There are occasions when the Mexican flag has its place in signature public settings in California. Every Sept. 16, for example, it is prominently displayed in Sacramento to commemorate Mexican Independence Day. Each year on that date, the state Capitol is bathed in red, green and white lights – the colors of Mexico’s national bandera.
It’s become tradition, just after sundown each Sept. 16, for an emissary of the Mexican government to enter the Capitol, climb the ornate staircase and wave the Mexican flag from an open window to large and enthusiastic crowds gathered near the steps facing 10th Street. It’s a ritual celebration of ethnic pride in the tradition of Columbus Day or St. Patrick’s Day.
But the Mexican flag has no place in American politics, and it’s disturbing to see it popping up with increasing regularity.
Last week, the Mexican flag was visible during angry protests of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. There it was, being waved at a Costa Mesa rally, where some anti-Trump demonstrators later clashed with police. And again in Burlingame, where he addressed the California GOP convention.
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The message these flag-wavers send to TV cameras and the broader public is contradictory and counterproductive. The Mexican flag inflames bigots and also dilutes what should be the primary objective of those protesting Trump. Their rallying cry should center on full and inclusive participation in the American political system. It should be about fully assimilating into American society.
“Latinos resort to inadequate or dead metaphors to express solidarity, because we have yet to construct new ones,” said Phillip Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based director whose last film, about journalist Ruben Salazar, aired on PBS in 2014. Salazar chronicled the rise of the Chicano power movement in late-1960s Los Angeles. He was killed during a police raid in 1970 under circumstances that remain murky.
Beyond the imagery of an ancestral flag, the number of Latinos voting in California, the state with the largest Latino population, is woeful and underscores a lack of political participation.
In the last three June primaries, Latino turnout has been steadily dropping, according to data compiled by the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. In 2010, 11.3 percent of eligible Latino voters actually cast ballots. That dropped to just more than 10 percent in 2012. And it fell again in 2014, to 8.2 percent.
“Whenever you have any type of election where turnout is low, the turnout for Latinos is even lower,” said project founder Mindy Romero.
Latinos resort to inadequate or dead metaphors to express solidarity, because we have yet to construct new ones.
Phillip Rodriguez, filmmaker and fellow, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
In this election cycle, people speculate about a “Trump effect.” In the months since launching his bid, Trump has fired up crowds with promises of deporting undocumented immigrants and of building a mighty border wall that he would strong-arm Mexico into bankrolling.
When Trump hit California last week, he doubled down on that message. He told his teeming audiences that California has suffered more than any other state from “open borders,” blamed illegal immigration for crime numbers “going through the roof,” and invited families of people killed by undocumented immigrants to join him on stage.
It’s a schtick that resonates with some voters – but also enrages some Latinos, and the expectation is that Trump will drive up Latino registration and voter participation.
But even a Latino-voter spike caused by Trump should be viewed in context, Romero said. “If we got past 15 or 20 percent (of eligible Latinos voting) it would smash a record, but it still would be much lower than we would want to see,” she said.
So where does the Mexican flag fit into all this? It’s an act of defiance when what we need is a call to arms. It’s a show of patriotism, but for the wrong country.
“Using the flag is horrible for a lot of reasons,” said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based political consultant who runs GrassrootsLab. “It creates a stereotype that the Trumps of the world are promoting. It’s nativist in its own way.”
Madrid uses analytics to track political issues, and the numbers he has compiled on Latino political participation in California are stark.
“Only 15 percent of mayors, council members and school board members are Latinos,” Madrid said. “It’s a direct function of lower voter turnout.”
At one point in my life, I might have carried the Mexican flag myself. It’s the emblem of the country that spawned my mother and father. As parents, their generation sometimes took American assimilation too far, anglicizing names and discouraging their children from speaking Spanish. This was destructive in its own right.
So, I get that some of the people waving those flags see it as an expression of pride. Among them are millennials who want to stand up for their parents after Trump likened some Mexican immigrants to rapists.
“There are many Latinos who don’t see the use of the flag as necessarily a Mexican issue,” Romero said. “They see Trump as a threat to a broader Latino identity.”
But a part of participation in the American political process is being clear on your identity. In the context of ancestral pride, waving the flag of your ancestors is a strength – as the Irish, Scots, Germans, Italians and every other immigrant group have shown.
But in election season, when issues critical to your community are mere footnotes in the discussion, it’s critical to know which flag matters.
Donald Trump isn’t running for president of Mexico.