The American Flag and Me

This week’s controversy around Drew Brees’ comments (and his subsequent 180) brought to the forefront an avalanche of feelings that have been with me for a while but that I hadn’t been able to quite explain or contextualize.

I was born in Mar del Plata (Argentina), some 6,300 miles away from my current home in Long Beach, California. I spent the first 14 years of my life at the very opposite end of the continent, and now over half of my life in the United States.

I went to high school and college here, but most of my family remained down there. I’m making a career for myself here but I never got to bury 3 of my 4 grandparents. I was only able to go back in 2013, almost 11 years after I first left. And let’s just say it wasn’t because I didn’t own a passport or because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.

In the end, those were choices I made and like everybody else, I had to learn to live with them. Every action has a reaction, every decision its consequence.

I had my first job, my first kiss, my first car and plenty of other firsts here in the U.S. One day my kids will call this country theirs, and I truly want them to feel like it’s theirs. Like they belong. Like they own it.

I became an American citizen about a year ago. I’ve been an American for much longer — that piece of paper be damned. And I’ve grown to love this country just as much as I love my other country, my first country. I wasn’t born in this soil, but odds are I’ll die here — as far as one can have control over something like that.

I’ve been able to love the U.S. without ever buying into the exceptionalism. I can believe in the American Dream while fully knowing that in 2020, that concept has become extremely diluted and is now almost unrecognizable. Hell, for too many, it never really existed but in the movies.

I’ve studied this country’s history. The unending dark stain of slavery and racism. The internment camps. The shameless meddling in Latin America. The unquenchable thirst for oil and influence, for war and power. The ignorance and the entitlement.

Also, the selfishness and apathy that allowed someone like Donald Trump to become president. The idiocy of ignoring science in the face of a pandemic. The evil in the heart of the Derek Chauvins in police uniforms all over the country.

Love is only real when you can love the whole thing. The rose and its thorns. I see the sins and yet I stay, because even though they’re as American as apple pie, I think they can be overcome.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, and I agree. It doesn’t feel like that tonight, or for the past few years. Over here, when we’re lucky, it’s always 2 steps forward and one step back. This most recent retreat hurts, which brings me back to the flag and my gut reaction every time I see the stars and stripes.

It’s not a pleasant sensation, because I feel like it has been hijacked by the most un-American of its citizens. The ones who still hang Confederate flags and pay tribute to the monuments of those who attempted to break up the union over greed and white supremacy.

When you see American flags these days, they’re often draped around the shoulders of those for whom equality feels like oppression. You’ve probably also spotted its evil cousin, the black and white one with the thin blue line. And the standard bearers often and unsurprisingly look homogeneous (white, male, Christian) — a far cry from what in reality is the biggest and most fascinating melting pot in the world.

I’ve never been a flag person. Argentineans only wear the albiceleste for about 4 weeks every 4 years — right until the usual disappointment of the World Cup happens, like clockwork.

Yet I still feel like the American flag has been stolen from me and hundreds of millions of my fellow citizens. And then they accuse us of being less American for kneeling, or for pointing out its shortcomings. For wanting it to be better. For wishing it would reach its potential.

Believe me when I say that the oppressed are equally or more American. We ARE America, its gloriously troubled past, its uncertain present, and especially its future. We’re just hurt. We’re disappointed. Yet we carry on, because our love for this country is what will conquer all fears, what one day will conquer bigotry and relegate it once and forever to die in the fringes.

That’s why we’re on the streets protesting, on social media educating, and hopefully on the ballot voting. Because we’ve effected change, we’ve seen progress, but it’s nowhere near enough.

The flag? They can keep it. The struggle goes much deeper. Our fight is for justice and equality, respect and dignity.

Our fight is for the values we think it should represent, but rarely has. Not for everyone anyway.

I don’t like how I feel when I see our flag, and I don’t like that. But until every last one of us can hoist it with pride, we’ve got work to do.

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