Just when we think racism is in retreat, when census and election results demonstrate that we should be much more tolerant than we have been in the past, something happens to remind us that much work still needs to be done to combat ignorance in America.
Last week, that reminder came in the form of the cruel reaction received by an 11-year-old Hispanic boy who sang the National Anthem in Game 3 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
Before they knew anything about Sebastian De La Cruz — other than hearing his Hispanic surname and seeing the Mariachi suit he wore when he sang — America's bigots assumed that he must be an illegal immigrant and demanded to know why he had been allowed to sing the National Anthem.
Before they knew De La Cruz was born in Texas, the bigots were lining up to make perfect fools of themselves. There are many singers who have massacred the National Anthem and gotten away with much milder criticism. But this boy sang very well. He was terrific!
Yet, although De La Cruz already had appeared as a Mariachi singer on the TV show "America's Got Talent' last year, when he sang the National Anthem last week, he became the target of cruel racial epithets and slurs — the kind of hatred and vitriol that becomes even more offensive when directed at an innocent child.
Even if he had been born abroad, you would think that these self-proclaimed patriotic Americans would be proud to see any foreigner sing our anthem so well and with such passion, right? Especially when it's coming from an 11-year-old boy, right?
Nah! Not our far-right extremists. If they had their way, Latinos would have to produce a birth certificate before they are allowed to sing the National Anthem. They have a remarkably limited knowledge of their own American history. And amazingly, it is that ignorance that allows them to feel more superior than other Americans and to discriminate even against people whose ancestors immigrated here before their own.
Ironically, many of the American "patriots" who won't let us forget that many Latinos are immigrants are the same people who insist that Latinos refuse to assimilate. Either way, they have a problem with us.
The late Pope John Paul II spoke about them during one his trips to the United States. Obviously sending a message to American xenophobes, the Pope said there is "an unhealthy form of nationalism," which is "the antithesis of true patriotism." He said there is a difference between "true patriotism," which is "a proper love of one's country" that "never seeks to advance the well-being of one's own nation at the expense of others," and unhealthy nationalism, "which teaches contempt for other nations or cultures."
So, of course, De La Cruz's critics are not real patriots. They only play that role in cyberspace. These are cowards who use social media to release their venom anonymously. Most of them have probably never heard of that centuries-old campaign against Hispanics known as The Black Legend, but they are its promoters nowadays.
"Is this the American National Anthem or the Mexican Hat Dance?" one person tweeted. "Get this lil kid out of here."
One claimed to be "highly upset that THIS kid is singing the United States National Anthem" and concluded that De La Cruz was "Clearly from Mexico ..." Another one said he could not believe "they had the nerve to have a beaner sing the national anthem of AMERICA."
"There's a little Mexican kid singing the National Anthem ... what has the world come to?" another racist asked.
"Who TF is this Mexican boy?" asked another inquisitive Neanderthal, "This is America, dammit."
Obviously, many bigots clearly had a problem with the fact that De La Cruz is Hispanic. But others took it even further, concluding that he is not only from Mexico but that he came here illegally.
"So, illegal aliens can sing the National Anthem @ games now?" one of them asked.
"This lil Mexican snuck in the country like 4 hours ago now he singing the anthem," another bigot tweeted.
Who dat lil Wetback sangin the national anthem at the Heat game?" another bigot tweeted, expressing the kind of cruelty that seems to come naturally to many xenophobic Americans. The Tumblr site "Public Shaming" has devoted a page to exposing the racist Tweets attacking De La Cruz.
But it turned out that De La Cruz was not Mexican or even an immigrant! He is an American citizen — born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, a young Mexican-American who happens to be proud of his Hispanic heritage and culture.
"I think the people were talking bad because of what I was wearing, and it's not my fault," De La Cruz said. "It's what I love, and I'm just proud to be a Mariachi singer. It's their opinion actually, and if they don't like Mariachi, that's their problem. I love it."
It turned out that they picked on the wrong young man, a lad of strong character who ended up consoling his own mother after she read the hurtful comments.
"They don't know my life." De La Cruz said in a TV interview where he showed much more class than his critics. "My father was actually in the Navy for a really long time, and I actually salute him today for that. ... People don't know. They just assume that I'm just Mexican. But I'm not from Mexico. I'm from San Antonio, born and raised, a true San Antonio Spurs fan."
The boy came out looking much more mature, self-confident and poised than his childish, xenophobic and mean-spirited critics.
The only thing the bigots accomplished was uniting Latinos and other Americans behind De La Cruz. The backlash against the bigots was so strong that De La Cruz was invited to sing the National Anthem again, in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, where athletes, entertainers and politicians treated him like a celebrity.
Who knows? Perhaps every so often, just to flush out the bigots in our society, we need an incident like this one. To put us back on the right track as a tolerant nation, to finally put an end to The Black Legend, perhaps we need the bigots to remind us they still exist — so we can expose their hatred and shame them back into humankind.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.