I am afraid of the American flag.
When my neighbor across the street placed a flag in their front yard, I was taken aback. It was the flag’s location: far from their front door or the middle of their yard and more prominently in the direction of my house. It made me pause. It had appeared overnight and I wasn’t sure if it was just decoration or a message intended for my family.
The ubiquity of the star-spangled banner keeps me on edge. Flags on trucks. Flags on hats. Flags on shirts. It’s not the goods of national allegiance that concern me, but the nationalism of those who clothe themselves in the flag.
This is the nation that I watched my immigrant mother swear her allegiance to. In its dirt, the bones of my Mexican grandfathers are buried. It is the place my children were born. We have no other home.
Those who burnish the flag are the ones who seem so set on using it against me. They wave it in my face as a mirror meant to show me a reflection of my wrongness, my otherness. When I marched in defense of migrants’ rights in Arizona, it was waved in my face as an angry corrective. When I marched in protest against the Minutemen in Texas, it was shoved in my face, before I was spit on. Even when I buy fishing lures from Bass Pro Shops, it serves as the background of Second Amendment plaques so that love of guns and love of nation are singular in their appearance.
Wrapping yourself in the flag is a performance of patriotism meant to decorate and elevate prejudice with a veneer of national duty and affection. Flag hats, shirts, bumper stickers are patriotic — and ultimately pathetic — gilds, papering over the deeply flawed and racist structures of our nation. They are a costume that covers complicity as devotion to the nation. Often, they are worn with a cross to cover much deeper sins.
I am reminded of the 1976 attack of civil rights lawyer Ted Landsmark in Boston. Landsmark was walking through downtown when segregationist supporters attacked him, believing him to be a supporter of busing policies because he was Black. Their weapon of choice: the American flag. Back then, Black students integrating schools was an affront to the nation and people felt empowered to use the flag as their weapon. Today, it seems not much has changed.
Except now the flag’s colors have been reduced to a monochrome. A blue line in the middle of the flag serves as the dividing line that separates which lives matter. Blue line banners replace “Stars and Bars” but the message remains the same. 'Blue lives matter' can be a more palatable slogan than 'white power.'
Yes, I am afraid of the American flag because more often than not it is a warning sign. The flag does not seem to cover us. We live in the shadow of flags meant to forever hide us, to remind us we don’t belong.
And yet, this is the nation that my Chicano father swore to defend. This is the nation that I watched my immigrant mother swear her allegiance to. In its dirt, the bones of my Mexican grandfathers are buried. It is the place my children were born. We have no other home.
But draping ourselves in the flag in the same way is an ill-fitting costume that convinces no one.
Even now, Latinos are the fastest growing community of color in the armed services. Over half of Border Patrol agents are Latino. They also represent 12 percent of police officers in the nation, just a bit under their percentage of the population. Latino kids shouldn’t have to promise to die for their nation to show they love their country. They shouldn’t have to be foot soldiers in a system of global apartheid. They shouldn’t have to participate in militarized surveillance that disciplines their communities to prove they belong. That is a mark of a sick and sad relationship. It is not devotion. It is a mutated centrifugal force that pushes the borders of difference into the world and fortifies them with military might.
While they may wear the flag on their uniforms, they make sure that those who use it against us continue to have the power to do so. Nationalism is an imagined community. It has the potential to grow the circle of compassion, or encircle it.
My uncle believes that in this nation every person deserves the dignity of a roof over their head, even if they suffer from addiction. So he works every day as a social worker for dignity and justice for all. My mother translates the maladies of bodies broken by work and low wages. She works every day as an interpreter so that we understand the responsibilities to and connections with one another.
Every day, my family and thousands like mine work to make the nation better. We may feel no need to plant a flag, but we do claim a stake in this nation.