The election results revealed to masses of people that this is a fundamentally different country than they perceive from the alternative reality constructed by Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. It’s defined less by the narrow hatreds of the powerful than by a younger generation that’s more diverse, more open, more courageous and, frankly, more interesting than those at the levers of power. The sports world reflected this real-world reality in full force last week in the person of Sergio Romo.
When the San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series, we all knew that the Bay would hold a terrific parade, and by all accounts they did not disappoint. Less predictable was the move by ace relief pitcher Sergio Romo amidst the festivities. The World Series hero, with a smile that could shame James Franco, parted his jacket, to reveal a T-shirt that read, “I just look illegal.” The crowd erupted with joy. Just like in the ninth inning of the final game against the Detroit Tigers, Romo delivered the goods. This wasn’t Romo’s first political T-shirt. Born in the hardscrabble agricultural community of Brawley, California, Romo, whose grandparents were Mexican migrant workers, also favors a shirt that reads, “Made in America, with Mexican parts.”
Sergio Romo’s shirt is more than a cheeky rebuke to nativist bigotry. In today’s California. It’s also brave. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill two years in the making, known as the Trust Act. This bill was aimed at turning California into the “anti-Arizona” on the question of immigration enforcement. It would have severely limited the powers of local police to collude with ICE officials and detain people suspected of being undocumented. In other words, it could have been a powerful rebuke to racial profiling. Instead, it fell to Brown’s veto and punched a hole in the stomach of those working on the issue who thought they had “a friend” in the statehouse. It might sound small, but as one activist wrote me, “Seeing Romo in that shirt was a lift we sorely needed. I don’t care if he knew about our struggle or not. Call it wishful thinking but I’m going to bet he did.”
Then there is Romo’s use of the word “illegal”. Monica Novoa from the “Drop-the-I-Word” campaign, which challenges the use of the word “illegal” in describing the undocumented, said to me, “Sergio Romo made clear how the i-word is racially charged and used to profile brown-skinned people. It’s one of the primary reasons we’re asking journalists to drop the i-word, so we are glad he called attention to that point. Just a reminder to everyone, who is not Sergio Romo at the parade: Sarcasm walks a fine line. His family’s migrant background, the sense of humor he’s known for and the hateful anti-Latino, anti-immigrant climate made that singular moment work. The bigger takeaway is still that no human being is illegal.”
Others in immigrant rights circles were deeply disturbed by Romo’s shirt. Any use of the word “illegal,” they argued, should be condemned. But using humor to puncture racism is as old as racism itself. Romo’s incorporation of “the i-word” isn’t about legitimizing the word but mocking it. Romo’s shirt seems to have inspired the people fighting to make such a shirt a relic of history. The civil rights group Alto Arizona has even set up a website aimed at sending Romo a thank-you.
Then there is the context of a Major League Baseball player wearing such a shirt. Baseball is now built upon a foundation of Latin American talent. This has led to real tensions between states that have adopted deeply punitive immigration policies aimed at making life unbearable for Latino residents and the players on their home teams.
This reached its apex when the home of the infamous anti-immigrant law SB 1070, Arizona, hosted the 2011 All-Star Game. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig wouldn’t stand up for his players or the civil rights traditions of his sport, in letting the state Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio host the game. Players and fans protested, but Selig chose not to listen. Sergio Romo reminds us that the people beneath the uniform are human beings, just like the people politicians and nativists scapegoat and target for narrow political gain.
For that, I agree with Alto Arizona. Sign me up to say thank you to Sergio Romo. Sergio Romo was brave enough to spark a conversation that needs to be had. This is a different country than even ten years ago. It’s becoming more open, more tolerant and more impatient with anyone who would dare call another human being “illegal”.