What colors do you claim?
October, 2010

Driving up 101 past the airport last week, I was troubled by a Mexican flag waving over a group of field workers. Now, I can’t fault anyone for trying to make a buck, but if you want support instead of resentment from curmudgeons like me for working your dream in the Salinas Valley, you’re going to have to strike your colors.

Growing up, we spoke English and Spanish at home. In elementary school, it was all English, all the time. Bilingual education was unimaginable. Good thing, since we had to read and write, trade lunches, or do anything else in the same language as every other kid.

Truth be known, my sainted mother warned me not to speak Spanish at school for fear I would be targeted for unsavory epithets relating to intelligence and ethnicity. She wore physical and emotional scars of living through the Grapes of Wrath in the Steinbeck days, so her fears were well-founded. Okay, Ma, English it is.

Turns out she was right. I got pretty good at the Queen’s English and after awhile didn’t need the Spanish anyway. Well, not until thirty or forty years later, when bilingualism turned into a survival skill at Northridge.

Now, this was long time ago, the good guys (including my dad and uncles) had just crushed the really bad guys in WWII to make the world safe for Consumerism. It was a flag-waving time when shoe-pounding Commies were hated and hunted, Columbus was a hero, and the Giants and Dodgers had just moved to California. And, now that I was pretty good at English, my ethnicity no longer really mattered. I grew up as a fireworks-ogling, red-white-and-blue-blooded Amurrican – who loved just about anything wrapped in a tortilla. Still do.

But things were changing. Some jokers recruited me out of high school one day, put me on a bus to a big meeting in Sacramento, and told me I was now a “Mexican-American” and part of a colorful new movement.

I’d been hyphenated.

I listened to what they were preaching but didn’t buy it. I’d already figured out who and what I was and I didn’t need these guys telling me I was something else just because they said so. I liked my colors.

Anybody paying attention, especially in Salinas, knows that dividing and hyphenating people made things go from dumb to disastrous. Pretty soon there were all sorts of [insert affiliation]-Americans. In many cases, they’ve dropped the American side of the hyphen altogether and wave their own flags.

On the Mexican side, it turned into North vs. South vs. Central Valley and others, hyphenated right down to the part of the East Side where you grew up. As for the rest, there are Whites, Asians, Islanders and Blacks, all with their own self-segregating appellations. Prison yards at Soledad are physically divided so the various Hyphenatti don’t kill each other while they’re being rehabilitated. Tragically and outrageously, people in Salinas are shot on the street for answering incorrectly when challenged to declare their allegiance. Some melting pot.

Warning to all the social tinkerers out there who think diversity means wallowing in our differences and waving our own colors – what do think the street gangs are doing? Just as you’ve taught them. They’ve cut up the proud red, white and blue into stupid headbands and are ready to kill, or be killed, for their turf.  Congratulations.

I just hope one of those fools doesn’t pull up to you some night and ask what colors you claim.