Ever since April when Governor Brewer signed SB1070 into law in Arizona, I have been following developments down there with rapt attention – checking the updates of various facebook groups, scanning online news headlines, reading analyses… With each new day the news seemed to get worse and worse. First, there was the passage and signing of SB1070 itself. Before the worst parts of the legislation were suspended in July, SB1070 directed officers of the law to investigate the legal status of people “where there is reasonable suspicion” that they may be undocumented. Then came the news that the state of Arizona had also banned public schools from offering ethnic studies – classes designed to give students of color, predominantly Latin@/Hispanic and Native American students – a sense of self worth in this Euro-dominated culture. At the same time, teachers with noticeable accents were barred from teaching English. Arizona Republican Senate candidate J.D. Hayworth called for a moratorium on LEGAL immigration from Mexico. And finally, the AZ state senator behind SB1070, Russell Pearce, intends to introduce legislation that ends birthright citizenship, in clear contradiction of the 14th amendment. Taken altogether, it seems obvious that the state of Arizona has declared war on immigrants in general and Latin@/indigenous people in particular.
Luckily, it is my job to keep track of legislation and other developments around immigration or else my obsession with the issue these last few months would have severely affected my work. It was more than just passion, more than compassion, more than the fact that my parents, paternal grandparents and uncle, maternal cousin, and many of the non-biological “aunts” and “uncles” from my childhood are all immigrants. This was personal to me to the point where I felt like it was me who was being attacked. The reason why became clear one afternoon in May as I sat at home, reading developments as usual, and saw the story of Juan Varela, a third-generation Mexican-American who was shot and killed by a neighbor as he yelled “go back to Mexico!”
“Go back!” “Go back to China!” was what the kids at school used to yell at me. It did not matter how many times I tried to explain to them that since I was born here in the U.S. and had never been to China, I could not “go back.” That was my first introduction, at the age of five, to how little logic/reason plays in these “discussions.” They saw me as foreign, un-American, and no matter how hard I tried to assimilate – refusing to speak Mandarin, pleading with my mom to eat spaghetti and tacos for dinner (ironic, isn’t it?) – it made no difference. It was my skin tone – the one thing that I could not shed – that made me a target. All these years later, I still know that my standing as a U.S. citizen is considered conditional to a great many people.
Tears flowed for the loss of life for Juan Varela and the pain of those who love him, but also for the loss of whatever sense of security that Latin@-American kids might still have had. I’m sure that many had already heard the words, “Go back to Mexico!” (regardless of whether or not they are actually of Mexican descent). In Arizona and across the country, states have or are considering similar SB1070-like legislation. Talk of ending birthright citizenship has reached the national level. And incidences of hate-crimes against Latin@s are up around the country.
It was also back in May when I first heard about the proposed Muslim community/cultural center (wrongfully described as a mosque just about everywhere). It had made the news when conservative radio show host, Michael Perry, declared that someone should blow the building up if it is built. I wondered if the irony of threatening to blow up a building near ground zero due to religious differences was lost on Mr. Perry, but in general dismissed him as a right-wing extremist and went back to paying attention to Arizona. Now it is August and not only have other right-wing celebrities weighed in to oppose the cultural center – Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, Gingrich – but people who should know better – Harry Reid, Howard Dean and Governor Patterson – are saying that it should be moved. Polls say that between 61-70% of U.S.Americans oppose the “mosque.” I am appalled, and also obsessed, to the point where I am checking the updates of various facebook groups, scanning online news headlines, reading analyses…
Like SB1070, the controversy over the cultural center feels very personal. Because, like SB1070, the controversy over the cultural center is indicative of a much bigger issue than the one everyone is yelling about. Claiming that the center is “too close” to ground zero does not explain why residents are angrily opposing the building of a new mosque in Staten Island, and it certainly doesn’t explain opposition to building mosques in Tennessee, Kentucky, and California. It does not explain why mosques across the nation have been targeted for vandalism, arson, gunfire, and even a pipe bomb. In NY, four men brutally beat an Arab man, shouting “Go back to your country!” In California a man assaulted a Muslim American, shouting “Go back to where you came from!”
“Go back to your country!” “Go back to where you came from!” The events in Arizona are supposedly about “illegal” immigration, and the controversy over the New York cultural center is supposedly about unhealed wounds from 9/11. But what they have in common is groups of people who are seen as foreign, un-American, their loyalties suspect, due to the color of their skin and/or their religion. As an ally with a very personal interest in these issues, I have tried to explain how Mexicans have lived in Arizona since before Arizona was part of the U.S. I’ve tried to explain that Muslim Americans also died in the attacks on 9/11. But when talking to some people, it feels like I’m five years old again and faced with the frustration that perfectly good facts don’t seem to make even the slightest dent in their preconceptions of “us versus them.”
Based on our history, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will *eventually* prevail, as our nation fitfully expands its notion of what “equality” means every generation or so. But in the meantime, I am afraid that a generation of Latin@ American and Muslim/Arab American kids will carry the burden of not quite trusting that they are accepted as “American” well into their adulthoods. I know that had there been even one person who stuck up for me when I was a kid – just one (non-Asian) ally – it would have made a huge difference. And that is what I keep in mind during these trying times when the hatred seems limitless and people standing on the side of love seem so few. We do not need to be able to convince everybody. We just need to speak, so that those who are being attacked know that they are not alone.