Emma Gonzalez and the power of symbols

Here are my thoughts on Emma González, a high school senior who survived the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The first thing that we learn about Emma González in the February 26, 2018, issue of Harper's Bazaar Magazine is that she is 18 years old, Cuban, and bisexual.  Next, she tells us about her participation at the recent March for Our Lives, where she gave moving remarks to bring about stricter gun control.  And yet Emma has been severely criticized by some Cuban-Americans and Americans.  What gives?

Apparently, Emma has not paid attention to the power of symbols.  At the March for Our Lives, Emma wore an olive-green jacket with a Cuban flag patch on her right arm.  The words of "Welcome to the Revolution" from another student rang in the background.

It would be unthinkable to speak against institutional racism at a public event and be clad head to toe in white Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods.  No one would pay attention to the message.

Here is an analogy.  You may have a young job applicant who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University but dressed with the same attire that Emma wore to the March, and see how far she gets in the job interview.  Not far!  Optics play a larger role in whom and what we like than on what others say or write. We've been taught that if you want to get far in corporate America or the federal government, you always dress to impress when going to a job interview.  The question is not whether this is fair or unfair. The bottom line is that this is reality.

Similarly, Emma's garb brought back horrible memories to most Cuban-Americans of rebels coming down from the Sierra Maestra mountain range and confiscating the guns of civilians as a way to install a totalitarian regime that has lasted fifty-nine years.

While this South Florida-born daughter of a Cuban refugee who came to this country in 1968 professes pride in her Cuban heritage by insisting on putting the accent on her surname, she has alienated the majority of the Cuban-American community by her actions.  To these Cuban-Americans, olive-green fatigues remind them of Fidel Castro and his rebel army.  Rather than putting so much emphasis on the accent of her surname, she should have refrained from displaying symbols that brought back so many negative memories of Communist Cuba.

To non-Cuban Americans, Emma's clothes helped to label her as a radical activist that brought them back memories of the violent confrontations of the 1960s.

Symbols have consequences – some of which are not positive.  Her sexual orientation was irrelevant to the goal that she was aiming to accomplish.  It would have been better for Emma to have worn clothes with the American flag on them.

Do I think Emma is a communist?  No.  But I do think she is greatly inexperienced – at least with the decision-makers she was trying to influence.

After all, Emma was directing her lobbying efforts to the congressmen in Washington, D.C. – not those in La Habana.

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