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De Colores

Elizabeth Martinez “Raza Protest A Day of Lies and Hate,” De Colores Means All of Us: Latina views for a Multi-colored Century (1998 South End Press, Cambridge, MA), Chapter 27, pp 226-228.


            “¡Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!”--- roughly translated, “We’re here to stay!” — chanted some 300 mostly Latino youths as they marched through the streets of Sonoma on June 14, 1996.  It was the 150th anniversary of California’s so-called Bear Flag Republic, and the young Raza were demanding to take back their history.

            Sonoma is the town where 34 probably drunken Yankees took over Mexico’s military outpost on June 14, 1846, declared California a “republic” and raised a flag showing a bear — now the official state flag.  Anglo historians called it a bold stroke against Mexican domination inspired by a great hero, Col. John Fremont.  Half of the 200,000 Native Americans in California had already died under Spanish and Mexican rule, so no problems from them were anticipated.  During the Bear Flaggers’ 25-day occupation of Sonoma, they terrorized the remaining native peoples and wounded and murdered Mexicans.  Some 800 Fremont followers succeeded the Bear Flaggers, and eventually Mexican resistance in California was overrcome.  Meanwhile, the United States had invaded and defeated the rest of Mexico.

            Now the town of Sonoma was going to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Manifest Destiny’s triumph in California.  But this year Raza, together with African-American, Anglo and Native American youth, decided to protest the Bear Flag as a symbol of division and anti-Mexican feeling in today’s climate of hatred for immigrants.  The demonstration was organized by the Chicano Moratorium Coalition and the Studen Empowerment Project (StEP), which brought people from all over California.

            Officials including Gov. Pete Wilson, champion of the immigrant-bashers, commemorated the anniversary with costumed historical characters, speeches and songs on the town plaza, and other events lasting three weeks.  During the opening parade on June 14, the young protesters could not possibly be ignored.  They waved their own bright turquoise, gold and red flags symbolizing the “Four Sacred Elements” of indigenous culture: land, water, fire and air. They blew whistles loudly and persistently.  They shouted “Shame on you!” at the parade.  How, they were asking, could anyones be proud of a day that made it national policy to beat, kill and put people to work as semi-slaves?

            You could barely hear Governor Wilson drone on as he spoke to celebrants gathered in the plaza.  Cries of “Deport Wilson!” were very audible, however.  Anglo onlookers looked puzzled when they heard the demonstrators chant, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” “What does it mean?”  Such a question speaks to a great divide.  On the one hand Sonoma has an overwhelmingly Anglo population.  A sonoma Valley school trustee, Dorne Musilli, had recently proposed establishing a school for Spanish-speaking children and abolishing bilingual education elsewhere.  She also proposed making it illegal to speak Spanish at any school, including outdoors on the playground.  During the June 14 ceremony, those who cheered the Bear Flaggers were almost exclusively older Anglos who appeared middle-class, while the protesters were almost all young people of color, mostly working-class.

            But exceptions turned up everywhere.  About 10 to 15 Anglo residents organized their own demonstration.  At three shops near the plaza, the Anglo owners said they would have nothing to do with the celebration.  One blond, blue-eyed man made it clear he thought the only good Wilson would be a dead Wilson.  A white woman standing on her porch near the plaza offered her bathroom, telephone or cold water to passing protesters.  On the other side of the color line, one Chicano Republican Party official wrote in the local paper that he stood “in support of the history of California as it has unfolded” (lynching of Mexicans and all, I guess).

            There was nothing new about the contradictions.  Gen. Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican commander in Sonoma on June 14, 1846, eagerly collaborated in the U. S. takeover.  Like other wealthy Mexican ranch owners, he believed his self-interest lay with the invaders.  Thanks to Vallejo’s support for annexation, he became California’s first U.S. senator from Sonoma County.  Sometimes Raza forget this kind of painful truth about our history.  The June 14 parade included men dressed as Mexican soldiers and officials; when they marched by the first time, most of the Chicano protesters remained silent, but a few clapped or cheered.  The second time, protesters booed loudly out of a delayed understanding that the Mexican upper-class and its defenders were no friend of Mexicano people.  “Shame on you!” applied to them , too.  Rather than commemorating Vallejo, we would do well to remember the resistance of native peoples to both the Mexicans and the Yankees.

            Raza youth are learning that the roots of our struggle include the division of rich from poor.  At the June 14 celebration Gov. Pete Wilson pontificated about our “golden” state and saluted the Sons of the “Golden” West.  Those noneyed references take us back to July 7, 1846, when Commodore Sloat raised the U. S. Flag at Monterey, California, completing the takeover, and proclaimed that “a great increase in the value of real estate may also be anticipated.”  Now, 150 years later, a winery near Sonoma was cashing in on history with a big sign that announced on June 14: “IT’S A REVOLUTION! BEAR FLAG BLUSH IS HERE!” As for the workers who produce that blush wine, they are just Mexicans who came with the territory and now labor in the fields or inside the winery, going home at night to the half-hidden barrios on the city’s outskirts.

            But Bear Flag Day 1996 also said: the Mexicans won’t always be hidden.  We won’t accept the denial of our complex yet sturdy reality for another 150 years.  June 14, 1996, belonged to La Raza, and on the streets of Sonoma you could imagine a time when all the days would belong to all the disempowered, despised razas of our planet.


June 22, 2008

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