BY FEDERICO GÓMEZ
(Translated from El Informante de Memphis, Num. 1; September 14, 2018)
I was reflecting today with my students about the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and, after hearing their comments on it, I thought that, as with the identity of people, the identity of societies is something complex: it is formed by the combination of many experiences and changes little by little, at the pace in which events become history. In this continuous process of evolution, societies go through crises in which their signs of identity are re-evaluated, generating a tension that must be resolved, either through conflict or by overcoming events of an enormity and nature unknown until then. But the important thing is that, after this period, the identity seems to take a modified form and stays more or less stable until the next crisis.
In this coming and going of the identity of societies throughout history, there are entire generations living in long periods of stability in which this identity does not change significantly. And yet, others have to live in a time when the identity of a society enters into a deep crisis, just at points of inflection between the society that was and the one that will be.
It is not difficult to imagine that this is the case of the generations sharing the present historical moment in American society; a society that had, in its origin, and for a long time, a clearly immigrant identity but lives today in a profound identity conflict, since a large part of its members rejects it. This nation, which was founded by settlers and developed thanks to the work of the immigrants who came and the slaves who were forced to come, who had as an identity sign to be a nation of immigrants, seems to want to stop being one. The mere fact that the “immigration issue” is constantly talked about, that the problem of immigration is a throwaway weapon between the two main political parties and that, for the last ten years, and the massive number of immigrant arrests and deportations has been a constant, give us an idea of the depth of this crisis of identity of this American society; a society in which, just thirty years ago, the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric used today by many members of the Republican party would simply not have been possible. But today it is; today we are experiencing continuous public attacks against the immigrant and refugee populations, and especially against the Latino population in general. Today, one of the fundamental pillars of the identity of this country is questioned and we must consider what role we play, as a community, in the conflict this crisis is generating and how we are going to contribute to this social debate that must respond once again to the question “who are we?”
Using our voice to answer that question may be the most important thing at this time. We must define who we are in this society by all possible means: politically, economically and socially. And we must do this without rest, because those who have been trying to paint a twisted portrait of our community for a few years do not miss opportunities to repeat the same set of negative perceptions, the same myths, in the hope, I suppose, that these repeated lies build a truth; their truth. And, although neither the data nor the history support their positions, these repeated lies give them an illusion of truth, which, in this country, is sometimes all that is needed. And so, the myth of the immigrant today is like that of the ostrich: a lie repeated so many times that many no longer question it.
Surely you have heard it at some point: it is said of the ostriches that they hide their heads when they detect any danger. But have you seriously considered it? Think about it. How is it possible that the ostrich, one of the fastest creatures in the animal world, with powerful legs capable of breaking bones and with a very large body behaves in a way that would practically guarantee its extinction. The answer to this dilemma is simple: ostriches do not behave like this when they are in danger. The famous expression that relates this myth to cowardice is based on an erroneous perception and interpretation of the behavior of a majestic animal that lowers its head to be confused with a bush and camouflage itself or puts its head in a depression on the ground to check on the eggs in its nest. The myths about immigrants are not very different from this one and they are repeated again and again, based as well on erroneous perceptions and interpretations, at best, or in eugenicist or fascist lines of thought, in the most extreme cases.
Because of this, despite the institutional efforts to keep us invisible, we must continually let it be known that we are here and live here; that we love and dream and work here; that we fall in love and form families and bury loved ones here. We must repeat as many times as as needed that we are important and have value, that we have rights, that we exist here and now.
The great Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti wrote that “the day or night when we finally make it, we will have to burn the ships,” and I think he was absolutely right. But, until then, we must make it clear that, in this nation-ship called The United States of America, the arms of the immigrant community are rowing hard to make the ship advance and this gives us the right to be treated as human beings and people of value, whose contributions are essential for this society to reach any future port. It is our desire that we reach a good port, one that is more inclusive and less violent and, definitely, one where we are not denied what is ours by merit and by right.