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Super Bowl underscores cultural divide

For many immigrants, thrill is not there

LAWRENCE -- Eliezer Ortega will be wearing his Patriots jersey this weekend, and with his three brothers and an estimated 140 million other Americans, celebrating with rapt attention what has become a de facto national holiday: Super Bowl Sunday.

But in the Ortega home, along with thousands of immigrant households across the country, two people will be conspicuously absent from the couch in front of the television, Ortega's parents.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Lourdes and Obipio Ortega don't follow American football, track the Patriots, or even understand the rules. To them, Super Bowl Sunday is the pinnacle not of an athletic endeavor, but of a slice of American culture they view with a mix of confusion and subtle anxiety. While 5 million New Englanders are drawn together for one breath-holding afternoon, thousands of first-generation immigrants from Lawrence to Lynn will, paradoxically, endure a day steeped in alienation.

"I don't really even understand the rules," Obipio Ortega said last week. "Especially, I don't understand downs."

For immigrants raised on soccer and baseball, American football is a strange hybrid of hype and violence played by native-born Americans, and sometimes disconcertingly, their own children. Super Bowl Sunday, with its oversized expectations and multimillion-dollar commercials, has become a symbol of the chest-thumping culture of excess that many immigrants feel is the price they are forced to pay to live in a country with such tremendous opportunities.

Indeed, in some households Super Bowl Sunday has come to symbolize the cultural divide that separates one generation from the next .

"It's just another one of those American things I don't understand but my kids seem to enjoy," said Luisa Santiago, who immigrated to the United States in 1998 and now teaches English to new immigrants in Lawrence. "I tried to watch a game, but most of it doesn't make sense. What was the point of jumping on the piles of people all the time?"

For immigrants struggling to teach their children to value their native culture, the saturation marketing of the Super Bowl, especially when the hometown team is playing, highlights a tension that simmers year round. Madonna's kiss with Britney Spears, the latest rap lyrics of Ludacris, the got-to-have-it-now need for the latest Playstation game, are all American values that are sometimes hard to accept, said Jackelin Bautista, who is from the Dominican Republic and is raising two teenagers in Methuen.

To her, the flash, sizzle, and over-the-top consumerism the Super Bowl deifies is the hardest thing about raising children in the United States.

"My cousin's kids, they have to have the latest fashions," Bautista said. "It doesn't matter how much it costs. They demand it from their mother. Back home, no means no. The children respect their parents more."

The National Football League is by no means blind to the symbolic weight of the game or its cultural implications. Positioned as the premier event in the sports entertainment business, the Super Bowl will be broadcast to a billion people worldwide, says Gordon Smeaton, vice president of NFL International.

"We're trying to get as many people as we can started off on the right foot," Smeaton said.

But the marketing strategy intentionally ignores adult immigrants to this country with no previous exposure to the game.

"We want the kids. They're a lot more accessible," Smeaton said. "But let's face it, if you grow up playing soccer or rugby, you're probably not going to switch."

Smeaton is half right. The effects of the game, which virtually blares Americana, cuts both ways for recent arrivals to this country. For those anxious to preserve their culture, it can present a threat. But for those invested in fully embracing everything American, the game -- and all its trappings -- is magnetic.

Take the case of Rattanak Ung, a 54-year-old laborer from Cambodia who said he barely survived his stint in the Cambodian military between 1971 and 1974. For him, America "is the most special place on earth," he said one day last week after finishing his GED class in Lowell.

And football? "I don't understand it that much but it's very, very exciting," he said, smiling. Ung watches as many games as he can with his 10-year-old son, an avid fan, and professes amazement at the size of the players, how hard they hit each other, and especially, that they can get right back up and continue to play.

After he returned home from a 12-hour overnight shift packing boxes last week, he found a newspaper clipping his son had carefully placed on his pillow to inform him that the Patriots would play the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

That night he asked his son what a panther is. "He said 'A black tiger,' " Ung said. "I will watch on Sunday to see if the Patriots beat the black tigers."

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