Indira Esparza is a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant studying to become an educator. She just graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in education studies. But the way she celebrated at her graduation ceremony this month has set off a firestorm of sharp criticism.
When Esparza went up on stage, she waved the Mexican flag, a symbol of the country where she was born, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Esparza came to the United States from Mexico at the age of two. According to the publication, Esparza “overcame financial insecurity, anxiety over losing family members to deportation and judgment from others because of her Mexican citizenship. She helped establish the Undocumented Student Services Center at the university “so students like her could talk about their struggles.”
“No matter how hard you work or how qualified you are there are people… (who feel) that we’re taking the place of a student that was born here,” Esparaza told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Being an undocumented student on campus has definitely motivated me to work as hard as I can to ensure I am opening doors for the next generation of undocumented students.”
But after Esparza’s profile came out, the publication began receiving many reader comments about how Esparza had disrespected America at her graduation.
San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Lyndsay Winkley received at least nine emails and two phone calls for her piece on Esparza, while the paper’s reader outreach editor received 15 letters to the editor. One reader indicated that Esparaza’s flag-waving was a “slap in the face of her hosts; the citizens of these United States of America.” Another reader wrote, “I can’t imagine living illegally in another country, and waving an American flag in people’s faces.”
Waving non-American flags at ceremonies — particularly Mexican flags — has stirred up many anti-immigrant sentiments over the years. Former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) once stated, “ if you are here illegally and are displaying and waving the Mexican flag, you should go back to Mexico and fly that flag there.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also noted in 2006 that “the Hispanic community risks a backlash if it become unruly or too many Hispanic flags — and not enough American flags — are at these protests.”
When California tried to pass the anti-immigrant ballot initiative known as Proposition 187, which aimed to prohibit undocumented immigrants from using public services like health care, public education, and other services, many immigrants took to the streets to wave the Mexican flag in protest. According to Kent Ono and John Sloop, who wrote Shifting Borders: Rhetoric, Immigration, and California’s Proposition 187, Alan Nelson — the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Services chief during President George H.W. Bush’s administration — called the use of those Mexican flags “un-American.” Pat Buchanan warned readers that “Mexican officials are openly urging their kinsmen in California” to vote down Proposition 187. Mexican flags, the Spanish language, and even just showing Latino faces are ripe for eliciting unwarranted, xenophobic reactions. A Mexican-American boy’s rendition of the national anthem at a Spurs game, for instance, sparked a flurry of racist comments in 2013.
Peculiarly, pride in European heritage — and all the flags that come with it — is widely accepted and even greeted with outright praise. Indianapolis, Chicago, and various other cities annually dye their waterways green for St. Patrick’s Day. Boston, home to 10,000 undocumented Irish immigrants, also holds big St. Patrick’s Day festivals. And Cincinnati is home to North America’s largest Oktoberfest celebration, attracting more than 500,000 visitors every year.