As I was perusing the interwebs this afternoon I came across a story that caught my attention for all the wrong reasons. Apparently young Texas native Sebastien de la Cruz sung the national anthem at game 3 of the NBA Finals. As an 11 year old singer of mariachi music he wore his performing attire – a black charro outfit – and unintentionally sparked a racist firestorm on Twitter. Comments criticizing the young singer made assumptions about his nationality, saying things like “There should be an AMERICAN singing the national anthem not this illegal,” and “No disrespect but a Mexican kid signing [sic] the national anthem makes it un-American”.
While there are a number of things I find offensive in those comments, what resonated with me most is the very selective interpretation of what the commenters considered “American”. I could rail against the racist undertones and the presumption of his illegality, but instead I want to look at the mindset behind these comments. For all we know the comments themselves were the work of internet trolls and not people who honestly felt this way, but the desire of some to draw boundaries around what is or is not “American” is disturbing.
I had similar thoughts when I first heard a woman shouting “I want my country back!” at a Tea Party rally in the summer of 2010. What precisely distinguished her country from mine, I wondered? Wasn’t it the same country? Who had taken her country away, and how had they done so? It was obvious that her despair was sincere, so instead of dismissing her cries as partisan and manipulative, I desperately tried to see things from her point of view… and that’s when I figured it out.
For her, “America” had been something right out of a 1950’s sitcom or a country music video: a collection of white, conservative Christians living a middle-class lifestyle. As time has progressed reality has encroached on her fragile illusion and she can now see that there is a great deal more to “America” then she thought, and that scares the hell out of her. It wasn’t that she had lost her country, it was that her country never existed in the first place.
America, seen with any kind of objectivity, has ALWAYS been a diaspora. The Rockwellian images of this country ignored the Hispanic communities in the south as much as they whitewashed the working families of the industrial Midwest. The iconic summer picnic and barbeque full of happy Caucasians was reality for some Americans, but similar scenes were happening with African-Americans and Hispanics all over the country. For some it was hot dogs in the park, for others it may have been smoked ribs in the alley, barbacoa on the ranch or an Imu by the beach, but every single one of those images is American – and equally so.
Racism and ignorance notwithstanding, the thing I find most galling is the presumption on the part of some that they and their individual conceptions somehow get to exclude everyone else from being “American”. America, by the words of our founding documents and the poems of our forebears, has been a nation of immigrants and inclusion – not some racially, religiously and culturally exclusive club to which different looking people need not apply. The reason the Tea Party lady can’t have her country back is because it was never hers to begin with – it is and always will remain OUR country: hers, yours and mine.
Even if Sebastien de la Cruz hadn’t been born in this country, I can think of few things more in line with the American ideal than a little immigrant boy proudly singing the anthem of his chosen country for all to see. The commenters who slandered Sebastien share the same restrictive, exclusive conception of “America” put forward by the Tea Party lady, and I find their attempt to redefine our country to suit their intolerance far more un-American than a Hispanic boy wearing a charro costume singing his own national anthem.
You can find many people who will say they love this country, but if that love only extends to people who look, talk and pray like they do, they aren’t really loving America. A true patriot loves more than just the slice of America they have experienced. America is more than just her flag, her armies and some lines on a map. America is more than Uncle Sam, baseball and apple pie. America is a set of ideas, the foremost of which is the inherent equality of all people – not just Americans – ALL people. A true patriot isn’t afraid to look at our country with open eyes, see the incredible diversity of the American people, and proclaim them ALL to be American.
Sebastien, a true patriot at all of 11 years old, showed that he has a better understanding of the idea that is America than his detractors when he tweeted “Please do not pay attention to the negative people. I am an American living the American Dream. This is part of the American life”. In the aftermath of the racist complaints against Sebastien singing the national anthem at Game 3, the NBA and the San Antonio Spurs did something amazing…
…they invited Sebastien back to sing the anthem again at Game 4. He sang and the crowd roared, not only for a young man who became a symbol of our own diversity, but for the idea that is America.