Where and how does one begin to make sense of what Ruben Navarrette wrote for CNN about Leo Manzano and, by extension, Hispanics/Latinos, be they recent immigrants or descendants from founders of some of the oldest cities in the nation? To start off, the column Navarrette wrote lambasting the young Olympic runner for raising a Mexican and a U.S. flag to celebrate his silver medal in the 1500-meter race was not about Manzano. It was about Navarrette. The object of Navarrette’s anger was not Manzano’s alleged act of disloyalty but something about Navarrette that is not yet settled within his own self.
Navarrette admits as much in the column, which in a way is the most important he has ever written: “Most Mexican-Americans I know would need a whole team of therapists to sort out their views on culture, national identity, ethnic pride and their relationship with Mother Mexico,” the 55-year-old Navarrette wrote. And that is the problem. The problem is not Manzano, who knows who he is and knows what he thinks and who is not going to back down from someone like Navarrette who has not figured himself out at his age and remains incomplete – like many Mexican-Americans and other HispanicLatinos.
I presume that during the race Navarrette was cheering on the Mexican-born American citizen whom the experts were not sure would place in the race as he came from behind. And I presume Navarrette was happy when Manzano crossed the finish line in glory. But as soon as Manzano hoisted the two-flag standard over his head, something caused Navarrette to snap. Navarrette is entitled to his opinion, protected as it is by the same First Amendment that protects Manzano – something Navarrette disastrously forgot rushing to attack. But why the need to attack a hero, unless it is a projection of anger from within?
No one is immune from Navarrette’s kind of insecurity. Even powerful Texans. In his new tome on Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro describes how Texans, including powerful congressional committee chairmen, made conscious efforts to not wear cowboy hats in Washington after John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Concerned that they and Texas would be blamed for the President’s murder, Texans in Washington did not want to incite the ire of the Kennedy camp, especially from the dead president’s venomous brother who was already plotting to dethrone LBJ, whose Presidency and administration would prove the most historically important for HispanicLatinos. Symbols – be they hats or flags – are important, whether during presidential transitions or at the Olympics. The games are touted as symbols for international coexistence when in fact they are nationalistic expressions of whole peoples. Which brings us back to Manzano and, more so, Navarrette.
How Mexican, exactly, can you be as a citizen of the United States? It is foolish to expect Mexicans to turn off their Mexican-ness in an age of close, continual contact and communication with any nation of the hemisphere, especially the one next door. And no one should. You do not have to give up anything about yourself and still be loyal to this country. Manzano is the more complete individual for our globalized times. A global economy requires – no, demands – individuals with multiple professional assets and increasing levels of talent and ability. To succeed today, workers must manage complex cultural sensitivities and increase their human awareness and use language – Spanish, even – with nuance and aplomb. Why limit anyone? Or yourself? Why assume that a human cannot handle more than one identity?
In his interview with the BBC after he won silver, Manzano exuded class. In our increasingly crass age, his numerous “Yes, ma’am’s” in his responses to questions was shocking. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5M1fTjMNiQ I’ll take him over Terrell Owens or Jeremy Shockey any day of the week. You remember Shockey, right, who would not know the Bill of Rights from a drug prescription?
Filled with respect for others, Manzano respects himself. He represents the beginning of something new – a new day in which a new demography continues to change the country and change the meaning of what it means to be an American – for the better. Unlike Navarette, Manzano does not limit himself to what others want him to be. Perhaps that is why he attained Olympian heights. The Mexican-born, American-citizen Manzano represents the infusion of class and confidence that HispanicLatinos augur for the nation if they, like Navarrette and the rest of us, can find our collective identity.
In one blazing moment, Manzano advanced exponentially the understanding of the new contours forming a new America. Heck, Chad Ochocinco did as much. Navarrette’s column was revealing and important for another reason: He does not understand fully the essence of the American story.
In the film Amistad, Anthony Hopkins plays former President John Quincy Adams who argues before the Supreme Court that the Africans who took over a slave ship and were recaptured should be freed. The Amistad case foreshadowed the civil war. Adams was unafraid of it: “When it comes, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.” In fact, the American Revolution is endless. The continual remaking of America is an ongoing wonder. Whatever Navarette thinks of Manzano is not as important as what the growing demographic that Manzano represents thinks of themselves.
And they will beat Navarrette to the finish line every time.
Jesse Treviño is the former editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman and writes at HispanicLatino.com.
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