This is Our Flag

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I think all [you] need to go back to [your] own country [or] where [your] parents are from and we wouldn’t have to deal with y’all.

Not long ago I posted an open letter to Donald Trump regarding his comments to the Khan family and about Purple Heart recipients. They always say never read the comments. But this was one I couldn’t ignore. It was sent directly to me by a stranger named Larry via Facebook.

Go back to my own country? This is my country.

I clicked on Larry’s profile page to find out more about the man who would have me unconstitutionally deported. He is from Dalton, GA. My own hometown.

The hometown that rallied together to raise funds to cover my mother’s bills while she was away from her job so that she could sit by my bedside during the critical first three months of my recovery. The hometown that threw me a parade in 2003 when I was stable enough to be given my first 30-day convalescent leave from Brooke Army Medical Center (currently SAMMC).

The hometown that featured me in the local newspaper introducing me as a new walk-on to the Dalton Catamounts high school football team. That football team was one that Dalton locals are still talking about to this day because we took the team to the Georgia state championship.

Go back? That’s easy; I’d be going back to where this gentleman lives. I know that Larry doesn’t represent all of the voices in my hometown, but it didn’t take away from the sting I felt in reading it.

But go back to…where my parents are from?

Well, that story is a little bit more complicated. My mother Maria, a naturalized American citizen lives in Dalton too. That’s her home. But it wasn’t always.

In the early 1980s, a young woman fled civil war in El Salvador. She had two daughters, my sisters, Consuelo and Anabel. Anabel was born with a disability that left her unable to walk. We don’t know what her disability was called because there were no doctors in her village.

In war-torn El Salvador where a US-backed, funded, and armed military dictatorship routinely employed scorched-earth tactics, the locals had a name for what they were doing: sacar el pez del agua.

Remove the fish from the water.

My mother Maria had a choice; stay put and pray, or make the desperate move to find the resources she needed to help her small family survive. If she stayed, what if the military came to her village and she was forced to flee with two daughters, one of whom wasn’t able to walk? And if she could not flee, would her life and the lives of her daughters be at risk at the hands of the military dictatorship. If she fled, what if she were caught at the Salvadorian border and jailed (or worse) for trying to flee?

That’s when she made the incredibly difficult decision to leave her two daughters, both under the age of five, in her mother’s home.

She paid a coyote to help her flee. She told herself that if she could just earn enough money to pay for her 2 year old Anabel’s wheelchair and medicine, then earn $1000 more to help her return to El Salvador and open her own store, Anabel wouldn’t have to crawl on the ground as she grew and learned to cope with her disability, and she could pay for Anabel’s medicine, for Consuelo’s schooling, for doctor’s appointments. Things I certainly take for granted as a father of a healthy and sweet 4 year old daughter here in America.

My mother was smuggled out of El Salvador and made the long journey to America. She made her way across the Rio Grande river from Mexico into Texas.

She looked around at the rest of the 23 people she had taken the journey with, crossing three borders illegally, and she realized they were all parents as well. How many others made the same decision she did to support their family. As a father, I understand that urgent desperation and desire that comes only when you are handed that tiny bundle swaddled in a blanket for the first time.

My mother’s first job in the United States as an undocumented worker was cleaning a high rise office building in Houston, TX. She and her co-workers, most of whom were also undocumented, were paid under the table.

Eventually she met a man; my father. She got pregnant. They moved together to Shreveport, Louisiana where he had a good job. She returned to work two weeks after I was born, still determined to earn enough money to bring me and my father back to El Salvador to meet my sisters.

Nine months later, my father left. Now she was a single mother in the American south with a cursory grasp on the English language, and nobody to help take care of me as an infant. She relied on elderly neighbors and local children to watch me as she worked, some children young enough to need babysitters themselves. It was the only way she could make ends meet in a new and unfamiliar city in a relatively new and unfamiliar country. More importantly, it was the only way she’d be able to continue to raise funds to buy Anabel a wheelchair.

Then a new fear took over. She began to see other immigrants rounded up and deported. She feared that she would be deported and that I, as an American citizen,would be taken away from her. So she had to come up with a new plan. She needed to make enough money to go through the process of becoming an American citizen. Then she would be able to bring my sisters to America and we could all finally be together as a family.

I remember taking the bus from Shreveport to New Orleans where her immigration lawyer worked. We would sit on the bus, my mom, me, and boxes of documents the lawyer needed. We would stay at a YMCA behind a local fish market. To this day, I always treasure my visits to New Orleans because it reminds me of the promise that we would be able to stay together. That my sisters would soon join us.

In 1987 that all changed. If I live to be 100 years old, I will never forget the look on my mom’s face as she sat on her bed and cradled the phone on her shoulder, unable to speak or move. Anabel had passed away. She was 6 years old.

And since my mom was still in the process of becoming a legal citizen, she was unable to leave the United States to go to her daughter’s, my sister’s,funeral. She was thousands of miles away, helpless to do anything when her child passed away.

She had to face a similar nightmare 17 years later. She got the call every military parent dreads. My humvee drove over a roadside bomb somewhere outside of the city of Karbala, Iraq. They didn’t think I was going to make it. For the second time in her life, she was thousands of miles away while one of her children battled for their life in another war-torn country.

After Anabel passed away, she was more motivated than ever to become a US citizen. She studied for months for the citizenship test. She memorized the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner. My mom still struggles with the English language, but she can recite our Pledge of Allegiance backwards and forwards.

On the day she was sworn in as a U.S. Citizen, she was more than ready. They handed out miniature American flags to the new citizens as they all took the test and swore the naturalization oath of allegiance.

The other day I was driving with my daughter across the Brooklyn Bridge. At one point, she pointed up to the flag hoisted high above the bridge truss. Look daddy, it’s our flag!

Those words struck me. Our flag. My beautiful, bright four year old daughter Belle, named for Anabel, the sister I never met, was able to recognize the American flag as something that belonged to us.

Then I thought about it for a minute. I’d noticed that flag before; 15 years ago as a high school senior when I watched in horror as planes flew into the World Trade Center. The towers bellowing smoke over lower Manhattan, then falling, then leaving a gaping hole in the New York City skyline. We all felt the pain of seeing the new skyline without the towers like one would feel the searing pain of a phantom limb.

But I saw something else. In all the images from 9/11, the one that stuck out to me most, the one that gave me hope, was the one of the American flag hoisted high above the Brooklyn Bridge. Our flag.

That flag was likely placed there in 1883 by the very people who built the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge designed by an immigrant, and built by immigrants, many of whom even lost their lives constructing it. The flag hoisted high was a symbol of what their country, our country represents. Community, a refuge, hope.

That flag has been seen by thousands of immigrants who came to this country through Ellis Island; the words etched into the very base of the Statue of Liberty give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free still echoing through their heads.

On September 12, 2002, I enlisted in the United States Army. Other basic trainees were motivated to enlist because of the devastation on 9/11; the images of that day were still fresh in our minds; tragedy of the rubble coupled with the hope promised when we saw that our flag was still there. Oh say did that star spangled banner yet wave.

I was driving a humvee through the desert in Iraq one day early in April 2003. We were following a convoy. My front left tire drove over that roadside bomb that changed my life forever. I was trapped inside the burning vehicle long after my fellow soldiers were ejected. Five minutes. That’s how long it took before all the live artillery we were carrying stopped firing in every direction, before my brothers could pull me out. Five minutes. That’s how long my body can stay conscious inside a fire. I don’t want to test that theory again.

In that five minutes, I saw the skin on my hands change before my very eyes. I screamed for help, for someone to pull me out. I knew I was going to die. I thought of my mother, thousands of miles away. After everything she’d been through, would she be able to handle another child dying? That’s when I saw my sister Anabel. I’d never met her before, but I knew it was her. She imparted upon me a strength I never knew I had.

The next thing I remember was waking up weeks later and seeing my mother standing over me.

My body and face are covered with scars and burned skin. I struggled to get out of my hospital bed that day when a man pinned a Purple Heart to the hospital gown covering my chest, my mom standing proudly beside me. For the second time in her life since her naturalization ceremony, a government official handed her a miniature American flag to hold. But this time it was to watch her only son have his sacrifice recognized.

But who would recognize her sacrifices? There is no certificate for the woman who sacrificed everything for her children, who spent thousands of dollars and hours, neither of which she had in abundance, to become a legal American citizen. Nobody hands out a medal to the woman who couldn’t be there to bury her own daughter.

Since my injury, I’ve been able to do some incredible things. I’ve been able to act in one of the most successful soap operas of all time, All My Children. I was able to compete and win on Dancing with the Stars. I’m able to travel the world as an actor, an author, a motivational speaker, visiting military bases and hospitals, burn centers and support groups, and to use my platform to help our service members and veterans.

But I’ve realized the scars on my face are a mask. People see me on the street and to them, my scars represent their freedoms. It’s strange, because when I was growing up, I was always praised for my looks. Now people still praise me for my looks, but it’s very different.

And even though I can’t take my scars off, they are still a mask. They hide what I truly am: Hispanic American. People no longer see me as Jose Rene Martinez, the Latino kid whose mom came here illegally. They see me as J.R., the man they can use to project all their ideals of what freedom and patriotism mean to them.

Recently I’ve wondered if people would still treat me the same if I didn’t have these scars. Or if I’d be subjected to the same discrimination that many other Hispanic Americans are facing across this country during this political season. That comment I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the one telling me to go back to where I came from or where my parents came fromtells me that my mask does not protect me from hate.

We have a politician who has written off Mexicans, an entire group of people, as drugs dealers, killers, rapists. He tells his followers to be scared of Hispanics because they are here to take our jobs and our safety. He talks about building a wall. He talks about deporting 11 million undocumented individuals living in our country, many of whom have been here for decades. He even talks about changing our U.S. Constitution making it so that people like me, the children of undocumented individuals, would no longer be U.S. citizens even though we were born here.

He has normalized xenophobia and bigotry against Hispanic Americans. Children of Hispanic heritage in schools across the country have reported being subjected to new taunts and abuse, to chants of build the wall.

How long before my daughter hears those taunts? She had her very first day of school just yesterday. How long before one of her classmates tells her to go back to where she came from, even though she is a citizen, even though she is from nowhere else but here?

I worry not just about Belle hearing a man running for the highest office in our nation saying things like send them back and build a wall. I also worry about her friends hearing those same words and beginning to look at Belle differently because her skin is a little bit darker, because her last name is Hispanic.

I worry that even if the man saying these terrible things loses the election this November, his words will almost certainly have a damaging effect that lasts for generations to come.

I hope that the daughter I’m raising; the bright four year old American citizen of Salvadorian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and African American descent, will remember that although there may be many other Larrys in this country, there are also many other Belles in this country. That’s what makes our nation great.

The flag she pointed out as we drove across that bridge just a few days ago is the same flag the hardworking immigrants raised above the Brooklyn Bridge after years of constructing it. It’s the same flag I saw waving atop the bridge in the foreground of all the images from 9/11 promising hope after devastation.

All I can tell her to help her through these uncertain times is that yes, baby, that is our flag.