- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

EL PASO, Texas - It’s usually a reliable rule of thumb that everything is bigger in Texas, and in the U.S. in general - everything, that is, except for flags.

Dominating the southern horizon at Chamizal National Memorial Park, the site on the U.S.-Mexico border where President Obama delivered his major immigration speech Tuesday, was a giant Mexican flag, dedicated by that country’s president in 1997 with the express purpose of reminding Americans that they must pay attention to their neighbors to the south.

The flag literally hung over Mr. Obama’s visit to this border city: It was in the background as he toured a cargo-inspection facility, and could be seen poking out over the top of the backdrop as he spoke to hundreds of supporters, urging them to pressure Congress to legalize illegal immigrants.

Locals said it can be seen throughout much of the rest of town, and is a stark reminder of the city’s location on the border.

“It hits you from every angle,” Rick Melendrez, an El Paso resident who years ago led a campaign to erect an American flag to compete with the Mexican banner, told The Washington Times in a telephone interview.

Mr. Melendrez, a Democratic activist here, said he thought a competing American flag would be a source of pride for El Paso residents. But enthusiasm for his project petered out years ago in the face of the $300,000 price tag.

Still, he said he wishes he could get the campaign going again, and even has a location in mind: one of the Franklin Mountain peaks that jut up north of the city.

One American park ranger said the Mexican flag appears during holidays and major events. Soon after Mr. Obama departed El Paso, the flag came down — suggesting Mexican officials had raised it just to provide a backdrop for the president’s visit.

The Mexican flag, one of a number of “banderas monumentales,” or big flags, that Mexican officials have erected in cities along the border, sits in a park in Juarez, the Mexican city mirroring El Paso.

“This flag will remind everyone across the border that we are a sovereign nation,” then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo said in 1997 at a ceremony dedicating the flag. “It is also a reminder that we are an independent nation ready to defend its people wherever they may be.”

The Dallas Morning News said the flag is 164-by-94 feet, or about half the size of a football field. Locals in El Paso said it takes a platoon of dozens of Mexican soldiers to take the flag down and the flag fills an entire pickup truck bed when packed away. Its flagpole rises over 300 feet.

The border itself is a dominant factor for El Paso, and Chamizal Park, where Mr. Obama spoke, exists because of that border. It was established to commemorate a peaceful settlement to a 100-year-long border dispute, born out of the changing path of the Rio Grande, the river which separates the two countries. An 1864 flood changed the river’s course, moving it further south and giving the U.S. extra territory, which was disputed until the 1960s.

Mr. Obama didn’t mention the Mexican flag in his speech, but he did touch on flag imagery, recounting a recent graduation address he delivered at Miami Dade College, which claims students whose families hail from some 181 countries.

“At the ceremony, 181 flags - one for every nation that was represented - was marched across the stage, and each one was applauded by the graduates and the relatives with ties to those countries,” Mr, Obama said. “But then the last flag, the American flag, came into view, and everyone in the room erupted in applause. Everybody cheered.”

He added, “So, yes, their parents or grandparents, some of the graduates themselves, had come from every corner of the globe. But it was here that they had found opportunity. It was here that they had a chance to contribute to the nation that is their home.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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