Warm yourself by the fire, son
And the morning will come soon
I'll tell you stories of a better time
In a place that we once knew
Before we packed our bags
And left all this behind us in the dust
We had a place that we could call home
And a life no one could touch
- Prayer of the Refugee. Rise Against.
A few nights ago I attended the World Refugee Day Vigil, put together by RAICES Texas at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. Like I've been known to do, I just showed up not knowing anything or anybody, so I'll just show you what I saw and heard.
When I got to the church more than 40 people were already there. There were people with cameras and clipboards, and balloons on the ceiling.
This has nothing to do with anything, but 6 weeks ago I started taking French classes, and last week, thanks to a friend, I learned the phrase "Je suis né sous une bonne etoile", which means "I was born under a good star". I liked the sound of it, so I've been repeating that phrase to myself the past few days, trying to get the pronunciation right... Je suis né sous une bonne etoile... and what do I see when I look up?
Anyway, as I mentioned at the beginning, tonight's event was put together by RAICES Texas, so what exactly is RAICES?
From their website: "RAICES is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency that promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees in Texas." With offices in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston and San Antonio they are the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas.
Raices is also the Spanish word for roots.
Today is June 20th and June 20th is World Refugee Day.
Did I know that before this week? No. But there are times when you hear that something terribly wrong is happening in your community, and it is your duty to pay attention, and inform yourself, and if it gets to that point, to do something about it. As of last night I was in the pay attention part. Writing this today is my attempt to do something about it.
By today you have probably heard about the migrant crisis going on. You have seen the photos and the videos on TV and online: the chain link fences, the children crying, the aluminum foil as blankets, the children crying, the adults stacked on top of each other, the children crying... and the videos of high ranking officials in government saying that it's acceptable to do this, that "it's the law". "Zero tolerance", and cries for immediate detention of "these people".
Some of the parents are put in jail, some are sent back to their country of origin without their kids. Kids are left alone for months.
You can try to justify it or word it however you want, but the current law is "we are going to take your kids, and we are not going to tell you when you can have them back."
The President said it was necessary. The Bible was quoted by the Attorney General to justify it.
Putting humans you don't want to see in a cage, IS AND HAS BEEN THE AMERICAN WAY, and now it also includes children.
I'll say this: If America was paying attention to what America is doing, America would invade America. It would be called "Operation Freedom," or some shit like that.
World Refugee Day was a good day to have a discussion about these things.
This was to the front of the room when I got there. I want to end the border patrol brutality. I wonder about the fate of these kids, and I think everybody's rights should be protected. But I didn't know about Claudia, so I asked.
Claudia Gómez González was a 20 year old Guatemalan woman, who on May, was shot to death by a Border Patrol Agent while crossing the border. The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that a "group of illegal aliens" involved in "illegal activity", attacked them "using blunt objects" as a weapons. Two days later, a Facebook Live video by an eyewitness was released, and you realize that the incident was in the middle of the day in a neighborhood, the "illegal aliens" were kids with no weapons, and that this is a RECENT photo of Claudia:
After the video was released, the agency changed the statement, making no mention of weapons, saying instead that she "rushed the agent". I don't need to tell you the agent wasn't charged, right? He wasn't even fired.
Saying "illegal aliens involved in illegal activity" leaves a lot of room for imagination and misunderstanding. It's purposefully vague and threatening. It lets you get away with things.
Let me describe to you the "illegal activity" she was involved in:
Claudia, 20, lived in Guatemala. Two years ago, she earned a degree in accounting, but she was unable to find a job. Last year, her boyfriend, desperate for the lack of opportunities himself, moved to the United States. One day, Claudia made up her mind, said good bye to her family and friends, and traveled 1500 miles in 3 weeks, with the intention of reuniting with her boyfriend, and possibly getting a job in a new city. She wanted a better life.
Here comes the "illegal activity": somewhere along that story arc she crossed an imaginary line. Go back and read that paragraph again but change the words "Guatemala" for Texas, and "United States" for Los Angeles, and it's a love story. You would be rooting for them.
I get that borders exist for a reason, but that's not an offense worthy of being shot in the head. No fucking way.
Back in the room the crowd was getting bigger. Soon camera crews from Telemundo, NBC, Univisión, and "another one" (sorry, another one, I didn't see your logo) arrived.
One one corner there was a group of kids from an organization named "Jolt" registering people to vote:
And then I saw a familiar face.
This is my friend Iris Candelaria. Iris is what in México we call "el ajonjolí de todos los moles" (the sesame of every mole), which in English doesn't make much sense because I would have to tell you what mole is, what does sesame have to do with it, and then you would ask why am I talking to you in culinary riddles. The point is that Iris is everywhere. She's an incredible artist, she owns a bakery, she is involved with organizations of all sorts, all over the city. She's an activist. Even her dog has been in the news. She's kind of a badass, and also the daughter of immigrant parents.
Iris is a woman that does a lot for this city; a warrior that shows to battle for all her friends, and since everybody is her friend, I knew she would be here.
When she saw me she said to me: "this thing is going to start late, you know how we Latinos are always late for everything." I laughed.
She was right, a few minutes late the Vigil finally started, with a demonstration by the North Texas Light Brigade.
From their Facebook page: "We fight for human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability, economic fairness and an end to war and militarism using peaceful and creative means."
I like you, North Texas Light Brigade.
After a few minutes, Nicolas Hernandez, from RAICES took the lectern, thanked us for our presence, asked us to get closer and that's when things got serious. Nicolas talked about the importance of resisting injustice, of helping the ones in need, and standing up against the atrocity of holding kids in cages FOR ANY REASON.
He talked about the inhumane idea of separating a family that just wants to get to a safe zone, criminalizing them for wanting prosperity.
"How come if I lock my dog in a cage I get a ticket, but it is somehow OK to do that to kids, if it's your government doing it and the kids are from a different country?"
Nicolas also talked about a fundraiser on Facebook that a couple in California created in behalf of RAICES with the idea to raise $1500 to post bond for ONE parent, and reunite her with her son. To this day, the raised amount is more than 20 million dollars, thanks to donations from all over the country.
20 million dollars. There is light out there.
Nicolas then introduced several speakers, and I apologize if I get some of the names wrong or details from their stories are not 100% correct. I tried my best taking notes and trying to remember.
First speaker, I don't have her photo or name, but she was a woman sharing her poetry with us. She was born to a Mexican dad and an American mom, and talked about the difficulty of explaining to her own son that he might have a rough life just because "this country couldn't handle his melanin".
You might be an American, but being the wrong color still makes you an outsider. I'm sure you have heard that before.
The next person to speak was "La Flaka", ("flaca with a K!" she said). Flaca is the Spanish word for "skinny".
Flaka grew in Mexico and she was brought here as a kid by her parents. Her parents knew she was a smart kid, and they kept her in good schools while they could afford it, but they also knew that in the place they were, there was a ceiling for her potential-- and a very low ceiling at that.
That's one thing many people don't think about. You don't have to be escaping a war to be a refugee, there are places out there that are built with a low ceiling, and you can't do much about it. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and for your kids is to move somewhere else, a place with a higher ceiling, even if it means risking your life to get there.
You might not know her personally, but you have heard the story, as there are plenty of Flakas out there.
La Flaka went to the lectern holding a stuffed toy, a Dumbo. That toy was the only thing Flaka had with herself when they crossed the border. Dumbo was the only companion she had when they had to hide in a hotel waiting for "the coyote" to cross them. Dumbo was the only thing she owned and the only thing that would take her mind away from the bizarre adventure of coming to America. But her parents didn't have a Dumbo to take their mind away from it all, she said. She asked us to imagine the terror you would experience as a parent during those moments, knowing that at any second you can get caught, detained, and you might not see your kid again for days, weeks, years.
And still, sometimes that's your best option.
"No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."
- Warsan Shire.
(Somebody in the crowd was holding a sign with that phrase. Read the whole poem here, it's powerful.)
And the next one:
He asked us to join him in singing a song that as far as I could find out, was written by June Jordan and it went:
We have come too far
We can't turn around
We'll flood the streets with justice
We are freedom bound.
The next speaker was this woman and I wish I had her name, because she is a powerful woman. She is a community organizer helping Muslim families, all families, and she urged us to not let this be the end of our effort, to take the energy from this room and spread it all over the city. Making change "takes more than a candlelight vigil in the basement of a church!" she said.
And she is right. It takes actions, many of them, for as long as they are needed, because if there is no justice for some, there is no justice, period. It takes speaking up about it.
"We cannot allow the government to hold babies hostages for a wall," she said, "and a wall for what? We already saw that Flaka and Dumbo just flew over it. We are here to stay!"
She was energizing.
Next was Susana. She grew up in Michoacán, México, and she was holding a poster that said "Chinga la Migra" (Fuck the Migra). Those kind of statements could sound harsh, but you'll see, for you "La Migra" might be an abstract concept, but not for her, and not for a lot of people. One of her cousins was detained today, in Dallas. They don't know what his future will be.
Susana said that when she was a kid her mom told her the story of La Llorona, the mexican folk story about the ghost of a woman that lost her kids and now cries while looking for them. She said that's not that different from what La Migra is doing to mothers these days.
Next speaker was Marleny. Marleny is Nicolas' older sister and she was 9 years old when her mother left her in Mexico and emigrated to the US to get a job. Once her mom got a little established in the US she went back to México to get Marlene. And think about this, when her mom went back to get her, she now had to leave one year old Nicolas, in the US, with somebody else, not knowing if she was going to be able to come back. They did, but it was a dangerous adventure.
"Still to this day I remember crossing that black river in the middle of the night with my mom."
Marleny and Nicolas' mom finally got her American Citizenship recently, 30 years later. Thirty fucking years. For everybody that says "why don't they do it the legal way?" picture that number and think if you could wait 30 years to provide for your children.
Is it normally that long of a process? I don't know, I don't think so. It all depends on the situation, where you come from, and how much money you have. I've heard of 2 years, 5 years, 17 or 20 to "become legal". I know that 30 years is not an anomaly. People that have been living here for many years, who have raised American kids, worked and paid taxes here, spend years not existing. Hiding. Knowing that La Migra can catch them at any moment. There is somebody going through this right now, within a mile of you. Guaranteed.
And then we got to Margarita Álvarez, the last speaker of the night. Margarita is from Guatemala, as well, and she did not pull any punches. "Dios me dio hijos, pero no me dejó criarlos," she said. "God gave me kids, but He didn't let me raise them". Margarita has been in the US for 28 years, and that's the same number of years she has been away from her kids. She knew she would not be able to afford providing for them, the money was just not there in Guatemala, so she came to the US "illegally", got a job--many jobs-- and started sending money back home to provide for her kids. She has been doing that ever since.
Her kids survived because of her, but it cost them their mother.
Twenty eight years ago, she recalls, she was getting ready to leave the house when one of her kids saw her, and asked where she was going. She froze. "I'm going to get something," she said, "I'll come back for you later." But she knew she was not going to come back, for years, if ever. Twenty eight years ago she learned the very real consequences of having a Wall between you and your kids, and she hasn't been back since.
"Look at the shirt I'm wearing, it represents my roots, where I come from."
She said that she would love to walk on the street and say ¡Hola, buenos días!, with her natural energy, to everybody. Instead she's forced to say a fake "good morning, how are you?," one of the few English phrases she has memorized. "I lost not only my family, I lost my identity."
"I am just a human being whose only hope is to ever see my kids again. But I know the wall is already there, you don't have to build it. The wall separates families, and I know that the only way me and my kids are going to ever reunite is when I get sent back to Guatemala, dead and inside a box."
I lost it.
A few minutes later they turned the lights on.
I tried to compose myself, walked to Margarita, thanked her for sharing her story, and asked her to let me take a photo.
This is Margarita. A hero if you ask me, a criminal if you ask the President.
You probably know a Margarita yourself. Or a Flaka, a Susana or a Nicolas.
Or a David.
If you know me, you know an immigrant. I'm not a refugee, I didn't cross the river, and I have not experienced a hundredth of the hardships people like Margarita or La Flaka have, but I am an immigrant nonetheless. How am I different to them? Just a little bit of luck.
I wasn't born here, I was born in Mexico City. I was lucky to be born in a good part of town, to a good family. I went to good schools and learned English from a young age by going to bilingual schools. I had more opportunities than most kids around me, by pure dumb luck.
Do you want to know how dumb IS luck? I am the oldest of 3 brothers, and I (emphasis on I) went to good schools, but by the time my first and second brother were starting their school life, my family's situation was very different. You might have never heard of it, but Mexico had a huge economic crisis in 1994, and I don't know the details or the numbers (I was a kid), but I remember that we lost the house, our business, and we moved in with my grandma. The next year we moved to to a significantly smaller, poorer town, and there were no more good schools for anybody. Not that my parents didn't try to get us the best, but the ceiling was definitely lower in that town.
I had a head start on my own brothers that, I hate to admit, still bothers me. They didn't get to learn English until later in life, for example, and that's how dumb luck can be.
But back to the immigrant thing... How did I end up here in Dallas?
Very few people have asked me directly, but in some way I ended up in the United States because of my speech. I was about to finish college in Mexico, and I was doing "OK" in classes, but I wasn't doing totally well in some other aspects of my life. My stuttering was BAD back then, and I was increasingly worried about what I would do once I got out of college.
I knew interviews would be a nightmare. Nobody had to tell me, I had a first glimpse of my future when I tried getting my first driver's license.
One morning, I got to the Mexican equivalent of the DMV, (lets call it "El Infierno"), and I got in line. They called my number and asked for my paperwork. I stuttered some information away. The woman in charge asked me to follow her to take my eye exam, I did. She asks me to stand in place, look at the chart and tell her what letters I see.
"Can you not read the next letter?"
Meanwhile, my head is jerking, I repeatedly close my eyes involuntarily, and I am getting sweaty trying to say the next letter. Or make any sound, at this point. This is making me angry.
I try again. Nothing. The woman has a confused look in her face, asks me if I'm OK. I don't know what I answered, or tried to answer, and she tells me that she is not sure what's happening to me, but she can't give me a passing grade if I keep doing that. "What would happen if you start convulsing in the middle of driving?" she asks. She lost her patience, denied my license, and I couldn't even argue with her.
That happened 3 more times at different locations of the DMV. In order for me to finally get my drivers license I had to go to a different state, and talk to a friend of one of my relatives, who got that my stuttering was just a speech thing, it didn't affect my mental capacity or made me a road hazard.
But isn't that discrimination, you ask? Damn right it is, but in Mexico there is even less knowledge about stuttering than in the US (to this day there is barely any stuttering therapy for children or adults, for example). Also civil protections are not as advanced as they are here, which means the mockery is more frequent and the discrimination higher. My stuttering is a way bigger thing in Mexico than it is here in America. It lowered my ceiling.
The driver's license thing was talked about within my family, and my uncle Hector said that he was going to look into what could be done to help me. And he did. My uncle was an out of the box thinker, and he said he looked in the Internet and couldn't really find anything about stuttering therapy in Mexico, but he found a couple names in the United States. He had a job that required a lot of travel, and his next travel would be to Dallas, where we also happen to have some relatives. He would see what he could find there.
... And in a nutshell, that's how I ended up here. Dumb luck, once again.
The short story is that the following December I came to Dallas with my uncle, we visited a speech therapist, and she said that she could definitely help me, but it was not going to be fast--- It was going to require months, perhaps years, because treating stuttering is harder the older you are. But I didn't have months, my uncle's business trip was for just 2 weeks, and we had to go back. In those two weeks I took speech therapy a handful of days, in a language I hadn't really spoken in years-- It was hard, but I saw a difference. I was already an adult, but I was finally learning to talk.
Two weeks later I was back in Mexico, but I already knew I had to come back. This is the place where I could find my voice.
I carried on with my life, went back to college for the semester, saving money the whole time, and I came back in my summer break, this time by myself. I stayed for 2 months doing therapy as much as I could, and I went back to Mexico again. And I did it again the following December, for another couple weeks.
The problem was that this saving money and flying to another country to get speech therapy wasn't sustainable, and it didn't take that long for me to know, without a reasonable doubt, that my life would be easier and better here. Not just because of my stuttering, but because of who I am, because of my talents are more valuable in this country, and because the ceiling is higher here. It just is, it's undeniable.
One day, while sitting at the kitchen table with my family in Mexico, I told them that I was going to try to stay in Dallas the next time I was here. I was going to get informed, get a lawyer, the whole thing. I was going to find a way. I remember my mom looked at me surprised, but not too much... how could she? She knew I had good reasons, that my life would be better in the US. They supported my decision, they understood.
And I left my country in search of a better life.
Keep quiet no longer
We'll sing through the day
Of the lives that we've lost
And the lives we've reclaimed
- Prayer of the Refugee. Rise Against.
How am I different from any of them? It's no exaggeration to say that in a slightly different scenario I could've been one of those kids locked in a cage, captured while trying to get a better life. With a little less luck It could've been you, as well.
I came to find my voice, and now I believe it's my duty to use it as much as I can, for the ones that still don't have one.
What are WE going to do for them?