Work and Days

Shall We Laugh or Cry at Morgan Hill?

What are we to make of the five students who were temporarily suspended by the administration at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill for purportedly seeking to provoke—by the wearing of various American flag insignia, no less—Mexican-American students who were at the time celebrating, with some Mexican flags, Cinco de Mayo Day?

Or, in the words of aggrieved student Annicia Nunez, as picked up by the news services, “I think they should apologize ’cause it is a Mexican heritage day. We don’t deserve to get disrespected like that. We wouldn’t do that on Fourth of July.”

Let us deconstruct this episode to discover, if we can, the proverbial “teachable moment” of this collective farce.

I. First, the five male students. Were the flag-wearers “provoking” Mexican-American participants in Cinco de Quatro Mayo festivities? Sort of, but more likely it seems that they were perhaps chiding the idea of Mexican ethnic chauvinism, and doing so in a particularly ironic fashion by appearing in American patriot gear par excellence. They certainly did not wear symbolism traditionally associated with any sort of  “white” chauvinism (two of the students were part “Hispanic”). It is not as if students were brandishing the stars and bars, or militia regalia. Rather, it seems that the boys rightly suspected  that the American flag might cause discomfort to some of the Cinco de Mayo celebrants, and that such discomfort would in turn reveal the ambiguity, if not the ridiculousness (cf. the asinine reaction of  Ms. Nunez), of an overarching ethnic ideology. (Can a Ms. Nunez imagine the surreal antithesis: a high school south of the border punishes some of its students for wearing Mexican flags on the Fourth of July as Mexican nationals of American ancestry parade the American flag?)

We should remember that the present generation (born after 1990) does not know first hand of the civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez, or any of the protest/reform controversies of a half-century ago that sought to adjudicate oppression, grievance, and compensation. (Just as I once did not know much in high school of the Roaring Twenties fifty years earlier). They grasp only that among mostly middle class suburbanites, Hispanic surnames, and in some cases particular ethnic profiles—not demonstrable racial prejudice or even legitimate ongoing collective grievances—earn affirmative action consideration for everything from federal jobs to college admissions. And this new generation (one that will be paying our debts off despite a “normal” 10% unemployment rate) suspects further that someone like the assistant principal, Miguel Rodriguez, who sent the flag-wearing boys to the office, cannot tell them why, for example, a third-generation Mexican-American student would be entitled to special consideration, but a first generation Punjabi-American or Lebanese-American would not. Surely affirmative action is not based on comparable distance from being “white,” ongoing racial prejudice, or claims of past unfairness. In other words, I fear we will see more Live Oak “moments” as those of the Obama (who once called for more “oppression studies”) generation cannot quite figure out the labyrinth of a now fossilized  “diversity” spoils industry that allots preferences and rewards contrary to the entire spirit of the original civil rights movement—by accentuating rather than deemphasizing racial and ethnic difference.

II. Then we come next to  Mr. Rodriguez, the assistant principal. It is said that he meant well, by citing presumed provocateurs to avoid unnecessary tension. But I don’t quite accept that (I think more likely he did the math: lots of Mexican-flag/regalia waving/wearing students, few American flag/regalia waving/wearing students; presto, go after the smaller, safer number).  A competent credentialed administrator should have some rudimentary knowledge of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the role of a school official in protecting the rights of free expression. And failing that, he should wonder what has gone so wrong to reach a point  where the wearing of an American flag—even if were meant to be provocative—really should be provocative? To whom and why? In other words, what is the larger culture at Live Oak that suggests that the sight of an American flag—even at an ethnic day celebration—could possibly be considered inflammatory to an American student body? Reports circulated that MEChA, for example, has an affiliation on campus. If true, one need only to read its charter to grasp that it is a racialist organization akin to all supremacist cadres that traffic  in racial/ethnic triumphalism. Bottom line? Mr. Rodriquez should discourage MEChA, encourage the wearing of the American flag, and start reading  the U.S. Constitution. (A footnote here: apparently no one has reminded the students that thousands of Mexican-Americans, in heroic fashion, have fought and died for the United States from Okinawa to Fallujah, and that they did so at least in part because they knew well that to be a minority in America was far preferable to remaining among the majority in Mexico.)


III. And the aggrieved Mexican-American students? Most in the press got Ms. Nunez’s ad hoc commentary wrong. It does not really matter that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, or that it is rarely celebrated in Mexico. The key to her heart were the lines, “We don’t deserve to get disrespected (sic) like that. We wouldn’t do that on Fourth of July.” Aside from the grammar, note the sense of hurt and disrespect that comes naturally to Ms. Nunez from the display of an American flag. Note especially the false moral equivalence. Ms. Nunez surely must be an American citizen. And yet she apparently feels the greater pride in the display of the Mexican flag, a symbol of a nation that her own ancestors fled; while suggesting that her own national holiday is in fact a foreign one. Or as another student Jessica Cortez put it more explicitly, “It’s disrespectful to do it on Cinco de Mayo. They can be a patriot on some other day. Not that specific day.” (Note the use of “they.”)

But the logic breaks down as it always does when racial and cultural chauvinism collide  with questions of assimilation and immigration. Millions flee the corruption, racism, and poverty of Mexico. Millions settle in the United States and wish to become  American citizens. Millions then somehow begin to romanticize Mexico and resent America (e.g., “We wouldn’t do that on Fourth of July.”) Two conclusions: one, note the cultural ignorance. Apparently our teachers have forsaken traditional instruction in civics, American history, or the U.S. Constitution, done empirically and comparatively, to inculcate a sense of American exceptionalism among our youth (e.g., Ms. Nunez apparently sees nothing much different between Mexico and the U.S.). Second, Ms. Nunez reacts out of a sense of grievance, victimization, and ultimately conveys a fear of inferiority, in that the solidarity of her tribe is to  compensate for the fragility of the individual. And why not? When American education does not instruct students well in English, math, science, philosophy and languages, why should they develop a sense of confidence as educated citizens? Why should they see race and an ethnic profile as incidental rather than essential to their characters—when they know their schools are therapeutic institutions, when the fall back to diversity rather than excellence is the assumed goal?

IV. And finally the dénouement. In all these serial psychodramas, the “conclusion” is usually more pathetic than the original crisis. Think the beer summit, where the President did not elaborate on his “stupidly” comment or his blanket condemnation of the police, and Prof. Gates did not ponder the wisdom of slurring the police as they arrived to investigate a reported break-in.  In all these tragic-comedies, no one searches for principles other than Rodney Kingsian “getting along,” which only ensures more such tragic-comedies to come. So it is here in the aftermath when 200 mostly Mexican-American students ditched class, and for the first time in the entire controversy, really did break school statutes, to march for “respect.”

Compare this news report,

“More than 200 Hispanic teens skipped school Thursday and marched through Morgan Hill yelling ‘We want respect!’ and ‘Si se puedes!’ At least six Morgan Hill police cars and several sheriff’s vehicles caravanned alongside the line of teens wearing red, white and green and carrying Mexican flags.”

And then examine the school response with its accustomed banality:

“Students held an American flag and Mexican flag up – they stood together – said Jessica Serpa, a freshman, and proclaimed ‘we should stop this.’

“…Superintendent Wes Smith held a press conference today to address the situation that he called ‘unfortunate.’ Live Oak Principal Nick Boden was not at the press conference held at the school district office at 11:45 a.m., but did issue an apology addressed to the Live Oak community. In it, Boden apologized for the impact the controversy made.

“‘In this situation, I may have moved too quickly in drawing the line of when to take preventative action,’ Boden wrote.

“Smith was clear on his position of the national media trying to pigeon hole Live Oak or Morgan Hill as a hotbed for racial tension.

“‘This is not Live Oak, they don’t know us,’ Smith said in an interview this afternoon. ‘We know our town, we know our kids and the incident was regrettable, mistakes were made. But it doesn’t define us.’

“It was the level of maturity that came from Live Oak students Friday at lunch during their peaceful meeting that now has everyone talking.

“‘The adults (on campus) were in awe of how these kids were coming together,’ Smith said. ‘It’s a metaphor for how we move forward, that we’re not what those people are saying about us, we want to get along, we want to work this out.'”

Commentary:

a): Note the solution: each “group” stands together with their respective flags. So there is a “teachable moment,” after all—namely that at the glorious end of everything the Mexican flag is accorded no longer superior status, but only the same status as the American flag. But why should that be so among American citizens?

b) Note the school’s language: the use of the subjunctive “may have moved too quickly” (you think?); the use of euphemism “preventive action”; the blaming the messenger trope “Smith was clear on his position of the national media trying to pigeon hole Live Oak or Morgan Hill as a hotbed for racial tension…” And note the feigned outrage against the straw man “they”: “This is not Live Oak, they don’t know us.”

Actually, by now unfortunately we do know Live Oak quite well, and the incident does, in fact, define Live Oak in a variety of ways. We can conclude that no official at the school seems to understand that a large group displaying Mexican flags should not inherently be given more constitutional protection of free expression than a small group displaying American flags. And no school official seems worried that a number of American citizens seems to think Cinco de Mayo is “their” day, and the 4th of July is someone else’s. And we see the worry is not the act itself, but getting caught at it: e.g., had there been no national story and subsequent outrage from “they,” I am sure the five students would have stayed suspended, inasmuch as the issue at school was never free speech, but simply one of accommodating the loudest immediate outcry.

Finally, I certainly am not in “awe” of anyone at Live Oak. I learned from this episode only that Cinco de Mayo is the moral equivalent for many of our citizens to the Fourth of July; that no one in authority at an American high school understands the U.S. Constitution; that students wearing American flags or regalia were at one point to be suspended, and those ditching class in mass were not; that reconciliation is defined by each group putting their own respective flags next to each other and then blaming the press for this national embarrassment; and that in our parochial and isolated culture of central and coastal California, no one seems even to imagine that elsewhere Americans are not all unhinged, but in fact see us as the deranged. The Live Oak people seem wounded fawns, hurt as if everywhere in the United States all Americans must naturally assume  that Cinco de Mayo is simply the alternate  Fourth of July.

If there were a “metaphor” in all this, then it is how multicultural instruction results in moral equivalence, cultural relativism, ignorance of American law—and irony in that millions of Mexican nationals are fleeing Mexico to enter America  only within a few years to see their children wave the flag of the country they fled, and resent  those who wear the flag of the country they desperately sought to join.

So all in all, another depressing California moment.