Timothy Trybus, the 62-year old alcoholic moron who harassed a Hispanic woman in a Chicago park last month for wearing a t-shirt with the Puerto Rico flag, has been charged with committing a hate crime. The entire ordeal was filmed on a phone camera and posted on Facebook, where it went viral. As it was happening, there was a cop on duty who witnessed the harassment but–apparently not realizing that he was on camera–failed to intervene. Was he being lazy, ignorant, or both? He has since resigned.
During the harassment, Trybus asked her if she was an American citizen, told her she shouldn’t be wearing that flag in the U.S., and told her “you’re not going to change the United States of America“. The irony! Puerto Ricans were annexed in 1898 after the Spanish American War and were all made Americans citizens–against their will, or at least with no input from island residents–in 1917, just a year prior to First World War, and were promptly drafted to the war. So it was the U.S.A that changed Puerto Rico’s political, societal, and cultural identity radically! Trybus could only exhibit his audacity as a result of living in a post-fact vacuum entirely void of historical context.
In the decades after citizenship was conferred, and prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the island was ruled with an iron fist by federally appointed governors. English was the only language allowed in schools and, for a time, it was illegal to even display the Puerto Rican flag in Puerto Rico, to express island patriotism in overt manner, or to discuss nationalistic ideas in public. This “gag law” was later found to be unconstitutional in the courts, and was abolished.
One of the most popular plena songs of the 20th Century is titled ¡Que bonita bandera! (=”What a pretty flag!”)–its cheerful, contagious lyrics took delight in the peculiar kind of transgression that the Puerto Rican flag embodied. Today, the island flag is seen as “American flag Jr.” (it has the same colors), it’s liberally woven into clothing and memes, and saturates the annual parades in many major cities. But it would be wrong to forget the flag’s controversial history! There are too many lessons there, and too much is at stake.
It’s difficult to understand how Americans who claim to be patriotic are so deeply unaware of the geographical extent of the United States, of the history involved in America’s expansion, or even of the fact that free expression and the other constitutional guarantees are part of what made this country great. A quick scan through the maps of Africa and Asia will quickly remind us that not every country has these blessings … But if Puerto Rico’s gag law is any indication, this deep ignorance of basic civics and of our constitutional rights isn’t anything new and has even been prevalent enough to have made its way into laws during particularly pernicious instances in history.
This weekend, I will be blasting ¡Que bonita bandera! at full volume in celebration that today, in the courts, the United States is telling all the Timothy Trybuses out there: “No, it is YOU who will not change the United States of America!”.
Puerto Rican Citizenship: the Odd Case of Juan Mari Brás