The foreign flag rule

April 14, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Little symbols mean a lot when you're trying to make a point about big, complicated issues. In the rallies that have swept through more than 100 cities since late March to protest proposed toughened immigration reforms, that most significant little symbol has been the Mexican flag.

Televised images of marchers waving Mexican flags in some of the early protests sparked a backlash, particularly among conservative politicians, talk-radio hosts and other such advocates who want to hold back the flood of illegal immigrants into the United States.

The flag-wavers and protest organizers insist that the critics are taking the gesture the wrong way. Spontaneous displays of pride in their heritage should not be misconstrued as a lack of patriotism for their adopted country, they say. I see their point.

Americans are so simultaneously proud, yet oddly unsettled, by their own diversity that I understand why many immigrants are confused by the flag fuss. In ethnic mixing bowls, foreign flags wave proudly on special days - from St. Patrick's Day in the late winter to Columbus Day in the fall.

New York, Chicago, Boston and Savannah, Ga., have larger St. Patrick's Day parades than the one held by full-fledged, unhyphenated Irish in Dublin. A larger Cinco de Mayo parade is held in San Antonio, Texas, than in Mexico City.

It seems to be an unwritten but strictly observed rule in this country of immigrants that you are allowed to show your ancestral homeland's flag one day a year. America's many transplanted cultures produce what W.E.B. Du Bois called a "double consciousness" in Americans, symbolized by the hyphen (African-American, Italian-American, etc.) and kept suppressed until that special annual day when it can be unleashed.

By contrast, foreign flags waved merrily in today's immigration protests can bring ugly results. In Tucson, Ariz., on Sunday, a dozen members of a group called Border Guardians burned a Mexican flag in front of the Mexican Consulate. California's Oceanside Unified School District banned flags and signs from its campuses after Mexican flag-wavers clashed with U.S. flag-wavers.

To calm the waters, organizers of various immigration rallies put out the word that participants should leave their foreign flags at home. "No Mexican flags," the League of United Latin American Citizens declared in a list of "rules" for a march in Dallas, according to The Dallas Morning News. "Only U.S. flags will be displayed."

Before Monday's Washington march, CASA of Maryland, a day laborer and immigrant center, ordered 11,000 American flags, according to The Washington Post, from a supplier in El Salvador, of all places.

Flags or no flags, the illegal immigrants attending the rallies are showing by their sheer numbers that they are eager to be players in America's political system, even before they become legal residents, let alone citizens.

The remarkable success of Latino groups, who whipped together immigration rallies of equal or greater size than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 1963 March on Washington, marks a pivotal historical moment, particularly for the nation's growing Hispanic population.

Unlike black Americans who followed Dr. King in the 1960s, Hispanic-Americans have not had a charismatic leader since union organizer Cesar Chavez died in 1993. But galvanized by passage of a House bill that would turn illegal immigrants and anyone who assists them into felons, hundreds of thousands of Hispanics moved quickly and efficiently to show their objection.

The newcomers appear to be following the patterns of past immigrant groups.

If some of the older immigrants are slow to learn English and American ways, their children seem eager to embrace both. If the marches mark the beginning of a new national Hispanic movement, registering the demonstrators as voters will turn them into a true political force.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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