Today in San Francisco, Sergio Romo gave the world a big FU.
As the Giants celebrated their World Series victory, Romo—the 29-year-old Chicano closer who dominated the postseason to become the country's newest social media cult hero—did what few professional athletes would do in this day and age. He got political.
Donning a "I JUST LOOK ILLEGAL" t-shirt in front of the world, Romo made sure his point was made. Born to Mexican parents in Brawley, California, the flashy reliever took advantage of the moment. Here was the kid who used to play baseball in Mexicali letting the world know that no one will define him. You think I don't belong here? You think I don't hear the hate when people think that all Latinos in this country are seen as "illegal?" Oh, yeah? Well, FU. This is who I am, and I am going to let you know, whether it makes you uncomfortable or not.
Romo's statement achieved its goal: people noticed quickly. Major outlets were talking about what he did. One page called it a "showstopper." The LA Times wrote that it was what everyone was talking about. The response online has been virally positive, with many people shouting out YES to what Romo did, even the great Rudy Acuña.
Here was a professional athlete who was finally speaking out, letting everyone know that when it comes to being a U.S. Latino in the 21st century, we need to get beyond the labels that only lead to more racism and ignorance. Romo had the stage, and I could only guess that he was giving a middle finger to all the times when he felt that racism be a part of his life. Nothing will hold me back. You can no longer belittle me or insult me or try to knock me down because I am brown. I am the future of this country, just like so many others. Get used to it, and enjoy the ride.
That is why I was perplexed (and many others as well) when I saw the following tweet from Jose Antonio Vargas, one of the world's most public and visible voices in educating people about the new faces of the undocumented:
I get what Vargas is trying to say, and I commend him for staying consistent in his messaging. (FYI: Since I wrote this post originally, Vargas has reached out to me and told me that his tweet was congratulatory towards Romo.) However, based on the initial interpretation of the original tweet, I read that he still missed the point entirely about why I think Romo did what he did. Vargas can do all the talk shows he wants, be mentioned in as many global news outlets that want to cover him, tweet about his thoughts, and remind people every day that we are moving into a new world where the undocumented individual has come out of the shadows. That is all fine and well in those circles. Nevertheless, his message only goes so far, and its power, quite frankly, has leveled off. He needs a new energy boost. He needs Sergio Romo.
What Romo brings are the masses—the people who don't read TIME or The Washington Post or Newsweek or The New York Times.
Romo is the new "it" guy of the moment, the one who has resonated with so many people, from fellow Chicanos who see his accomplishments and his attitude as a symbol of pride to those who root for him when he pitches for the Giants. This was Romo's one golden moment to stand for what is right and be public about it. Mission accomplished.
When Vargas speaks, people listen and agree. When Romo wears a t-shirt, which anyone can buy online right now, people get excited, passionate and instantly connect. The cynics can lament the fact that Romo is just an athlete and that this society is not defined by sports. I say, whether you want to admit it or not, when a popular pro athlete gets political, people listen almost immediately.
So my advice to Vargas is simple: celebrate what Sergio Romo did today in San Francisco and send as many joyful tweets about it as you can. Tell everyone to go and get a "I Just Look Illegal" shirt and wear it. Change people's perceptions. Own the "i" word and transform it into empowerment. Make a real movement out of it. Stop the talking and just BE. Follow Romo's lead and take it to the world. That is how real change happens, and that is why Sergio Romo matters today.
Romo put his principles in front of the easy fame and recognition. If Vargas could just stop for a second and realize that he just received one huge golden gift to elevate his message, maybe just maybe, things will truly change.
As for Romo? To see a pro athlete act beyond the typical selfishness that has become the standard for that world is uplifting, a game-changer. Will we as a society respond to what Romo has put on the table? Or will we ignore it? That is the question we should be answering, and Vargas missed his first chance to capitalize on it. I would think Vargas is smart enough to not make the same mistake twice. Apparently, after he read this piece, he hasn't. And that is a good thing.
UPDATE 11:50 EST: Vargas read this post and made a point to let me know that I misread his tweet. I did let him know that many read the tweet as if he were letting Romo know that he was miscommunicating the message and that the original tweet wasn't clear. When we posted his tweet to our community, many of our readers thought Vargas was criticizing Romo. This is what Vargas tweeted to me right now:
— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) November 1, 2012
Vargas also shared his Facebook post about how he thanked Romo for what he did. He also let me know that he has reached out to Romo and the Giants. That is great to hear. Maybe this IS moving in the right direction.
In addition, Vargas posted the following on the thread on the Rebeldes FB page that had lead to a discussion about what he had tweeted: "Hi, I'm just reading this thread now and chiming in. First things first: if you read the tweet I sent above, I clearly said, "THANK U" to Sergio, because what he's done is take this issue to the mainstream. I thanked him and thank him for taking a very public stance–and in his own fun-loving way. This is a brilliant, brilliant move. On another note: I read Julio Ricardo Varela's post on Latino Rebels, which assumes that I was criticizing Romo when the truth is, in fact, the exact opposite. What Romo did is bad-ass. Bad-ass. He raised the stakes higher, and I hope other athletes and celebrities of all racial and ethnic backgrounds takes this on. Solidarity!"
Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. This year, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS' Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.