Relax, it’s just a mouthpiece

On a balmy New Year’s day in 1959, UC Berkeley’s Pacific Coast Conference-winning football team* played the Big 10 champion University of Iowa in the Rose Bowl. Cal lost decisively to Iowa, but two Cal players received credit for notable efforts. One was All-American quarterback Joe Kapp, who would later lead the Minnesota Vikings to Super Bowl IV. I was the other. As a starting running back, I ended up as Cal’s leading rusher that day. Gaining 68 yards represented no Herculean feat, but I managed to average close to a respectable seven yards per carry.

My minor accomplishment certainly would not qualify as the most interesting part of this bit of sports trivia, but the fact that Joe and I shared Mexican ancestry might. In those days, the rosters of big-time college football teams were not exactly loaded with Latinos. As Gustavo Arellano so correctly pointed out in his Oct. 26 Op-Ed on Mark Sanchez’s now celebrated mouthpiece, many of us have shared the joy of seeing those rare Hispanic players, such as Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett and Jeff Garcia, hit the gridiron and do well.

I’m old enough to be Mark Sanchez’s grandfather, but I can certainly understand his having a little fun with an unusual expression of his ethnicity. I also like that he isn’t very fussy about the labels he uses. Most of them are misnomers anyway and often fail miserably to describe our true experiences, bloodlines or perspectives.

In contrast, Robert Feliciano seems to be hung up on certain symbols and labels, judging from his tirade of Oct. 30. Describing Mark’s mouthpiece as serving “to drive a greater wedge into our society” and Gustavo’s written piece as “race-baiting” strikes me as an exaggerated expression of paranoia.

In addition, I found his sweeping generalization that people from New Mexico don’t refer to themselves as Chicanos or Mexicans particularly astonishing. He should know that Joe and I were both born in New Mexico and often refer to ourselves as Chicanos, Mexicans or any other label that suits us. We are consummately aware that Hispanics may indeed defy accurate description, so why sweat it? For years, we have been engaged in heated arguments about labels, agonizing over what we should be called. I’m sure we will never settle on a handle that will please us all.

I was also shocked that Feliciano built his case by talking about Mexico’s poverty and corruption while conveniently omitting all the positive cultural contributions of that country and its people to the life to this country.

He also appears to want strict rules for governing ethnic expression. That silly notion borders on a violation of free speech. He asks that “the academic elite and left-leaning media please stop poisoning our young people with ethnicity issues that are not part of our common American dream.” I wonder if the common American dream is for everyone to believe and behave the same way.

Fortunately, diversity has contributed to my view of our common American experience. I grew up in the San Jose area with Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Irish, African, Portuguese, Japanese and Jewish friends. Of course, that also includes the 57 varieties of so-called Anglos in the mix. I doubt that any of them would be offended by Mark’s mouthpiece. They would probably accept it as something akin to lighthearted banter.

I would ask Mr. Feliciano to please stop attempting to straitjacket our thinking about ethnicity. We can be happy and proud to be American and equally happy and proud to celebrate our ethnicity. Many Americans do not find diversity offensive. On the contrary, it enriches their lives.

I doubt that Mark Sanchez spends much time obsessing about Mexican/American history and relations. I’m sure his attention centers more on his team’s playbook and his college classes. When his focus shifts momentarily to his ethnic background, he should not be chastised for it. No one should worry that he will suddenly lose his American identity and love of country. I for one think his mouthpiece is muy cool.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified UC Berkeley as UCLA.

Hank Olguin is a Mountain View-based branding and creativity consultant and author of a forthcoming book, “Let Your Ideas Take Flight.”