With one tricolored mouthpiece, USC’s Mark Sanchez has done more to advance the image of Mexicans in Southern California than a thousand marches could ever hope to achieve.
Last Saturday, the sophomore backup quarterback led the Trojans to a 38-0 mauling of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. Reporters asked Sanchez afterward why he protected his teeth with a plastic mold decorated like the Mexican flag—green, white and red, with a miniature eagle clutching a snake while perching on a cactus—right in front of his incisors. The 22-year-old didn’t flinch. “It’s my heritage,” he stated.
Describing the mouth guard as “sweet” and “cool,” Sanchez went on to explain that using it was a “a portrayal of my love for my race” and hoped that his fashion flair “inspires” young Latinos who follow USC to do what he does: quarterback while Mexican. When a reporter told him some Trojans fans already were race-baiting his dental decision on radio and on Internet chat boards, Sanchez remained unfazed. “I didn’t know it was that big of a deal,” he told a reporter. “Was it bad?”
The mouthpiece and subsequent interview might not be as iconic a civil rights moment in sports as the raised fists of Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, or Jackie Robinson’s first Major League swing, but Sanchez’s actions are nevertheless profound. In this era when many Americans fret that Mexican immigrants and their children are destroying this nation, it’s stunning that a prominent athlete such as Sanchez professes pride in his spicy roots—and also does it so nonchalantly.
Sanchez—who is technically a third-generation Mexican American from ritzy Mission Viejo in Orange County—notably didn’t identify himself as a Mexican American, Chicano or even American. Nope, just as Mexican. The first two qualify his identity, while Sanchez (like so many of his peers, myself included) doesn’t feel it necessary to proclaim he’s an American. That’s kind of a given when you speak fluent English and were born and raised in this country. Giving such a shout-out to your pedigree is akin to Boston Red Sox fans donning Irish green ball caps, or New Jersey wiseguys crooning “Volare” along with Dino—an expression of ethnic solidarity, not sedition.