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Get real Mexico, it's just a cartoon

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Mexicans upset over cartoon of their flag that comments on violence
  • With 28,000 dead, billions of dollars lost in drug war, Mexico has real problems, he says
  • Navarrette says Mexicans should get priorities straight about what is truly offensive
  • Cartoonist is from U.S., Navarrette says, so Mexicans take drawing as slight from north

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr., a regular contributor to, is a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- I realize this might be an imprudent question leading up to September 16 -- Mexican Independence Day -- but what in the world is the matter with Mexico?

Here you have a drug war that has caused the deaths of more than 28,000 Mexicans, with the resulting loss of billions of dollars in tourism and foreign investment in an economy already in distress; drug gangs terrorizing the population, schoolchildren being taught to duck under their desks in the event of gunfire, the corrupt and discredited Institutional Revolutionary Party making a comeback thanks to voter discontent over the war, and dire warnings from international organizations about how the whole country could be on the brink of collapse.

And what offends the sensibilities of Mexicans? A cartoon.

American cartoonist Daryl Cagle recently came under fire south of the border after drawing a Mexican flag with a provocative twist. The flag is supposed to feature an eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a snake. In Cagle's rendition, the eagle lies in the center, riddled with bullet holes in a pool of blood. Cagle said his drawing, which went out to more than 800 newspapers around the world and has been published in at least two newspapers in Mexico, was intended to draw attention to the horrible violence in the country.

Instead, the imagery unleashed furious anger.

Video: Mexican flag cartoon controversy

The Mexican newspaper El Universal, which ran the cartoon, heard complaints from many readers. "It is a shame," said one, "that a patriotic symbol like our flag, which is so beautiful to me, can be mocked by a stupid cartoonist."

Even the Mexican Embassy in Washington, which must not have more important matters to deal with, got into the act.

"I think there are many other ways to graphically protest what's happening in our country," said embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday, adding that "as any democratic society, Mexico respects and defends freedom of speech and freedom of expression, in any way it's manifested, [but] regarding the case of Mr. Cagle's cartoon, we differ on the use he makes of the Mexican flag and the message it conveys."

Dios mio. This whole controversy belongs in the funny pages. As someone who has tried to keep an eye on the drug war since Mexican President Felipe Calderon heroically went to battle against the cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006, I find myself shaking my head now and then.

For instance, when the war against drug cartels started, polls by Mexican newspapers showed that, although most Mexicans supported the mission, many also thought the enterprise would ultimately turn out to be a miserable failure.

Confused by this cocktail of faith and fatalism? Welcome to Mexico.

As a Mexican-American -- someone whose grandfather came to the United States legally during the Mexican Revolution, worked hard all his life without complaint and made a future here because, as someone who was poor and uneducated, Mexico refused to make room for him -- I'm used to this kind of dysfunction.

By the way, despite what you hear from paranoid nativists who cling to absurd conspiracy theories about how Mexican-Americans are secretly in league with Mexico, our loyalties are unambiguous. I don't owe Mexico anything, but I owe this country -- my country -- everything. I don't spend a lot of time defending Mexico, although I have been known to attack the myth that our neighbor is responsible for our immigration problem and urge my fellow Americans to own up to their role in creating the very situation about which they complain.

Of course, Mexico has its share of problems. It's a country of unimaginable beauty and enormous natural resources that has long been plagued by corrupt politicians, inept bureaucracies and severe inequalities that often lead its citizens to prey on one another.

But what worries me at the moment is the latest wrinkle in the drug war -- the fact that many Mexicans let nationalism get the best of them and insist on fighting los americanos even when they're really at war with barbaric drug traffickers who have so little regard for their own country that they would rather rip it apart than give up a peso of illicit profits.

Not willing to overlook a perceived slight from the north, Mexicans are once again shaking their fists over, of all things, a cartoon. That's the part of this tale that is really offensive.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.