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Only In America -- The Making of a Young Patriot

New America Media, Commentary, Russell Morse Posted: Jul 04, 2008

Editor's Note: Patriots aren't born, they are made they are made through their experiences -- and sometimes they are even manufactured through cheating, lying and warring. Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.

NEW YORK -- In the late summer of 2001, I traveled with my mother to Mexico City so that she could attend her high school reunion. I was there for her peace of mind (my aunt told her its not safe there now, not like when we were kids) and, I suppose, as something to show off.

Years before, we teased my uncle for renting a Cadillac to go to his Air Force Academy reunion, but you could say I was her Cadillac: a well-dressed, reasonably charming American boy.

It was my first time outside of the United States and I was immediately in love with the filth and the madness of that city. I absorbed all of the mythology of the place: the Virgin, the pyramids, the cafes where my teenaged mother sat with her girlfriends. On one of the final days of our trip, we visited the Zocalo, which my mother described to me as Times Square and Vatican City and Washington DC all squeezed into one block.

There was a protest there that day, farmers who marched hundreds of miles to hold banners and wave flags. At the center of the square was a flagpole with an absurdly large Mexican flag.

From every window of every building on the square hung a Mexican flag.

I had never seen anything like it and my mother, sensing my bewilderment leaned over to me and whispered, Theyre really crazy with their nationalism down here. I mean, when do you ever see anything like this at home? Some sporting events, maybe. I nodded.

At 20 years old, I had never thought about it. The American flag at that time in my life was old and archaic, a little bit scary, safe only as ironic pop art or draped across an Olympians shoulders.

Two weeks after I got back from Mexico, my girlfriends sister came running into our bedroom at some ungodly hour in her pajamas, curly red hair all over the place, screaming, Were under attack! I turned on the TV and saw people being swallowed by clouds of smoke.

I spent the next several mornings at my kitchen table with a bowl of cereal reading the paper, listening to Sades new album and crying. One morning I read a story about the shortage of American flags. Stores were sold out. A woman in the story said, I dont know what it means, but when I see someone flying the flag, I know that theyre feeling the same thing that I am.

One night, a group of us gathered at my girlfriends house in San Franciscos Sunset District to paint American flags. You honestly could not buy one in a store, so we decided to make our own with construction paper and watercolors.

It was a nice night: lots of Coors Light and Camel cigarettes, family and friends. We needed things like that then.

At one point my girlfriends very Irish cousin, visiting from Chicago, expressed some frustration with the Chinamen in the neighborhood who werent flying any flags. I gently tried to explain why recent Chinese immigrants might be a little reluctant to embrace ferocious nationalism.

I hung my handmade flag in the window of my apartment the next morning, after the paint dried.

By January, things felt better. I sat in a Boston bar in Santa Monica watching the playoffs with legions of New England Patriot fans, secretly rooting for the Raiders.

As the final seconds ticked past and the Boston boys erupted in cheers, I realized that the Patriots had stolen their Super Bowl appearance from the Raiders. My brother, also a secret Raider fan, floated the theory that it was fixed so that the Patriots could win in the year of our great national tragedy. I became suspect of anything with the word Patriot attached to it.

A little more than a year later, I emerged from a train station in Barcelona to see thousands of people in the streets, stopping traffic, chanting Guerra No and burning American flags.

I didnt know the bombs were already dropping in Iraq, so I was shocked. It became clear that my travel partner and I would have to hide the fact that we were American. I mocked him at the airport before we left because he cut the American flag label off of his Ralph Lauren jean jacket, somehow anticipating this mayhem.

People were spray-painting the parliament building with anti-war slogans, which inspired my partner, an artist, to contribute. He crafted a large butterfly figure and next to it, wrote the slogan Ni Los Propios Americanos Estan Por La Guerra, or, Not Even Americans Are Pro War.

We spent the next few days in bars and cafes, debating with Spaniards, defending our confused patriotism. Over the next couple years, I nervously watched a war unravel and an election blow past and then early in 2006, I found myself in an SUV speeding through the desert of southern California. I was on the phone with a man named Bandit, the field organizer for a group of Minutemen stationed at the border fence in Campo.

He was asking me questions, trying to determine whether he would allow me, a journalist from San Francisco, to hang out with him and his comrades as they patrolled the border.

In a gruff voice and with simple words, he asked me things like Do you believe in the constitution of the United States? I phrased my answers honestly but carefully, so as not to alienate him. Finally, he asked me, How do you feel about this country? I stuttered a little bit.

Well, I d-dont always agree with what our leaders may do, but I love my country and am proud to be an American. He said mm-hm and gave me the directions to their operation.

I was afraid that I had fudged my answer, that I wasnt honest with him because it was more important to me to get access than to maintain some integrity. But I thought about it and surprised myself, realizing that I meant it when I said I loved America.

That spring, a million people -- sons and daughters of the people Bandit patrolled the desert looking for -- marched in the streets of downtown Los Angeles, waving American flags and announcing their presence.

I was there, watching and smiling, at times emotional.

And just last month, I sat in my aunt and uncles apartment in Manhattan as we watched NBC report that Barack Obama had secured the Democratic Nomination for President. The confetti was still falling as my uncle, a black man who grew up in Harlem, picked up the phone to call his son. He laughed as he yelled into the phone, Make sure you tell your kids! Its like a man walking on the moon!

Tom Brokaw looked into the camera and said, Only in America. Only in America.

Related Articles:

Los Angeles Is Mexico -- Live From the Capital of the Aztec Empire

All LA All Day -- Aliens. Nave Americans and Robots

Mad Max in Borderland -- Overnight With the Minutemen

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