Let your flag fly

A guest post by Cuban American Claudia S. Murray:

In the flurry of hot takes following the #MarchForOurLives, a sinister narrative emerged about Emma Gonzalez’s choice to wear a patch of the Cuban flag. An assortment of naysayers suggested that donning the flag was an implicit endorsement of Cuba’s communist regime or policies.

As a Cuban-American woman from South Florida who proudly displays the Cuban flag in her own bedroom and on her own Twitter profile, I’d like to make this absolutely clear: When we wave the Cuban flag, it has nothing to do with supporting communism. Usually, it means quite the opposite. (Case in point: My personal Cuban flag appeared in my new film, Gringa, which highlights the ills communism has inflicted on Cuba and the Cuban-American community.)

But the counter-narrative I’m hearing from the Cuban-American community is just as tone deaf. In response to a meme circulating the Internet comparing the Cuban flag (as worn by Emma) and the Confederate flag (as waved by many in Dixie), folks are furious. The general sense is “OMG CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY’RE COMPARING THE CUBAN FLAG WITH THE CONFEDERATE FLAG??!!?!?!”

As a Southerner whose family is from Alabama and who listened to a lot of Confederate Railroad growing up, yes. Yes, I can believe the comparison, and I think it’s a valid one.

Not because the meaning of the flags is the same.

Not because the people who wave it are the same.

Not because the people who wave them are always good or always bad.

But because the current — albeit ridiculous — controversy about the meaning behind Emma’s choice of arm patch highlights the power of a narrative and begs the question: Who gets to decide what a flag means — the person waving it or the person perceiving it?

For decades, Southerners have been saying that, to us, the Confederate flag isn’t sinister. Instead, it’s a symbol of defiance in the face of tyranny, of states’ rights, and of a culture that remains proud despite a consistent onslaught of negativity from the rest of the country.

Growing up, I was taught the same. And I am proud of being Southern. I revel in folks saying “hey” to strangers, saying “please” and “thank you” as rote and holding the door for one another. Sometimes all those things happen at once! And it may seem small to y’all outsiders, but that’s our sense of common decency, and it unites people across race, religion, and creed in the South. It’s a potent and unifying glue for a people in a time when things feel a lot more nebulous and disjointed than ever before.

I’m equally proud of my Cuban culture. We may be tough on the outside, but once you’re in with us, you are family, and you will NEVER leave our home unfed. We’re crass and informal and won’t take any crap, and that extends to our friends. You’ve never seen loyalty like this. And you’ve never heard a louder conversation. It’s glorious.

I get to display the Cuban flag at home and on social media, but I don’t get to display my Southern pride in the same way. It’s a small inconvenience, and I don’t delude myself into thinking that it’s equal to the plight of those who are concerned about their own safety when they see the Confederate flag waving.

If you’re going to wave any flag, you are going to have to weigh the repercussions of the popular perception versus your own internal reasons for waving it or for being proud of it. I, like my family and many others, have chosen not to wave the Confederate flag because it’s just not worth anyone thinking we’re racist. The narrative has been hijacked, and we begrudgingly accept that.

For what it’s worth, the Cuban flag has been hijacked, too. The flag pre-dates communism on the island, and today the Castro regime wears it as a beacon of their revolution, which slaughtered anywhere between 35,000 and 141,000 Cubans. The number is unclear because Cuban communists — taking their lessons from the Soviets — didn’t keep track of how many people they killed.

Still, we should extend the benefit of the doubt to those expressing themselves. Self-expression is a way of “living our truth,” and we should do our best to believe people when they explain their own intentions. As a society, it’s time to nip this whole “Cuban-flag-as-communist” thing in the bud.

I’m also willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those who disagree with Emma’s choices of wardrobe. In an age of snap judgments and un-contextualized optics, she chose to wear an olive green, military-style jacket that had the Cuban flag on it. Was this smart? Probably not, but only because it’s counter to her narrative of peace and anti-violence. In style and substance, her message is revolutionary. That, coupled with her choice of wardrobe, is triggering to a lot of living Cuban Americans who still recall the olive-clad revolutionaries who knocked down their doors and hauled their loved ones to be imprisoned or executed.

I, for one, don’t want my peace activists in military gear.

But I’m not about to act like the girl’s a communist just because she wore a Cuban flag. Virtually all Cuban-Americans don that flag and are damn proud of it. And you’d be hard pressed to find a more fiercely anti-communist group in the U.S.A.

Claudia S. Murray is a Cuban-American writer/director and comedian. In the past, she worked as a civil-rights lawyer and political speechwriter. (The current path is way more fun.) Her new film, Gringa, is set to be released in 2018. You can find more of her work at www.ClaudiaSMurray.com