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Today is Flag Day. It commemorates the 220th anniversary of the official adoption of the Stars and Stripes by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777. It was officially observed for the first time in 1877 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its adoption. Although June 14 is not an official holiday, except in Pennsylvania, the President of the United States has usually proclaimed a public Flag Day observance every year on June 14. Our fellow U.S. citizens on the mainland (and to some extent in Puerto Rico) celebrate Flag Day by displaying the flag at their homes, businesses and buildings and with school programs, parades and meetings of patriotic organizations.

The Stars and Stripes has been the popular name of the flag of the nation of which most Puerto Ricans are proud citizens, without turning our back on our Hispanic heritage, personality and high sense of Puerto Ricanism.

According to historians, it is unknown where the name Stars and Stripes came from. They have, however, pointed out that other names have been given to the flag. In 1814, poet Francis Scott Key first called it the "Star-Spangled Banner" when he wrote the poem that became the national anthem of the United States. In 1824, a sea captain from Salem, Massachusetts, called the flag "Old Glory." It is interesting to note that no one knows who designed the flag or who made it the first time.

Historians say, however, that shortly after the flag was officially adopted in 1777, Francis Hopkins, a New Jersey signer of the Declaration of Independence, lawyer, writer, artist and musician, claimed credit for designing the flag; but there was never clear evidence of this claim. It has been claimed that Betsy Ross, a seamstress, who made flags in Philadelphia at the time of the American Revolution, made the flag that had the stars and stripes. Most historians do not support this claim.

With respect to the red, white and blue of the flag, it has been said that the Continental Congress left no record as to why there were selected. In 1782, however, the Congress of the Confederation selected these colors for the design of the Great Seal of the United States and a resolution described the colors as follows: red for hardiness and courage, white for purity, and blue for vigilance, perseverance and justice.

For those who have fallen serving the nation in war, including some 1,300 Puerto Ricans who also made the supreme sacrifice, "Old Glory" has covered their caskets, constituting the highest moral reward for having sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve our democratic system of government.

It is, therefore, with profound sadness that we read of fanatics on the mainland, and most recently in Puerto Rico during congressional status hearings, burning and desecrating this glorious banner.

It was equally sad when in 1989 and 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a close decision, ruled that burning the U.S. flag is not a crime, but a political expression, and that any law making it a crime would violate the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Surprisingly, the court failed to take into consideration its own decision several years ago in ruling that freedom of speech could not be invoked to protect a person who in a theater yelled "fire" when there was none. It is my opinion that, based on this ruling, freedom of speech should not be invoked to protect flag burners.

Fortunately, there was an important minority in the court who voted with the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens who "love and respect the U.S. flag, without ever thinking of reducing it to the idea of a rag, of a piece of cloth decorated with stars and stripes and red, white and blue colors."

On Thursday, the U.S. House approved, by 310-114, a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to outlaw flag burning. The amendment, still facing a vote in the Senate and opposed by most Democrats in Congress and the Clinton Administration, had failed in Congress in 1990 and in 1995, in spite of pressure for approval by the majority of the states, which would rapidly ratify the amendment had the proposal received the necessary two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress.

As did many U.S. citizens, I wrote to President Clinton in June 1995, exhorting him to support the amendment. In his September 13 reply, President Clinton called the flag "a shining symbol of democracy for our citizens and for people around the world" that must be protected from desecration.

He said that when he was governor of Arkansas he supported legislation that would have outlawed desecration of the flag, and also initiated a statewide "Flag Respect" program, since adopted by other states, to encourage better understanding and appreciation of the flag and pledge of allegiance.

"However," the president wrote, "I do not believe that protection of the flag should be accomplished through the extraordinary process of amending our Constitution... The best protection for the flag is the one that has worked for more than 200 years; the reverence that nearly all Americans feel for this cherished symbol of our unity and freedom."

Although President Clinton’s opinion has my highest respect, I, as well as millions of U.S. citizens, feel that a constitutional amendment making the burning and desecration of the nation’s flag a crime is far from tempering with the Constitution. As I told President Clinton in my letter, as was the case of the new counter-terrorism legislation signed by him to prevent acts of cowardice and assaults against innocent Americans, I saw no reason why a constitutional amendment should not be approved that would protect from similar attacks another innocent American victim–the U.S. flag, symbol of liberty and democracy and everything we hold dear in our great nation.

More than ever, we Puerto Ricans should honor the U.S. flag on Flag Day because it is the emblem of power, unity, thought and purpose of the nation of which we are citizens, and because the flag is the embodiment not only of sentiment, but of history and patriotism. It is under this flag that we enjoy a democratic system of government in Puerto Rico and can act and think like people who are free. This is the flag that protects our U.S. citizenship and the full political rights that we hope to attain and of which we’ve been deprived during almost 100 years of our colonial political status. It is under this flag that we can attain equality with our fellow U.S. citizens in the states.

As a loyal U.S. citizen, as a World War II veteran, and as a Puerto Rican proud of my Hispanic heritage and equally proud of Puerto Rico’s flag, which I honored in 1995 in one of my STAR columns, it is with deep patriotic fervor that I honor and respectfully salute "Old Glory" on its 220th anniversary.


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