Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Done... Or, Other Things That Make Me Tired

One of my nieces was born when I was in kindergarten at a Catholic school in Albuquerque.  I was so excited that when it was circle time, I burst open like a piñata with the news that my sister had given birth early that morning.  My teacher, Sister Annette, asked the baby's name and I froze.  Her sweet little name was suddenly a long, foreign sound.   Her name, which in Spanish means "little angel" was suddenly a source of shame for me and I heard my own tiny voice squeak out "Angela" in a jumble of hard, English consonants and vowels.


There was another time that my mom was speaking Spanish to me at the grocery store.  I must have been about five years old and she was holding up two items in front of  me.  She asked "cual quieres?" which translates to "which one do you want?"  I remember standing there, silent, until she asked me in English.  I don't know if she just assumed I didn't understand her or if she conceded, but we never spoke about it and now, when I talk about that memory, my mom doesn't even remember.

My generations before me were always on the land that is now New Mexico - beginning with Pueblo, then Spanish land, then Mexican, the a US territory and finally a state.   Although they were US citizens, my parents were punished for speaking Spanish in school.  Their names were changed to "American" names by their teachers.  As a result, I am not fully bilingual although I understand Spanish completely, I often find myself tongue tied when it's my turn to speak.  There is pain in my reality as a New Mexican Chicana who was taught that I'm not Mexican yet I've never really felt "American" either - or at least, I haven't in a very long time.

I became an activist when I was 14.  The vice principal of my middle school saw that I needed some direction and introduced me to a woman who was taking a group of young Chicanos to the mountains for a weekend.  Billed as a leadership-building weekend, what I received was an induction to the Chicano Movement.  After that, I devoured any bit of history I could from the Movement of the 1960's and 70's.  I read books, watched documentaries, attended marches and learned one truth: justice does not serve people of color in the United States.  Any time it does, it comes after a long, arduous fight and years of sacrifice, violence and even death.  I signed up for the fight a long time ago and while I should be used to injustice (and the hope that comes with each victory), I'm never ready for the sting of losing and this summer, I was stung repeatedly.

Libertad by Ester Hernandez, 1976

First, comprehensive immigration reform passed the Senate.  While this was supposed to be cause for celebration, there was a big amendment added just before passing the bill: militarization of the US/Mexico Border.  Militarization of the border creates more violence for the people who are crossing and criminalizes them.  I feel like I have this argument all the time - people say "well, they're illegal because they're committing a crime."  Really?  I've never heard the news media or every day people use the term "illegal bank robber" or "illegal Wall Street broker."  Crossing the border without proper documentation isn't even a misdemeanor offense; why militarize the border?  Why treat an entire people as if they are terrorists?  Let's just say it: because they are Mexican (or Latino - many people who cross the US/Mexico border are from Central and South America).  If the anti-immigrant politicians and pundits were truly concerned with "securing our borders," then why not militarize on the Canada side?

Next, the US Supreme Court struck down key points of the Voting Rights Act.  Essentially, all of the work that was done 50 years ago to secure that poor people and people of color would be able to vote was undone with a ruling by the Supreme Court.  Instantly, states (particularly in the South) began putting voter restrictions into place and redistricting districts to push underrepresented people further into the margins.

Finally, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

My mom often talks about where she was when President Kennedy was shot.  My sisters were babies and my mom was at home.  She said the whole country came to a standstill as they watched the coverage.  I've had similar experiences - the Challenger Explosion (a TV was brought into our classroom), the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, and now, George Zimmerman's acquittal.  Something changed inside of me at the moment I heard the verdict.

The not guilty verdict was my tipping point.  I was getting ready for a gig with my band when a friend sent the news in a message.  I was dumbfounded and immediately changed the TV to the news, where the words NOT GUILTY splashed across the bottom of the screen and George Zimmerman was happily hugging his legal team.  My anger consumed me quickly as I listened to commentators and read endless Tweets and Facebook status updates.  Knowing I had to go on stage and perform filled me with dread and even though I put on a smile, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I gave up on the notion of "liberty and justice for all" a long time ago, but I still had a glimmer of faith in the justice system.  Surely, I thought, there had to be someone who would protect all people impartially and with fairness.  That glimmer is gone.  The day after the verdict there was a rally in Albuquerque.  So many people were hugging and trying to make sense of the verdict, the murder and the sense of injustice we felt.  In retrospect, I felt lost and alone.  I saw a mentor who guided me through a lot of my activism when I was a younger.  I cried when I saw him.  "I'm done," I kept saying between sobs, "I'm just done."

It's true, I am done.  I'm done pretending that systems are going to change if we work within them.  I'm done trusting politicians and the legal system.  I'm done sending peace and light and hoping for a better world.  I am done with the idea that if we work hard and are patient, then systems of power will open up to benefit all people.

I am not done believing in my community.  I see such good work come from everyday people.  I see innovation, hard work and sacrifice.  I see people who don't give up.  When my neighborhood flooded in July, people came together to clean up and check on each other.  I see parents making neighborhoods safer, cultural workers creating change through storytelling and art, and people volunteering to teach other adults how to read.  Each tiny effort is working toward a larger movement.

Now, more than ever, communities have to fend for ourselves.  Assaults on women's reproductive health, voter suppression, tax breaks for wealthy corporations and zero regard for a healthy environment are among the countless fights we face every day.  It's exhausting, but if we don't do the work, no one else will.  Our broken Congress and other corrupt systems have proven that they do not have the peoples' interest in mind when they make decisions.  I'm done waiting for them; we will move forward.

People often say "love it or leave it," meaning love the US or leave.  I do love this country - so much so that I  want to help make it a country where ALL people thrive; where healthcare is a basic human right and all people are paid fair wages.  I love this country enough to want to see it truly be the land of the free, home of the brave.  I have every right to be here.  I am rooted to this land and regardless of who is the controlling state, my roots run deep.  I will not be moved.

George Zimmerman is walking free, voting will become harder and people of color and poor people will be the hardest hit. I don't see a comprehensive Immigration reform happening anytime soon.  While I am done waiting for our "leaders" to create change, I am inspired by my community and the hard work they do every day.

We are continuing the fight.

Which side of history will you be on?

Next time: Knocks Me Off My Feet 

Author's note:
A big huge thank you to Colorlines Magazine for being one of the only news sources I can trust.

Also, muchismas gracias to Ester Hernandez for allowing me to use the image Libertad.  Her work speaks a truth that inspires the soul.  I first saw this image in a Chicana Studies course and it is one of my favorite pieces.

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