Dallas, TX – I could tell the joke hit a nerve with my fellow Latinos because the laughter was spontaneous - and uneasy. We were crammed into a tiny auditorium to see a comic from L.A., and the Chicano comedian had just acted out a scene about authorities who mistake a Latino for Osama Bin Laden.
We knew it was meant to poke fun at how others are perceiving our darker-skinned brothers, but there was a sense in the room that laughing at ourselves being put in such situations was a little unpatriotic. Though many of our men are being singled out in airport shoe-searches and pat-downs, eyed suspiciously by cruising policemen, or given second stares by the common Joes and Janes at the malls, we endure it and even rationalize it as our patriotic duty. That's a far cry from how we would have reacted before 9-11.
Before the al-Qaeda and the Taliban-convert Jose Padilla made it totally unchic to be swarthy-skinned and dark-eyed, Latinos would not have hesitated to show our disgust at being the targets of such unfair practices by the government. We would have written opinion columns, marched on city streets and held bull-horn rallies protesting our indignation. But times are different, and the most we can muster to signal our disapproval, while reassuring our patriotism, is to make jokes about it. These days, when it comes to gauging our patriotism, it's no joke.
Just as Latinos have to be a little better at our daily jobs to prove wrong those critics who contend our job qualifications may be second-rate, our display of patriotism must be nothing less than first class. So, along with everyone else, we sport flag decals on our cars and hang Old Glory from our front porches. Yet our patriotism still seems to be tested. It's tested every time we dare to speak our minds in support of basic human rights for migrants, a reconsideration of border measures and immigration matters. It's a test we do not want to fail. So, we say little and continue to prove our patriotism.
Latino men, whose tanned, bearded faces were a source of pride and strength as deep as the biblical Samson's, now are careful to walk about whisker-free. National Hispanic organizations, who attract thousands of Latinos to their annual conventions, publicize that the themes for this year's conventions showcase Latinos' loyalty and commitment to the United States. Even the used car lots in the southwest, who, in their bids to attract fellow Hispanic customers by routinely posting Mexican flags around the perimeters of their property, make sure now that the Stars and Stripes outnumber the eagle and serpent.
But these are little displays of commitment to our nation. The big test is yet to come this month. September 15th is the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. We celebrate our accomplishments, our contributions and our pride in who we are with jubilant fiestas and "gritos" or shouts of "viva" - long live the memory of the countries our parents and grandparents emigrated from.
This year as the nation marks the one-year anniversary of that tragic day, Latinos will be torn as to how much we should celebrate. But one thing is certain, no matter how festive or subdued our celebrations, there will be one grito echoing across the country with greater frequency and fervor than ever before - Viva Los Estados Unidos.