Instead of a diploma, one recent college graduate should have received an “Incomplete.” She seems to have missed some courses — “Gratitude 101,” “Introduction to Civics” and, finally, “Flag Waving and the Importance of Context.”
Indira Esparza, a newly minted graduate of the University of California, San Diego, who entered the U.S. illegally with her parents when she was a toddler, certainly made an impression at commencement. As the 22-year-old walked across the stage, she proudly unfurled the Mexican flag and made herself the center of attention.
Oh great. The look-at-me millennial generation strikes again. Young undocumented immigrants like Esparza — who are often referred to as “Dreamers” — are always insisting they’re true Americans. Believe it. When it comes to considering themselves the center of the universe, the Dreamers can keep pace with those self-centered U.S.-born 20-somethings.
But for me, as a Mexican-American, provocative stunts like this always inflame the “American” side of my hyphen.
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First, what in the world did Mexico have to do with the education of this young woman? Nada. According to media accounts, Esparza arrived in the United States when she was just 2. Like other Dreamers, she is — as President Obama has phrased it — “American… in every single way but one — on paper.” Any ambition, values, study skills, and love for learning she has was picked up on this side of the border. Much of the credit for her success goes to her parents, I’m sure. And to her own hard work, no doubt. And to UC San Diego for accepting her in the first place, of course.
Mexico’s failure indirectly led to her success. That’s nothing to be proud of.
But Mexico? When you think about it, the only contribution that our southern neighbor made to this success story was in forcing Esparza’s family to migrate to the north by not providing enough economic opportunity to keep them from leaving home. In other words, it was Mexico’s failure that indirectly led to her success. That’s nothing to be proud of.
Next, although Esparza isn’t a U.S citizen, she is a member of the American community. As such, she has a responsibility not to antagonize and rile up other members of that community. Surely, she must realize the fragile nature of the immigration debate and understand how much damage inflammatory gestures can do to the larger cause of achieving comprehensive immigration reform.
Among those who oppose such a reform because they think it amounts to rewarding lawbreakers, there is the paralyzing fear that their country is slipping away and that amnesty is being shoved down their throats. When they see the Mexican flag waved in their faces during a public event, it only reinforces those fears. It tells them they have lost the battle. So they hunker down. And nothing gets accomplished.
Millions of undocumented people who are unable to work legally, get health insurance or, in many states, drive with a license, will remain stuck in limbo. All because of a sophomoric stunt, and finger in the eye, that was intended to provide only momentary satisfaction. That’s the very definition of selfishness.
Finally, there is the issue of context. When Americans react to the Mexican flag being waved, much of the reaction is shaped by who is doing the waving and under what circumstances. There is nothing wrong with carrying a flag at a parade, concert or sporting event. These are harmless displays.
But different rules apply when the event is political, or when it’s meant to honor an achievement of some kind.
In 2006, it was a bad idea for immigration reform advocates to wave Mexican flags as they marched through U.S. cities such as Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. After all, it doesn’t really make sense to declare your allegiance to one country while demanding legal status from another.
And in 2012, it was a bad idea for U.S. Olympic medalist Leo Manzano — who, like Esparza, was born in Mexico but came to the United States as a toddler — to celebrate his silver medal in track by holding up not just the Stars and Stripes but also the Mexican flag. Manzano tweeted at the time that he was “Representing two countries USA and Mexico!” Yet only one gave him the opportunity to realize his dream: the United States.
This is the education that Esparza seems to have missed. When you practice good citizenship — whether or not you’re actually a citizen — it reveals good character. And that is something that will carry a person much further in life than a college diploma.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.