?
I have to admit I was somewhat conflicted when I saw the photo. I was surprised that the issue didn't feel like a 100% slam dunk in the "yes" category. The question is why it didn't (to me at least), and whether that helps us better understand issues ranging from immigration to minorities.
First, I read a story by Ruben Navarrette, who's Mexican-American, on CNN. Navarrette didn't think the flag was a good idea (though he doesn't mind Mexican-Americans waving it in other contexts). I'm not convinced that Navarrette makes a very compelling argument against waving the flag, but some of his points were interesting to me, as a child of immigrant(s) myself.
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. They're the orphans of the Southwest -- too Mexican for the Americans, too American for the Mexicans. Their positive reaction to the photo has less to do with Manzano than with their own sense of displacement.Welcome to the club. He could be describing Greek immigrants, or really any immigrants to America who had to carefully, and confusedly, navigate the waters between two cultures, and never fully feel a member of either.
Many Mexicans who came to the United States -- particularly those who came as professionals or became professionals once they got here -- look to Mexico with a mixture of affection and guilt. They romanticize what they left behind and find it easier to love the country from hundreds or thousands of miles away. They may live in the United States, but many of them still consider themselves children of Mexico -- the kind who run away from home.
So I get ethnic pride. Having grown up being called "John the Greek," I get it.
But I was trying to figure out what bothered me, albeit only slightly, about seeing Manzano with the flag - and moreso, what bothered me about what he told the media. More from Navarrette:
You can't help but be proud of Manzano and the country that allowed him the opportunity to fulfill his potential.Gotta admit, the quotes kind of bothered me too. The question is why? Would I be as bothered if a Greek-American said he was running for two countries, Greece and America? Would I be as bothered if a Greek-American Olympian ran around the track carrying two flags, Greek and American? I'm not so sure I would.
So why did Manzano carry two flags with him on his victory lap? As the world looked on, he held up both the U.S. flag and the Mexican flag. Not a good look. And not a good idea.
Manzano posted messages on Twitter throughout the competition -- in Spanish and English. After his victory, he tweeted, "Silver medal, still felt like I won! Representing two countries USA and Mexico!"
That's funny. I only saw one set of letters on his jersey: USA.
Now, as Navarrette acknowledges, in part it comes down to context. He notes that he recommended that Mexican-Americans not wave Mexican flags during the huge immigration rallies they had around the country several years ago. Joe and I attended the enormous rally they had in DC, and it was a sea of American flags. It was a beautiful and compelling visual that would have been lessened, I think, had it included the flag of another country (the point of the March was to say "we are American too" - that's best done with Americana, not Mexicana).
But that was a political PR decision, what about Manzano in the Olympics? Well, a few points.
I suspect some of the "concern" over a Mexican-American waving a Mexican flag at the Olympics is because there's a concern in some quarters over whether today's immigrants, of whatever nationality, really want to "become" American. Are they willing to learn our language, assimilate to our culture and our values, become truly "American"?
Not that this concern is new - nor that the concern is entirely valid: My mom's mom never did learn much English beyond responding to a knock on the front door with "who is?" But "yiayia" did a marvelous job raising a new family in a new lang, and we all turned out quite American, thank you very much. So I'm divided on the question of language and assimilation.
Back to Manzano. I suspect any concern about his Mexican flag is based in a concern about whether Latino immigrants to America truly want to become "American." I suspect that that's the difference between why some would worry about a Mexican flag but not worry had a second generation Italian American waved an Italian one. There's no concern about the Italian assimilating - his family did a good 80 years ago. That's not to say that the same concerns wouldn't have been aired about the Italian-American had he waved the Italian flag back in the 1920s...
None of this "proves" that the concern over the flag is warranted. But I suspect that the origins of the concern go to the question of immigration more generally, and Latino immigration specifically. And to the extent that anyone is concerned that some recently Latino immigrants to the US aren't sufficiently interested in becoming "American," from the political angle at least, a little added PR for the Mexican-American cause, by putting the Mexican flag aside and sticking with the stars and stripes, might not have been a bad PR move for Manzano, just as his brethren stuck with the American flags at the immigration rally. It's possible that Manzano missed a golden opportunity to show the doubters that immigrants really can be Americans, and even the best of America.
But I'm still not 100% sure. Your thoughts?