What I Learned From an 11-Year-Old Boy Who Sang the National Anthem (Twice)

Who knew? Who knew that a Public Shaming Tumblr post published late Tuesday night (June 11, 2013) would turn an 11-year-old boy from San Antonio into a national hero in less than 48 hours? Yet that is exactly what happened to Sebastien de la Cruz, whose story went from one of ignorance to one of pure joy and love. Like the Buzzfeed headline from a story written by Adrian Carasquillo (full disclosure: my brother from another mother), de la Cruz’s moment showed “a nation how to love again.”

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Less then 48 hours. That is all that it took.

Tuesday afternoon, Sebastien de la Cruz was just one of millions of talented kids out there. He had gotten national attention last year on “America’s Got Talent,” but outside of San Antonio, not many people knew about him. By Thursday night, the Twitter profile of President Obama gave him a shout out. San Antonio mayor Julián Castro was reintroducing him to the world. He was trending on Twitter. National media had descended to scoop up the interviews. He had gone global.

Welcome to the new media.

As expected, I thought a lot about the story late last night. Why this one? Why did the story of a little boy in a charro outfit become the viral story of the week? Here are my random thoughts:

  • The story had honesty and authenticity. It came from “the ground up.” Late Tuesday night, while I was monitoring the Latino Rebels Facebook site, we received three messages from fans and a post linking to the Public Shaming post. Within minutes of reading the Tumblr post, I instantly knew that this story would resonate with our incredible social media community, which is the most connected and most engaged group in the Latino media space today. This story evolved from the real feelings of people. That was it. This story spoke to relevant issues of identity and culture. It was an easy decision from our end to amplify the story, and the results proved it. In the past 48 hours, LatinoRebels.com amassed its highest level of web traffic ever. The response was so overwhelming that it crashed our web server three times. When we posted our first story early Wednesday morning, the story took off. Soon, the story was being linked by Colorlines, Reddit, Jezebel, HuffPost, Latina, Buzzfeed, CNN, Puerto Rico’s Vocero, and countless other links and online forums. LR takes pride in amplifying stories that originate from our community. Mission accomplished.
  • San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used the story to tell the truth about this country. Even though I am a huge Knicks fan and I still can’t get over what the Spurs did to my team in the 1999 NBA Finals, my respect for Popovich reached a new level when he said the following at a press conference yesterday before Game 4: “I would like to say that I would be shocked or surprised by the comments. But given the fact that there’s still a significant element of bigotry and racism in our nation, I’m not surprised. It still plagues us, obviously. And what I was surprised by was how proud these idiots are of their ignorance, by printing their names next to their comments. [Sebastien’s] a class act. Way more mature than most his age. And as much as those comments by the idiots sadden you about your country, he makes you feel that the future could be very bright.” In a world where anti-Latino racism is raw, Popovich’s words had to be said.
  • Will we as a community continue to amplify other stories that matter? I can only hope that the reaction people generated online to support Sebastian can now turn to other stories that merit even more attention, like the case of boricua David Sal Silva (yes, Silva is half Puerto Rican), whose death at the hands of Kern County officers continues to go under the radar. If we as a community of engaged online Latinos can rally around the talent of an amazing boy, can we also do the same to share our outrage towards a death that was clearly condoned by law enforcement? Changing the paradigm about what it is to be Latino in this country right now must go beyond the feel-good celebration of a boy’s singing talents. We must approach stories like Silva’s with the same vigor and commitment as we did with Sebastian’s story.
  • The real (and sometimes uncomfortable) dialogue surrounding identity cannot stop here. Let’s face it: Sebastian’s social media story speaks to us all. It raises issues that must continue to be explored by the mainstream media, and not just be limited to the social one. de la Cruz proved that the United States is a better place when we celebrate our differences and find the commonalities within those difference. Being Latino in the U.S. doesn’t mean that you love this country any less, quite the contrary. Yet it also doesn’t mean that this country is perfect. It is not. Far from it. We are at a crossroads once again in determining what we want this nation to become. Do we want to be a country that understands that being proud of one’s roots (and for all those suggesting that Sebastien was overlooking his Mexican heritage when he said that he was American, cut the kid some slack—he’s only 11 and I seriously doubt that as he grows up to become a young man, he will shy away from his heritage) does not mean that you are “less American,” or do we want to be a country where an actual congressman freaks out about his office being “invaded” by “illegal aliens?” Sebastien’s story confirms to me that the days of Rep. Steve King (along with the Coulters and Malkins) are extremely limited, and like Popovich said, “the future could be very bright.” Yet that will take even more commitment. Are we ready as a community to continue where Sebastien de la Cruz left off? I think so, because social media has given millions of people the chance to share issues and stories that can literally move up the media landscape and become national issues that form part of our consciousness. That is where the real power lies, and to paraphrase a high-stakes poker player, “Latino Rebels is all in.”

The future is indeed ours. Now let’s keep posting, tweeting, sharing, and commenting on it.

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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. In the last 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  UnivisionForbesand The New York Times.

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