The first time a racist slur was directed at me, I was in middle school. A seventh-grade bully called me a "dirty Mexican." And despite my blind anger, I paused to marvel at his ignorance thinking, "I'm not even Mexican." I knew full well what he meant, and my response landed me in the principal's office. I'll never forget that day or the seed of fear it planted inside of me.
I lived in an affluent, predominantly white town in New Jersey from a very young age through high school graduation. It was astonishing to witness prejudices form in my peers, particularly as the largely homogeneous area absorbed a surge of Latinx immigrants in the late '90s. The newcomers arrived in search of work which they found readily in a domestic capacity, landscaping or at the local shops and restaurants. This shift in demographics established not only a cultural divide, but more importantly a socioeconomic one, and it wasn't long before the dots were connected back to me and my family.
My mother and father emigrated from Honduras and Ecuador, respectively, and made sacrifices to ensure my sisters and I received a solid education. They held the same jobs that were callously diminished by my schoolmates. As I watched patriarchal systems of oppression relegate my parents to the margins of society, both personally and professionally, I told myself it was my job to remedy this injustice.
My journey to make peace with this self-imposed responsibility has not been linear. While I hoped progress would stack over time, the current political climate has only become more triggering in recent years under the Trump administration. From the time he announced his candidacy nearly four years ago, with a pointed attack at Latin America using the same dog whistle as my childhood bullies, my deepest fears have been realized.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best [sic]. They're sending people that have lots of problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists," Trump gassed in his now-notorious speech.
That day I listened, jaw agape and offended for sure, but I tried to stay in the moment and not regress to my childhood trauma. I told myself history could not repeat in such a way, and yet, the same hometown xenophobia of my past helped Donald Trump win the American presidency months later. His rise to power uncovered a large fraction of citizenry who have felt repressed under today's social mores and the underlying state of race relations in our country.
This deeply personal issue became top news, and Trump's mortar-round attack of non-white immigrants has felt like psychological combat. With Trump's reliance on Stephen Miller, the radical advisor reportedly behind Kirstjen Nielsen's abrupt resignation, the current administration has been beholden to its base, reaffirming its commitment to a border wall, and enacting some of the harshest immigration policies to date.
The commander-in-chief makes no attempt to edit his genocidal tone or hide his prejudices. In fact, these drive headlines. From referring to African and Latin American countries as "sh*tholes" in January 2018, likening deportees to "animals," to his most recent announcement of a plan to cut aid to the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), Trump has used his office to become the arbiter of humanness and through policy install his own racial hierarchy.
"What made this moment historic, what made this moment unprecedented, was not merely the misuse of a vile word. It was the racial hierarchy Trump constructed with that language. He placed whites over Asians, and both over Latinos and blacks from 'sh*thole" countries,'" Ibram X Kandi wrote in The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis at the border has reached its boiling point. In a plight for basic human rights, migrants risk their lives attempting to cross, are detained en masse and forcibly separated from their families. It's heartbreaking to watch, and one can't help but feel powerless, riddled by survivor's guilt from the other side where our stories have been manipulated into politically divisive narratives.
Despite the echo chamber of incendiary coverage, some have reported the facts and captured the harsh reality of this epidemic issue. The 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography was awarded to the Reuters Staff for their stunning portfolio chronicling the migrant caravan, and Time named Mirian G., a refugee from Honduras spearheading a lawsuit with the ACLU to reunify families, one of its 100 Most Influential People.
It made me think of my mother. She too is from Honduras, and her story is much like Mirian G.'s. I have told her story and mine countless times. For many years I used it to win arguments, gain sympathy or earn respect. Today, I'm telling it because it's the truth, and the one I hear so often in the news is a lie. It's a manipulation, a false fear factor. And because racist rhetoric is intended to exhaust us, I will keep telling it.
What I will no longer do is use it as a justification for our right to humanity. I'm not interested in that debate. Refugees and immigrants do not need or want our sympathy, they deserve our respect. What they have risked just to get here is unfathomable to most, and it is our duty to give voice to the voiceless and shed light on the shadow of this urgent crisis.
As a first-generation American it can be difficult not to co-opt this story, claim the suffering of others and use past trauma to relegate myself to the margins of society, where I am not of service to the community I love. Instead, my riot is to live as a victor, not a victim, because the most powerful thing I can do is be. And, leverage the position my parents put me in to tell our stories in their fullness.
The tales of migration to this country are the pulse of our people. They are my inspiration, my heartbeat and my north star. I could never sever from that history. It hurts to hear it derided but in opposing that derision, I found the courage to write the following chapters and redoubled my commitment to strengthening that legacy. Never to forget but to transcend. That's what this fight is for.