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Protesters Defend Carrying Mexican Flags

AMANDA LEE MYERS / AP | April 7 2006

Hundreds of protesters gripped Mexican flags as they marched for immigration reform in the past few weeks, but they say a display of cultural unity is being mistaken as a lack of loyalty to the United States.

The displays turned off many Americans. Conservative talk show hosts admonished the protesters, while everyday people wrote angry letters to the editors of their local newspapers.

Some called for those carrying the Mexican flag to return to Mexico. Others questioned why immigrants demanding rights in the United States would wave symbols of Mexico. At least three schools in Colorado and California temporarily banned students from carrying flags to try to calm the protest emotions.

But those who carried the flags, and scholars of the immigrant community, say that pride in their culture should not be misconstrued as a lack of patriotism in their adopted nation.

"Nobody gets upset with the Irish on St. Patrick's Day," said Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation at the Washington, D.C.-based League of United Latin American Citizens, the group that organized most of the recent protests and is heading the dozens of marches and rallies scheduled across the nation Monday.

Critics of waving the red, white and green have questioned marchers' loyalty to the United States, but Latino activists deny the implications.

"The Mexican flag is like a symbol of dignity and identity and pride for the people who carry it," said Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America with Cesar Chavez. "If people try to read more into that flag than what it is, they're wrong."

Hundreds of thousands of immigrant supporters and high school students have marched in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver and other U.S. cities since late March to protest a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration, and often the crowds have waved flags of Mexico, Guatemala and other countries.

"Pride and roots is what it is," said Huerta, who carried the Mexican flag during the farm workers' movement in the 1960s and, more recently, during rallies in Los Angeles and Tucson. "It definitely does not mean separation or nationalism in the sense that we want to go back to Mexico."

Isidro D. Ortiz, a political scientist and professor of Chicano and Chicana studies at San Diego State University, said the flag is primarily a symbol of Mexican pride. But, in the current climate of the United States, Latinos also wave it to express dissatisfaction with how they are treated, Ortiz said.

"(Immigrants) have been trying for some time to imagine themselves as a part of the United States," he added. "What they've experienced is refusal."

Intentional or not, protest organizers acknowledge that the controversy over the Mexican flag is detracting from the message demonstrators want to send.

"(The flag) is a distraction," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. "What the marchers were marching for was to say, 'Hey, we are here, we work, we're tired of being made to blame for every ill that people experience.'"

Lemus said her organization is encouraging protesters to carry both the U.S. and Mexican flags to show their pride in both countries.

"The American flag is a symbol of what they are trying to become - a U.S. citizen," she said.

Jennifer Allen, executive director of the immigrant rights group Border Action Network, said she is not discouraging anyone from bringing the Mexican flag to Monday's march in Tucson. Rather, the protesters themselves are spreading the word.

"A lot of immigrant families in southern Arizona are telling one another to carry the American flag in their hands, but hold the Mexican flag in their hearts," she said.

The Oceanside Unified School District in Oceanside, Calif., temporarily banned students flags, as well as signs and clothing considered disruptive, after shutting down middle and high schools for two days last week because of the protests.

Superintendent Kenneth Noonan "really felt that these items were helping escalate conflict" in the district, where more than 50 percent of students are Hispanic, spokeswoman Laura Chalkley said.

In Colorado, flags were banned at Skyline High School in Longmont and at Shaw Heights Middle School in Westminster. All the schools continue to display flags in classrooms and other areas.

Meanwhile, negotiations on immigration reform continued in Congress.

Senate Republicans and Democrats appeared close to a compromise Thursday on legislation that would open the way to legal status and eventual citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

As outlined, the measure would provide for enhanced border security, regulate the future flow of immigrants into the United States and offer legalized status to those in the country unlawfully. In general, illegal immigrants who have been in the United States between two and five years would return to their home country briefly but could re-enter as temporary workers and begin a process of seeking citizenship.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called it "a huge breakthrough." Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, agreed but cautioned that it wasn't yet a done deal.

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