Her Mom Doesn’t Take Her To the Bus Stop Anymore: On Fear, Anger, and Telling Stories

“Because–how to explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity?”

Reading Valeria Luiselli’s new book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, I underlined the above quote, typed it in large-print letters, printed it out and taped it to the wall of my classroom, next to other quotes by some of my favorite essayists–Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Ralph Ellison.

Luiselli BookThe Texas Observer, calling Luiselli’s book “the first must-read book of the Trump era,” notes that it’s less self-consciously literary than her previous work. In this book, the Observer notes, Luiselli is not “much interested in transcending anything, or in her own admission to the great house of immortal literature. These days, reality is more urgent.”

The reality she’s writing about is the surge of children crossing our border in the last few years, fleeing violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Affected by radio reports of the children crossing into our Southwestern deserts and turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents in the hopes of receiving asylum, Luiselli volunteered as a translator for their intake interviews. The book is structured around the forty questions that make up the initial interview form, through the course of which, Luiselli hopes, these kids will luck into the magic words that will keep them from receiving a deportation order.    

But Luiselli is also writing about the reality that led to Donald Trump’s election: the anti-immigrant hysteria, the dehumanization of others, the politics of cruelty. Early in the book, Luiselli describes being startled by a picture on the internet of an elderly white couple from Tucson protesting the new arrivals with signs that read “Illegal is a crime” and “Return to senders.” “What were they thinking when they put their beach chairs inside their trunk?” Luiselli asks about the two protestors. “And what did they talk about as they drove the forty miles or so north toward the protest in Oracle?”

That image is from 2014, but it’s one of the signs that Luiselli says, in her Coda (written after November’s election), that she should have recognized as an omen of what was coming.

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Stories come from a combination of anger and clarity. I want my students to read that quote, to know it and internalize it, because I think it’s a key to learning to write. At least I write most easily when angry, when I have the urgency of something that needs to be said. That’s why I launched this blog with a reading of George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” and specifically with the section of the essay in which Orwell says he wrote Homage to Catalonia because he knew, clearly, that innocent men were being falsely accused. “If I had never been angry about that,” Orwell says, “I should never have written the book.”

But Luiselli also writes that, while processing her anger over the refugees’ situation, she came to realize that “the most important thing was to know how to transform emotional capital–the rage, sadness, and frustration produced by certain social circumstances–into political capital.”

My students know this. They’ve turned their feelings from the lead-up and aftermath of the election into a variety of political actions. Some of them demonstrated at the Capitol during the Women’s March or the Day Without Immigrants protest on February 16th. Others participated in the spontaneous protests in North Austin on the night of the February ICE raids.

They’ve made a pet project of opposing SB4, which I wrote about in my last post. Dozens of students wrote their representatives when the bill was up for debate in the state senate. Some of my students have been to the Capitol multiple times in the last two months, and not just to protest: they’ve gone to testify, to meet with representatives, to hear speeches. One group organized to pressure a state senator whom their research suggested might be willing to change her vote on the issue. Two seniors created a petition to deliver their representatives, which they publicized with videos like the one above, and which now has more than 10,000 signatures.

But while they’re developing their political capital, I want to make sure you–readers, friends–don’t lose sight of the emotional currents that drive it. Because I believe that anyone who clearly sees the fear that’s moving these good kids to action will be as angry as I am–and with that clarity and that anger, that you’ll be moved to get their stories out, too.

In the video above, the female speaker, Jassary, says that since February’s ICE raid: “My mom doesn’t take me to the bus stop anymore… My younger sister asks me why we don’t go out anymore, and it’s very hard to tell her why, because she’s so young.”

I’ve had this sentiment expressed to me literally hundreds of times since the election. I’ve read it in my students’ journals, personal essays, and writing assignments. I’ve heard it in their class discussions, and in conversations while they eat lunch in my classroom. I’ve heard it from good students and bad students, from freshmen and from seniors. It’s real; my students are afraid.

During the Day Without Immigrants, about 70% of the sophomore class was absent from my school. The next day, I had them write about why they decided to participate, or not, in the protest; about how they participated (did they go to the downtown march or stay home?); and about what they hoped the protests would accomplish. Here’s a small sample what they said:

From a girl in my 5th period class:

“The reason why I decided to be part of that protest was because I seriously fear that one day I will get home and my parents won’t be waiting for me. I have three siblings here. Each one of us needs them. We can’t live without them.”

From a boy in 6th period:

“I know many people whose parents have no papers, including my parents. So I care about all the immigrants. They aren’t evil, they are just trying to support their family.”

From a girl, 4th period:

“Yesterday I wanted to go to the protest but my mom didn’t allow me to, she thought it was too dangerous. So just to support my parents I stayed home. Not many of our parents were able to stay home or miss work. So we as kids fought for our parents. Our parents crossed the border and worked off most of their lives for us. Now it’s our turn as kids to return the favor.”

Another girl, 5th period:

“Every day when I wake up, the first thing I think of is, ‘What would happen to me if one day my parents get deported?’ I think it is not fair that my parents are afraid to go to work, but they have no choice because they are trying to get money to buy food and to pay the rent. It is hard for me to see my parents afraid of what is happening today in our country.”

From a student in 2nd period:

“I didn’t go to the downtown protest because my mom thought that ICE was going to be there and didn’t want me to be at risk. So we stayed home. A lot of people went to the protest. My brothers and sisters wanted to go, and me too.”

Another girl in 2nd period:

“One of the reasons I decided to stay home was because I wanted to support my parents. They have supported me my whole life. It makes me feel powerless when I can’t do anything about their safety. I wanted to show my parents that I stand with them and that I would give up anything to let my voice be heard. Another reason why I decided to stay home is because this way I wouldn’t be afraid all day to get home and have a neighbor tell me my parents aren’t there anymore. I’m afraid of one day getting home and not finding my family in my house. I’m afraid that if this were to ever happen, I would have to drop out of school and support my brothers to keep up their education. I’m afraid that my my family will be torn apart by people who don’t understand what it is like to be afraid all day, every day.”

Another boy, 2nd period:

“My family and I did not go to the protest yesterday. The reason why we did not go is because my parents were afraid to even step outside. … My mom doesn’t even want to go to the store to get food and we live really close. She feels like there’s going to be police just waiting for us. My family, we used to feel safe driving around but now we just look over our shoulders to see if anyone is following us. Of course we make it safely home, but then later that night I hear my parents watching videos of people getting taken away. Then they decide not to drive where those people were getting taken away.”

Again, I’ve seen and heard hundreds of comments like this, from kids who should be thinking about soccer games and their homework. It always makes me angry to see how this country has made them afraid; sometimes, I hear so much of it that I get overwhelmed.

But then I see my students, or young people like them, down at the Capitol, or on the news, and I realize they’re doing a great job of telling their stories and making them public. As someone who cares about the future of this country, that encourages me. As their writing teacher, it thrills me.

At the Capitol: SB4 & SB6

At the Capitol: SB4 & SB6

The Texas Legislature is rushing to get bills passed before the end of its session, and this happens to be a season full of bills that are horrific, crazy, and obscene – even by Texas lege standards.

Two particularly bad ones are SB6, the so-called “bathroom bill,” which would require trans individuals to use public restrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates, and SB4, which punishes “sanctuary cities” for protecting immigrant communities from federal authorities. Last week, SB6 was passed by the state senate, after hours of debate, and will move to the House soon; SB4 passed the Senate in February, and is currently being held up in the State Affairs committee in the House.

During my Spring Break, I took advantage of my time off to attend House State Affairs Committee’s hearing on SB4. A brief primer on the bill: it requires city police forces to hold any arrested immigrant ICE requests, and it punishes cities and public officials that don’t. Those punishments include fines and the withholding of funds, and public officials who don’t cooperate can be removed from office.

All that might sound reasonable, but the problem is that undocumented immigrants are often arrested for “crimes” that either a) would result in no more than a ticket for the rest of us or b) the rest of us don’t have to worry about. Driving without a license, for example. So a quick mistake–speeding, driving with a broken taillight, even an accident caused by someone else–can ultimately lead to the destruction of one’s family. This is why a student of mine wrote, about SB4, to her representative: “Everyday, the moment I walk out of my dad’s truck is the second my worries begin for the day. What if he passes the speed limit? What if his brake lights stop working? What if he starts falling asleep?” Any of these things can bring her father face-to-face with a police  officer and, without sanctuary protections, any interaction with a police officer is fraught.

At the Wednesday meeting I attended, more than 600 witnesses testified against SB4, while only 11 testified in its favor. The hearing was scheduled to start at 10, but didn’t actually get going until the afternoon. While waiting for the meeting to start, witnesses in line sang, clapped, and chanted outside of the hearing room.

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Testimony lasted past midnight, and though I only stayed until dinner time, I wanted to highlight here some of the witnesses I saw speaking:

First, Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin said he could not support the bill because his Catholic faith leads him to support only a targeted proportional immigration policy that preserves human dignity and takes into account the sanctity of the family. “Jesus Christ himself was a refugee,” Bishop Vasquez reminded the committee. “He was an immigrant.”

Three figures from Texas law enforcement soon testified: Ed Gonzalez, sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Bexar County (San Antonio) Sheriff Javier Salazar, and Brian Manley, the acting Chief of Police in Austin. All three spoke out forcefully against the law, arguing that it would have a “chilling effect” on the relationship between their communities and their police forces. Salazar, asked point-blank whether SB4 would make San Antonio safer or less safe, responded without hesitation, “Less safe.”

There was testimony from lawyers, including immigration attorney Faye Kolly, who pointed out that the bill, as written, shares characteristics with Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, and that those similarities may cause the same problems faced by Arizona’s law, parts of which were ruled unconstitutional. And an attorney for El Paso County reinforced the “chilling effect” notion, listing 2 specific recent cases in which victims of domestic violence refused to follow through with charges because of their fear of dealing with law enforcement.

When I started writing this post last week, I looked over my notes with some despair–it seemed obvious to me that the bill would pass, despite the overwhelming opposition to it. That’s more or less what happened with SB6–it, too, faced lots of hostile testimony, but sailed through its committee and went right through the state Senate.

But a few more positive things have happened since then with both bills: first, it has become clear that they face a tougher time in the House than they did in the Senate. House Speaker Joe Straus angered Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick by saying that he opposes SB6, and that bringing it to a vote is not a priority of his. Similarly, SB4 is still in committee, and while it remains deeply flawed, the bill’s author (Charlie Geren) has introduced amendments that make it slightly less odious. Most importantly, he seemed willing during the hearing to listen and to address some of the bill’s worst aspects.

Most of all, the collapse of the AHCA in Congress has given me hope that, with enough pressure from the public, our institutions can still provide some resistance to what looks like the unchecked power of the country’s extreme right. Living in Texas, which has been essentially a one-party state for years, it’s easy to get used to the feeling of being steamrolled by your political opponents. Part of my post-November anxiety has come from the feeling that my state’s situation was about to go national. The public’s victory over Trumpcare has given me hope–not just for the country, but for Texas, too.

 

Why I’m Writing Again.

Why I’m Writing Again.

“I happened to know, what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused. If I had never been angry about that I should never have written the book.”

(George Orwell, “Why I Write”)

When I was last blogging regularly, I was sending letters to the Catholic Right, trying to persuade its members to change their minds about LGBT rights, rigid gender roles, and feminism.

I wrote my last post on that blog on April 16th of last year, though really I started saying goodbye in the summer of 2015, after I saw the Catholic Right’s reaction to the Obergefell decision that made gay marriage legal across the nation. I just didn’t think I had much to say to the Catholic Right anymore, and without that impetus, I didn’t know what to write.

A lot has changed since I started blogging. I finished grad school, and now I’m a high school teacher. I still live in the same great Texas city, though I’ve moved from the south to the northwest part of town. My daughter, who was a toddler when I started blogging, is now a kindergartner.

And new issues have been pressing themselves into my consciousness. First, working at a charter school gave me new perspective on the school choice debate, and last year, when my patience with the Catholic Right was waning, I thought about starting to write on that topic. But then, as I got to know my school, its students, and their concerns, another issue moved from the edges of my attention to its center to the point that now it’s nearly all I can think about: the sweep of Trumpism through our society, and its implications for the young people I teach.

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See, the student population at my school is about 96% Latino; many of my students are undocumented immigrants, and even more have at least one undocumented parent. I’ve been teaching for sixteen years now–I taught high school before grad school, and while in grad school I taught at two universities. I’ve witnessed student reactions to every election since Bush-Kerry. I’ve never seen anything like what I witnessed in my school during the buildup to this election, or like its aftermath.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes a particularly un-poetic chapter in his  1938 memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. In it, Orwell resorted to sheer reportage in defense of Trotskyites who were falsely accused of collaborating with Franco. Orwell worried that the chapter ruined the book. It was too dry, too factual. Nonetheless, he had to include it. “I happened to know,” Orwell explains, “what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent men were being falsely accused.”

HOMENATGE CATALUNYAWhat I take from that is that when you have special knowledge of a political situation, you have a special responsibility to share that knowledge. And because of my new job, I happen to know things, too.

I happen to know, for example, what immigrant students write about what their lives are like now, under the Trump regime. I happen to know how they react when they hear the president’s name, or when they hear about anti-immigrant bills like SB4 or HB 383 in Texas. (To generalize, the girls start talking and planning and asking questions; the boys look down and to the side in anger.)

And I happen to know, too, that many Americans–white Americans like me, like the friends I grew up with–will never have to face this reality. I know that many of these Americans are kindhearted and don’t want to see families broken up over decades-old immigration violations. I also know that some of those same Americans soothe themselves with the notion that ICE is only going after the “bad guys.” I had one conversation with a Trump voter who told me that she supports the new DHS deportation priorities because, she said, “the same sort of felonies that would land me in prison are the going to land some illegal immigrants back in their home countries.”

I happen to know that’s not the real story. I happen to know, for example, that more than half of the immigrants arrested in February’s ICE raid in Austin had no prior criminal records. I happen to know, too, that many of my students have had parents deported solely for immigration-related offenses, or for “crimes” that would never land a (white) citizen in prison.

IMG_2634My goal here is not to be alarmist. But here’s the thing: we’re not even two months into the new administration. The DHS memos haven’t even really taken effect–10,000 ICE and 5,000 Border Patrol agents remain to be hired. The Department of Homeland Security is still just “considering” a policy of separating mothers from their children at the border.

But we’ve already had massive, multi-city roundups of illegal immigrants, so public and visible they’ve created community-wide panic. We’ve already deported mothers and grandmothers whose only crimes were immigration-related offenses. We’ve already seen a five-year-old handcuffed at an airport, and a father picked up by immigration agents while driving his daughters to school. And the administration has announced that they’ll track and publicize “honor killings” among Muslims, and that they’ll create a special bureau (VOICE) to publicize crimes by illegal immigrants.

And, already, a student from my charter system has lost a parent to deportation in the Trump era.

It will happen again. That’s not me being dramatic—it’s simple extrapolation from what’s happened before, from Trump’s words, and from the orders he’s already signed. More and more of my students will have to deal with the fallout of the promises our new president made on the campaign trail.

So I needed a place to write about that, semi-regularly and at least semi-publically. I won’t only write about immigration here—I’ll still write about religion, and feminism, and LGBT rights. But I needed a blog with a theme broad enough to make room for all of that. That’s what this space is intended to be.

So please check back, and please add your comments!