PHOENIX – 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.
But those who carried them, 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 people 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.
Democrats and Republicans have each put forward immigration plans that would increase border security, regulate the flow of future immigrants and offer legal status to many of the men, women and children who came to the United States unlawfully or overstayed their visas.
In general, the measure backed by Democrats would grant most of the 11 million immigrants legal status and let them apply for citizenship after they meet conditions that would include paying a fine and any back taxes, passing a background check and learning English.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist offered a different approach Wednesday that would requires illegal immigrants who have been in the United States between two years and five years to return briefly to their home country, then re-enter as temporary workers. They could then begin a process of seeking citizenship.