EL PASO, TEXAS — El Paso may officially consider itself a binational city, gateway to trade with Mexico just a narrow river's width away, and sister to the adjacent Ciudad Juarez.
But how deep does that international spirit really go?
The city's mayor, Carlos Ramirez, and the Chamber of Commerce were left wondering recently when an uproar followed a chamber-sponsored event where Mr. Ramirez gave a state-of-the-city address carried on local cable TV. It was not what the mayor said that lit up City Hall's switchboard like a Christmas tree. It was the image viewers saw.
Because of the camera angle chosen by the cable broadcaster, Ramirez gave his entire speech with the Mexican flag - its distinctive eagle clutching a snake in its talons - behind him. On TV at least, Old Glory was nowhere in sight.
For some in this city of 600,000 that in many ways portends America's future - the population is mostly Hispanic - this was simply too much.
"I'm getting a lot of calls from people who are upset," says Stan Roberts, a veteran of the El Paso City Council. "No matter how close we are, this is still America - not Mexico."
"All this reaction? White America," retorts Rick Melendrez, El Paso County Democratic Party chairman. "It's people who can't stand the fact that El Paso is now Mexican-American."
A 'mammoth' brouhaha
The flag controversy of 1998 follows the flag controversy of 1997. Last year's brouhaha was set off by the unfurling in Ciudad Juarez of a mammoth Mexican flag visible day and night (it's illuminated) from most of El Paso. Erected on a piece of ground reclaimed from the United States in a 1963 treaty, the skyscraper-high flag, half the length of a football field, was dedicated by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. He said the red, white, and green banner would "remind everyone across the border that we are a sovereign nation ... ready to defend its people wherever they may be."
City Councilman Roberts says he still hears from El Pasoans upset over the Big Flag. "It's so big people feel it's a slap in the face, and I don't blame them," he says. "It offends me to drive down the freeway and see it, such a big expensive thing when they have so many poor and unemployed."
The fact that the two flag controversies have caused so much discussion says a lot about uneasiness on both sides of the border in an age of interdependence, says Roberto Villareal, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso. "The flag raises the whole question of immigration, and opens an area of uncertainty about ourselves."
People bothered by the Mexican flag "are not a large crowd," he says, "but see themselves as watchdogs protecting the integrity and goodness of what we are supposed to be as Americans."
Mr. Villareal does not include El Paso's business community in that group. And indeed the Chamber of Commerce, which insists it followed protocol (Roberts disagrees) in its placement of the American, Texan, and Mexican flags on the mayor's podium, says it added the Mexican flag as a sign of inclusion to its growing number of members from Mexico.
Looking for respect
Mexico's placement of a huge flag right on the border reflects its own uncertainties about growing US-Mexico interdependence and Mexico's stature in that relationship, Villareal says. "I think they're saying, 'We are co-partners now, and that partnership must include mutual respect.' "
Mexico's big flag led to a proposal from some El Pasoans for a bigger US flag, but most supporters retreated when they found out it could cost six figures. Surprisingly, Mr. Melendrez says he supports putting up a big American flag.
"I think it would be beautiful to see giant American and Mexican flags flying side by side," he says. "It would show we are the international city."