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A Very Mexican Christmas for Immigrants

PJM San Diego: Many of Southern California's illegal immigrants would be heading home to Mexico for the holidays if they could, writes Ruben Navarrette Jr. He believes that flag-waving at pro-amnesty demonstrations is less about resentment towards the U.S. and more about sentimental attachment to Mexico.

by
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Bio

December 24, 2007 - 1:00 am

For generations, Mexican immigrants have gone home for Christmas – even those who are in the country illegally. In mid-December, they’d sneak back across the border in the same way that they’d come across in the first place. And then – after the holiday and some time spent with family and friends – they’d sneak back into the United States.

These days, it’s not easy to do that. Beefed up border enforcement makes it risky for illegal immigrants to head home, since they might not be able to return. So they might just stay put and hang up Christmas decorations – and maybe a Mexican flag.

Remember the hundreds of thousands of pro-immigrant marchers who, in Spring 2006, demonstrated in a dozen U.S. cities, many of them waving the Mexican flag?

One reader of my syndicated column remembers very well, and he still has questions about what was going on. And in a recent email, he decided to put those questions to me.

“What was that about?” he asked, referencing the flags. “What was the statement (the marchers) were making?”

It’s complicated. First, there’s no one answer. After all, every human being is different. We’re talking about thousands of people who waved Mexicans flags, many of them for different reasons?

But, if I had to guess, I’d say that most of the flag wavers were motivated by one of three things: defiance, homesickness, or pride. It all depends on whom they were addressing.

If they were trying to get a message across to Americans, it might have been about defiance. Certainly, many Americans took it that way – as if immigrants were saying: “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re not interested in assimilating and becoming Americans.”

If the marchers were trying to communicate with Mexico or other Mexicans back home, the message might have been about homesickness. Imagine immigrants saying to their homeland: “Don’t forget me. For I have not forgotten you.”

And if the marchers weren’t addressing anyone in particular but just trying to affirm who they are, then the message could have been about pride – as if immigrants were saying: “This is who I am, and I count. I have a heritage and a culture that pleases me.”

The way the reader saw it, those Mexican flags had a “counter-productive effect on much of the American population.” Yet it didn’t have that effect on him, he said. From his perspective, “there is no need to get hysterical if you see a group of recent immigrants waving the flag of their native country.”

This guy is a rarity. Everywhere I look, all I see are Americans who get hysterical over a piece of red, green and white cloth. Even in a country where you can find the Irish and Italian flags at ethnic parades, or even atop city hall on ethnic holidays, the very sight of the Mexican flag is enough to provoke and inflame – sometimes literally. A couple of years ago, in Tucson, in a boorish and juvenile display, border vigilantes set fire to a Mexican flag during a demonstration in front of the Mexican consulate. And, I’m sure, a lot of Americans applauded.

But what if the conventional thinking is wrong, and the flag-waving isn’t a finger in the eye to the United States but – in an alternate explanation – a love letter to Mexico? It’s Mexico, and not the United States, that these immigrants have the long and complicated relationship with. It’s Mexico, and not the United States, who exiled them from their own country by not providing enough job opportunities at home. Yet, ironically, it’s Mexico, and not the United States, that many immigrants worry about leaving behind.

This becomes even more ironic when you consider that many of these immigrants would never even consider actually returning to Mexico. Some might. But others will put down roots here in this country and never go back – except in their hearts.

Especially at Christmas.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer, and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
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