Events in Distant Serbia Alter Ethnic Perceptions Here at Home

The wave of good feeling that has accompanied the release of three captured U.S. soldiers indicates that one unintended consequence of the military involvement in Serbia has been a shift in the dynamics of the culture wars here at home.Two of the three captives -- Andrew Ramirez of East Los Angeles and Steven Gonzales of Huntsville, Texas -- are Mexican American, a portion of the population that has long been stereotyped as alien. These charges have become particularly intense over the last decade in the escalating political battles over the issue of immigration.But for nearly a month, TV satellite trucks camped out in front of Ramirez' home have been sending the nation images of a working-class barrio street lined with American flags and yellow ribbons. Newspaper photos have captured burning votive candles depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Santo Nino de Atocha flickering beneath the flags draped over the front gate of the Ramirez' home.The wider American public is sharing in the seamless mixing of Mexican and American icons that places like East L.A. and South Texas long have enjoyed. With the resolve of a worried mother, Vivian Ramirez tells the national news media and the country that she wants her "mijo" home. It's a safe bet that most Americans have never heard what is probably the most commonly used term of endearment that Mexican -- and Mexican-American -- mothers have for their sons.Only five years ago, the national news media was focusing on another set of flags just down the road from the Ramirez home. In October 1994, 75,000 people marched to downtown Los Angeles to protest against the imminent passage of the draconian anti-illegal immigrant ballot initiative, Proposition 187.That day, scores of marchers defiantly carried the Mexican tri-color flag to demonstrate their cultural pride and resilience. Many observers were affronted by what they interpreted as an act of disloyalty -- the flags helped fuel long-standing fears that Mexican immigrants were somehow permanently resistant to integrating into the mainstream.In the weeks that followed, inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of that battle obscured the complexity of Mexican-American assimilation and participation in American life.Today, the cultural winds are shifting. Polls have shown that the capture of the soldiers boosted public support for military action in Kosovo by putting an American face on the war. The images of the bruised, imprisoned soldiers brought the war home to Middle America, and presumably the effect on Latino-Americans has been no different.Five years ago, Latino civic organizations and the Spanish-language media were uniformly defiant in the face of a virulent anti-immigrant movement. Today, they appear as unquestioningly nationalist as mainstream media and civic groups. Two weeks ago, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus held a vigil for the captured soldiers. Up and down the Southwest, Mexican-American elected officials have taken up the issue of the captured Latino soldiers. California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante rallied a crowd of veterans in East Los Angeles by telling them, "How ironic that Americans of every ethnicity are serving side by side to bring peace to a land suffering the atrocities of ... ethnic cleansing."Others have exploited this moment to point to Mexican-Americans' long history in the armed forces -- to note that Mexican-Americans were the most decorated ethnic group in World War II and were represented disproportionately among the casualties of Vietnam."Some Latinos almost seem perversely pleased about the captured soldiers," says Los Angeles radio talk show host Marcos Frommer. "After all the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the past few years, this is giving them a chance to prove that they're Americans."It may be sad that many Latino Americans feel it necessary to publicly assert their patriotism. It is nonetheless understandable. For too long, places like East L.A. have been depicted unfairly as third world nightmares. This may be the first time that the image representing the barrio is of an upstanding young man and his loving mother.The capture of Andrew Ramirez and Steven Gonzales has not only put an American face on the war, it has finally put a human face on Latino towns and barrios across the United States. Gregory Rodriguez is a Research Fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy.

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