“I envy you your flag,” he said referring to the red, white and blue.
The year was 1985. I had noticed a ribbon with red and yellow stripes pinned to Carlos’ jacket lapel. He explained that it was the Spanish flag. Carlos had grown up under the regime of Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator for nearly 40 years. He told me that, for millions of Spaniards, Franco’s rule had been repressive and stultifying to their spirits. Due to the flag’s close association with Franco, even then, 10 years after the dictator’s death, many Spaniards felt that it stood for something illegitimate and unjust. Carlos said that I, on the other hand, had a flag that had not been co-opted by a backward, repressive regime.
I realized then that I had never identified with my flag. By my thinking, it, too, had been co-opted by a minority of people who thought that the only way to be patriotic was to accept all policies of the U.S. government. The eternal vigilance of criticism and protest was not considered by these folks to be patriotic but, on the contrary, seditious. But that was my knee-jerk response.
I tried to sort out the fact that I had never felt the loss of my flag the way Carlos had for his. I grew up in an era of flag burning and dissent concerning U.S. policies, and the sight of “Old Glory” never tugged at my heartstrings. Instead, it made me cringe and speak apologetically for all my country’s wrongdoings.
As I imagined what it would be like to truly have a flag, a deep emotion opened up inside me—homesickness, a weariness of living in exile in my native country, of being at odds with prevailing opinion. I found myself yearning for the simplicity that comes with acquiescence. How many Americans had experienced similar feelings?
I loved Carlos’ innocent impression of “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but told him my feelings as best I could. We each felt that our flags had been devalued and curiously, the offenses came from opposite directions: those against mine, from the consequences of a pluralistic society, and those against his, from a totalitarian regime. Today, these thoughts arise again, as I encounter the U.S. flag displayed so ubiquitously.