Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Billboard creates cultural controversy

A billboard advertisement depicting a Muslim woman in the embrace of a white American soldier was too hot for Times Square in New York, given its proximity to “Ground Zero.” Billboard owners refused to run it for fear of outrage.

The ad spawned TV reports of “controversy” in Chicago and Dallas, due to the image of young lovers forsaking their warring cultures for shared intimacy and affection.

The Internet comments have been predictably intolerant. Non-Muslims have called it an insult to American soldiers everywhere – that somehow this image conveys a sort of treason. On Facebook, some who identified themselves as Muslims called it phony because a conservative Muslim woman wouldn’t marry outside her faith – or so they believed.

Normally, I wouldn’t write about an ad campaign – especially one for a company hawking lozenges and throat sprays that supposedly suppress snoring.

But the back-story of this ad is too interesting to ignore and it begins with the young woman behind the niqab veil as an American man in uniform tenderly embraces her.

Her eyes are hypnotic. She is wearing a wedding ring on the hand she gently rests on his chest as he wears U.S. Army fatigues. Her fingernails are painted.

It turns out she is a former Sacramento High School student now living a very American life in Los Angeles as she pursues a singing career. Her stage name is Lexy Panterra, but her Sacramento friends knew her by her given name of Alexis. She was born to a Muslim family but does not practice the faith.

Her real surname is ancient and has roots in Iran, where Lexy’s father was born. But he changed it years ago to Panterra because he said his Iranian name was causing him too much grief.

“I’ve lived all over the world. I’ve been exposed to many different cultures and countries,” Tony Panterra said by telephone. “I’m an American citizen, and the United States is the best country in the world. It’s also the most racist.”

A contractor, it was only after he adopted a new last name that Panterra said he began to get work and be successful. An Iranian name kept people away, he said. It was a red flag, a symbol of the U.S. conflict with Iran that was flaring in 1979 when Tony Panterra was 13 and moved with his family to the U.S.

“It was the worst time,” he said. He chose Panterra because he loved the Pantera sports car.

He married a woman of “European” descent, Alexis was born, they lived in Sacramento for a time – but the marriage didn’t last.

Long before the daughter ever appeared in controversial ads, she was learning the lessons of cultural identity that her dad learned the hard way.

In middle school in Sacramento, Lexy Panterra said, she would be teased for looking like a “terrorist.”

“I had more hair on my arms than my friends and would get teased and bullied,” she said. “I knew every time I wore a T-shirt, so I always hid my arms under long-sleeve shirts.”

Still, Lexy was always the kid who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at school assemblies. She wanted to be a pop star. She had moved in with her dad in Los Angeles to pursue that dream when she was approached to do the billboard.

It may have been just another job, but Panterra sees the ad as sending a message of inclusion.

“It’s about how everyone is the same. Anyone can be with anyone if they want to be – whether it’s a different race or religion,” she said. “The people in the ad look different, but they are together.”

The public response has been different. The sight of a U.S. serviceman with a Muslim woman is jarring to many.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has expressed a positive view of the ad – but with a twist.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based CAIR, said his group has taken the view that the soldier and the woman are both Muslim and they like that image.

“Why wouldn’t the soldier be Muslim?” Hooper said by telephone. “The assumption is that because he looks European, he can’t be Muslim … Muslims are one of the most diverse religious communities in the world. It’s not a big deal to us.”

Hooper said it’s mainstream Muslim belief that Muslims marry other Muslims – or if they marry outside their faith that the new spouse will convert to Islam.

“Obviously there are people who don’t abide by that, but (marrying within the Muslim faith) is the norm.”

Maybe. But the way Hooper sees the ad is in sharp contrast to the producers, who clearly pushed the idea that the two lovers were from different cultures and religions. That’s how Panterra saw it as well.

What does that say about those angered at the sight of her ad?

“A lot of people are ignorant,” Lexy Panterra said. “It shouldn’t matter.”

It really shouldn’t, but it does.

In this case, an image of love between two people spawned anger, denial and selective viewing.

Hooper said his one objection was that the veil Panterra wore covered her face, something only a minority of Muslim women do anymore, he said.

Tony Panterra had the same objection, but only because he said he wanted to see his daughter’s beautiful face.

Maybe if Panterra had shown her face, it would have caused her more serious problems than getting emails from angry trolls.

Maybe someday the image of a Muslim woman and a U.S. soldier won’t be a big deal at all. We can only hope.

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