Young Bridgeport Residents Share a Different Take on July 4 Holiday

Caelen McQuilkin
Times Contributor

Ed note: Times writer Caelen McQuilkin, a Lee Vining high graduate and a student at Amherst College, spoke to seven different racially diverse young people with significant ties to the town of Bridgeport and asked them about their thoughts on the holiday

If you’ve spent more than a year of your life in Mono County, you’ve probably heard of it: Bridgeport’s Fourth of July celebrations. Three days of the year spent on funnel cake, fireworks, picnics, grease pole climbing competitions and family fun.

Three days of the year where all are encouraged, even more than usual, to celebrate “Love for our country and appreciation for the courage of our forefathers,” as one attendee of the event put it.

The events and ideas so proudly, roaringly celebrated in Bridgeport embody some key parts of the town’s culture, many say, but not necessarily in all the ways you would expect. Not everyone believes in the “hyper-patriotism” exhibited by so many on the Fourth of July. Instead, many believe that the holiday represents much of what flaws our nation, and they say, the day should instead be a day focused on education about the violence and oppression that are also part of the history of America, as well as what a path towards a more just and equal future could look like.

Layered and complex, these reflections on the Fourth of July overlap and diverge, and present a multitude of paradoxes. In Bridgeport, capitalizing on a celebration of American pride and chosen ignorance of our nation’s oppressive history puts food on the table for many families who are, still today, marginalized and silenced by that very same ignorant pride. For the newest generation of Bridgeport locals who grew up within that paradox, radically rethinking the very purpose of that celebration, I think, provides many with something like hope.

Our conversations revealed the interviewees’ hesitation to fully embrace America without acknowledging its flaws; a hesitation shaped by the experience of holding often very different beliefs while growing up in a vocally conservative town.

“There’s some people that are like ‘Oh yeah, America is the greatest country ever,’ and then there are others that are like ‘we still have a long way to go,’” said Leilani Cornejo, a lifetime Bridgeport resident and rising junior at Coleville High School. “I feel like that difference is really showcased during the 4th of July.”

“It’s almost like Bridgeport is a place where people can come and be okay in showing this blatant display of freedom that is… not very inclusive,” said Annakate Clemons, who grew up in Bridgeport, and graduated from Lee Vining High School. “There’s nothing wrong with the people who come here to celebrate, but I also think there’s not much criticism like ‘Hey, what are we doing here, and why are we celebrating the Fourth of July?”

A few pointed out the way that hyper-patriotism at the Bridgeport Fourth of July celebrations is representative of a larger, nation-wide moral division. Many hold alternate views about how or why – or even if – it should be celebrated.

“Growing up, I started understanding all these issues in the world, and I started to think, maybe the Fourth of July isn’t something as fun as I used to think it was,” said Litzy Castaneda, a lifetime Bridgeport resident and a sophomore at Coleville High School. “Everyone is expected to celebrate this holiday. And coming from a family of immigrants, you feel like you should appreciate the country that lets you in. But what if that country kind of betrays you? It’s hard to be free in this so-called free country.”

“This would be a lot different if you asked a white person,” said one person, who preferred to remain anonymous. “It’s kind of different with us. We’ve grown up around a different kind of household than some of these white people. They’ve been brought up to think, ‘Oh, America is this great place and we’ve never done anything wrong,’ but we’ve been raised so that we don’t really celebrate this country.’”

Some interviewees had comments on the notion of freedom, a common thread that seems to run through much of the dominant rhetoric around The Fourth of July. “It’s supposed to be about freedom, but not everybody is free,” said Angeline Lent, who lived in Bridgeport and is now a rising senior at Bishop High School. “There’s so many inequalities.”

Based on this reasoning, many of the interviewees believe that the celebration of our country could be one that incorporates an acknowledgement of its flaws. “I think the Fourth of July should be the day where we actually focus on (the problems within our nation),” said Cornejo. “It’s like loving yourself. You have to acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes, and if you want to love yourself, you have to better yourself. I don’t know why that doesn’t transfer onto us as a country, where we can acknowledge that we can get better, and celebrate the fact that we are acknowledging it, rather than celebrating the fact that we don’t care.”

Similarly, said Clemons, the Fourth of July celebrations “could be turned into something where we acknowledge that this is a day of independence, but not everybody is free. We still have these problems.”

These ideas about changing our thinking behind celebrating the Fourth of July – formed within a town whose economy in large part depends upon capitalizing on outsiders’ desire to celebrate freedom and exhibit their patriotism – are tied to larger, overarching thoughts about what it means to be American, they told me.

Alondra Gutierrez, a Bridgeport resident and rising senior at Coleville High School, compared Independence Day celebrations in Mexico to those in the United States.

“In Mexico… we put up the flag everywhere, and we know what we’re celebrating,” she said. “As soon as it hits midnight, we give el grito, and we say viva Mexico, and we know why we’re celebrating that day.

“Coming here, it’s like, what are you celebrating for? Half of you aren’t even proud of what the country is about now. You’re wearing the flag, but you don’t know what it’s all about. That’s the main difference I’ve seen.”

Castaneda said there is an irony at the heart of the very origins of the holiday.

“If you really think about it, the ‘independence’ was only for the rich and white men,” she said. “Which doesn’t even make sense to me, because if you really think about it, it was the Indigenous people who were here first.”

Alongside these ideas is the stark truth that the town of Bridgeport heavily depends upon its Fourth of July festival to keep its economy running. While many complain about the numbers of tourists, noise, and trash that the holiday brings to town, the cash that it also brings in is undeniably important.

“It’s really something we lean on,” said Ruben Zamarripa, a Bridgeport resident and Coleville High School alum. This is the income for the locals to get us through the winter every year. That’s mainly what (the Fourth of July) means to me, I guess. All of us locals try to rack up as much money in the summer so that in the winter we’re still alive, you know?”

The hard work and dedication that the town puts into making the festival a success certainly cannot be ignored. Jars collecting money for the fireworks show can be found in businesses across Bridgeport pretty much year around, and the coordination it takes to bring together the number of vendors and scheduled events is monumental.

Many locals feel as though this hard work is underappreciated by those who come to enjoy it.

“We’re the ones left to clean up the trash,” said Cornejo, who grew up on a street that would become littered with so much firework debris every year that their sister would make new fireworks on July 5 using the trash from the Fourth.

There are other local impacts of the celebrations that many might not realize. Castaneda pointed out that there’s a large population of veterans in Bridgeport. “A lot of them have PTSD, and the fireworks can trigger that,” she said.

The complexity surrounding the varying meanings of the Fourth of July do, in the end, provide one clear and consistent theme: Bridgeport is not necessarily the town you likely assume it is. The voices privileged enough to be heard loudest, like those at the yearly Fourth of July celebrations, do not define all of what the place truly is.

“All it takes is to say ‘Hey, queer people do exist here, and so do people of color,’” said Clemons. “More visibility for the people who aren’t as loud and have been historically oppressed. Clemons elaborated: “That’s not all of Bridgeport… [people] see all of the Trump flags, and I hope they don’t think that’s just the town.’ But that is what people see, because it’s the louder people.”

“People think it’s a white town, but no,” said Cornejo. “We have a lot of Mexican immigrants here – the people who keep it running – which is my community. There actually is a pretty large percentage of Mexican people here, but no one ever pays attention.”

“We’re not all just conservative,” said Castaneda. “There are definitely other people here who are more liberal, who see these worldwide problems.”

Instead of allowing the loudest voices in Bridgeport to dominate our narrative about the town, perhaps we could try considering the complication of it, instead. This is a complication that interviewees have to navigate every day, after all. “It’s hard not to love a place that you’ve known your entire life,” Cornejo reflected on this notion. “But you have to acknowledge that it can (also) be wrong.”

The answer then, some think, will come with a concept that is seemingly simple but has been hard going so far.

“I just want them to sit down and listen, and at least give us a chance to open their eyes,” Castaneda explained. “I just want people to listen to us.”