07:01 - Source: CNN
Emma Gonzalez: Fight for your lives

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and Cuba scholar with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She writes on Cuba, American popular culture, identity and higher education. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

CNN —  

Some Republican ideologues are grasping at straws to try and impugn the character of Emma Gonzalez, the fiercely outspoken young woman who has become a leading voice of the gun control movement since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last month.

Perhaps the most confounding attack came from Iowa Rep. Steve King, who suggested Gonzalez was expressing support for a communist dictatorship by wearing a Cuban flag patch on her jacket during the March For Our Lives rally in Washington.

Rebecca Bodenheimer

Putting aside for a moment the real possibility that King’s statement was merely a cynical ploy to distract the American public from the real issue at hand – the urgent need for stricter gun control laws – his comment betrays a lack of understanding about the meaning of the Cuban flag (and, for that matter, about most flags displayed outside their country of origin).

The Cuban flag is not a symbol of political orientation, as King suggests, but rather a sign of national belonging, independent of ideological belief. And one reason King and many Americans don’t understand this is because the American flag has come to represent for many a specific ideology that some consider xenophobic or militaristic.

While it’s preposterous to argue that a symbol representing a whole nation of people could ever mean only one thing, a clear contrast exists between the contemporary connotations of the Cuban and American flags respectively: the first is tied to ethnic identity while the second is tied to political ideology.

While for many the American flag stands for patriotism, national pride, military might or American exceptionalism (research has shown that exposure to the flag increases feelings of nationalism), the display of many other national flags often signals a sense of ethnic pride, particularly when they’re displayed in the diaspora.

And this is where Emma Gonzalez’s decision to wear a Cuban flag comes in. Following Rep. King’s comments, she and her family felt a need to explain this decision, which they did via Florida Rep. (and Cuban-American famous for her opposition to the Castro regimes) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who tweeted that Miami is filled with Cuban-American homes that proudly fly the Cuban flag, independent of their feelings about the government in Havana.

In fact, both supporters and critics of the Cuban revolution have historically utilized the Cuban flag for their own purposes. Exhibit A: images of Miami and Cuba reacting to the news that Fidel Castro had died. In the first, mass celebration; in the second, mass mourning.

Not only is the Cuban flag not representative of political ideology, but it was also not even designed by a Cuban. As Cuban-American historian Andrés Pertierra commented on Twitter, “The flag wasn’t created in 1959. In fact, it has its origins in the annexationist movement of the 19th century!”

The design for the Cuban flag was conceived of in 1850 by a Venezuelan general, Narciso López, who was living in the US at the time. While López’s ultimate goal was Cuban independence from Spain (and not necessarily Cuban annexation to the US), he courted both Southern (pro-slavery) and Northern (pro-abolition) annexationists to gain support for his anti-colonial uprisings in Cuba.

The Cuban flag has been used to represent a wide range of political ideologies and projects in the past two centuries: annexation to the US, independence from Spain, Cuban socialism and anti-communist sentiment by Cuban exiles. And now it’s been utilized by a young Cuban-American fighting for gun control who identifies as bisexual and whose appearance challenges widely accepted notions of femininity in the US and Cuba. It has appeared at the March for Our Lives.

Consider in contrast the use of the flag surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest, in which the then-49ers quarterback refused to stand during the singing of the National Anthem in order to protest police brutality. Kaepernick himself drew a link between the American flag and institutional racism when he stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Kaepernick’s actions were predictably met with fervent critique by right-wing conservatives. Even after Kaepernick was effectively blackballed by NFL owners, other NFL players continued to kneel and were met by one of President Trump’s infamous tirades, calling them “sons of bitches” and suggesting they should be fired for “disrespecting the flag.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who is not known for his liberal views, disputed that players were trying to be disrespectful to the flag: “They’re talking about equality issues, making sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to give people an opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Kaepernick’s actions and the movement he started were lauded by a slew of progressive groups and figures beyond the sports world, including Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory and the NAACP. Although Kaepernick and his supporters ultimately clarified that it was not the American flag he was protesting, but rather institutional racism, the flag became a stand-in for ideological debates over patriotism itself.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    This isn’t the case for the Cuban flag, which has been deployed by both poles of the political spectrum and whose meaning has been perhaps more contested since 1959 than at any other time in Cuba’s history.

    The Cuban flag does not exclusively represent socialism, Fidel or Raúl Castro, or anti-communist sentiment. It represents Cubanidad, a sense of belonging to and pride in the experience of being Cuban.

    Rep. King had nothing to say when hundreds of Miami Cubans went out into the street waving Cuban flags to celebrate Fidel Castro’s death, so I can only assume his decision to mock Gonzalez’s deployment of the Cuban flag was a politically motivated attempt to undermine her powerful statements on gun control.