Years ago, I was traveling through Europe, with little more than my passport and a bright orange duffel bag. I was a student traveling on a limited budget, and I mainly booked overnight trains from country to country, so I could just sleep on the way and save money.
Thing is, at the time, my passport was Ecuadorian, which meant that in order to travel anywhere, I had to endure long lines at consulates, and all sorts of fees and costs associated with visas. I remember feeling green with envy at American and EU citizens, who in comparison had it way easier when it came to freely moving around the world.
The process of getting a visa to travel just about anywhere as an Ecuadorian citizen was annoying and expensive at best, humiliating at worst. The countries I was asking permission to visit were mainly concerned with whether I could pay my way through them, and they always, always asked to see proof of a booked return flight. And so, as I traveled around Europe that summer, I was certain I had done my due diligence, and I thought I had gotten together all the paperwork I needed in order to move around.
About a week into my travels, after a few days in Poland, I boarded a train to Vienna. As the train took off, I was still shaken by the experience I’d had at the two concentration camps I had visited the day before. I’ll never forget how I felt upon entering one of the bunkers were people had slept, where my first thought was: “there’s nowhere to hide.” Over the course of my life, I’ve had repeat dreams about being a victim during the Holocaust. About running and hiding. I often wonder if they are related to a past life experience. Being in the camp brought up all sorts of emotions and sensations to the surface, which were still haunting me as I rode on the train that evening.
It must have been close to midnight when the train slowed to a stop. I woke up, and knew that we were at the Czech border. As was custom, the border police came on board to check everyone’s ID or passport. I dug for mine. When the two officers opened the doors to our cabin, I handed my passport to one of them. He flipped through it. Then flipped through it again. He then handed it to his colleague, and asked him, “Ecuador?”, as though it was the first time he’d heard of that country. At this point, I began to feel uneasy. The guards kept my passport, flipping through it.
After what felt like forever, the first guard pointed at me and motioned me to stand up. I was bewildered. He insisted again, and it was then that I heard the dogs barking outside. It was then that I realized that this border crossing was in the middle of nowhere. My senses quickly sharpened. I tried to explain that I had a visa, that I was good to go. I asked for my passport so that I could show them. When I handed it back to them, they then shook their heads. “One,” they said. And it was then that I realized that I had only been given one entry into that country. And I’d already used it up.
They made me take my bag, and they made me step out of the train. Panic set within me, mixing right in with all the unsettled energy I had I felt from visiting the camps.
Outside, there was nothing for miles and miles, in front of us was a solitary house. There were more guards and more dogs. I couldn’t protest: not only did they not speak English, but they seemed set on taking me off the train and treating me like a criminal. One walked in front, one walked behind me. They pointed to the entrance of the house, motioning me inside.
There was a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling of the entrance. It was then I noticed there were only male officers. I walked in. The one in front of me pointed to a staircase and tilted his head in that direction. I felt the complete and utter helplessness of one who is deemed trespassing and therefore illegal. I felt complete powerlessness.
A wave of relief came over me when I made it to the second floor and saw a woman officer at a desk. I never got to talk to her, because the man who had pulled me off the train took me into a small room, with three walls and a cell door. He locked the door behind him. I stood in shock for a moment before going to the window, which also had bars, and watched as my train took off. It must have been an hour later when one of the officers came into my cell. He had some documents with him, all written up in Czech, and he pointed to a dotted line, suggesting I sign it. I demanded that it be translated to English. He ignored me and pointed to the line again. I scanned through the document and the only thing I could make out was an address. After going back and forth about this, I gave up and signed the damn paper. It wasn’t until hours later, when the next train came to a stop, that they took me out of the cell and put me on it. It took me back to Poland, where I was to get a visa at the address on the paper.
What followed is another story for another time. Suffice it to say, I had enough wits, money, badass New York streetsmarts which I didn’t even know I had but quickly embraced, and white-ish privilege to continue on with my journey.
After all, I was just a college kid traveling to see the sights. And yes, it was degrading, humiliating, and terrifying to be commanded by someone with a gun, in a different language, and be detained against my will.
But it pales in comparison to those who are fleeing poverty, war, starvation, and injustice. It is nothing compared to what people are going through at the US border as I type this.
Knowing that children are being detained in sterile, cold places, against their will, for an indefinite amount of time tears me up. Being a mother makes me feel this in so many different ways.
Looking away is easy. Making excuses is easy. Saying, “politicians are dirty” is easy. When confronted with the perils of the world, I have been guilty of all three.
But this? This is impossible to shake off. I feel it in my heart, I feel it when I see my child, I feel it during the day as we move carefree around our life. As I navigate with freedom the life that is mine in this land I have adopted, this land that is my home, I do so with a deep heartbreak for those who sit behind bars, at the border, waiting.
The greatest legacy of the United States has not been its trademark “justice and freedom for all”: many of us may have been brainwashed to believe this as truth, but I think we are beginning to wake up and realize that as a nation, we are in no way upholding these ideals with integrity or truth.
No. I think the greatest legacy of these not-so-united States has been that despite the lies and injustice, it has somehow become a meeting point of so many different people from all over the world which have influenced one another and as a result, co-created a brilliant, rich and multi-faceted culture.
Think about it: that is how we ultimately “defeated” the Soviet Union during the Cold War: the government sanctioned culture and flaunted it. Used the creative visions of so many as if to say, “look, this is proof that our people are free.” And yes- I’ll give the States that much. People here are free to create and to express themselves, but in no way has that equated with justice or equality. True, it can be argued that the art and culture of this country has led to more justice and equality. But it’s been grassroots, for the most part.
This freedom to create, for me, is key. Perhaps it’s “the” key. Or at least one of the keys that can turn things around.
My skin is white. Or, white-ish, compared to my fellow countrypeople. This has defined and shaped my world, opened whatever doors have opened, and allowed me to live the priviledged life I’ve led.
My heritage is Ecuadorian. I’ve traced my roots, and as far as I know, all my ancestors come from that land. Then again, the family tree line I’ve excavated is not that extensive. Thing is, I’ve always wondered what accounts for my white-ish skin. But even as a child, I knew that this mattered.
Growing up white-ish in Quito immediately put me on the ranks of superiority. I had no clue at the time, of course, but I distintinctly remember the widespread finger pointing towards the indigenous and their name calling. Being “Indio” meant being less-than. Dressing like one, being amongst them, engaging in the culture: it was all deemed backwards. As a child growing up in the 80’s, especially a white-ish child with some privilege, I learned that the lighter your skin, the more Americanized you came off as, the “better” you were. One could only consume American culture if one could afford to buy it. It was all about American this and American that.
It still is. Whenever I visit Ecuador, I am appalled by the over-consumption of American culture. And unfortunately, for the most part, it is not the best parts of American culture that those who identify as “white” consume. It’s fast food, it’s brand-name clothing, it’s plastic surgery and it’s racism. It’s big cars and big houses and it’s walking right past homeless indigenous women and children on the street. It’s spending so much money on American goods and nickel-and-diming local farmers and market vendors. It’s taking holidays to Europe and the States, and it’s a straight-out rape of the land and its resources.
I think the majority of my country men and women are walking around blindfolded, fucking other people over and unable to see the damage they are causing all around them, not even realizing that they themselves are being fucked over in the process. Trying so fucking hard to be white. Neglecting their roots, the land, their history, and their people.
It’s this rabid addiction to Americanization and capitalism that makes it easy for those with privilige to look the other way while their browner counterparts suffer. It’s an obsession with the overconsumption of things, and the belief that being whiter means being better, which perpetuates the cycles that destroy the livelihood of so many.
And isn’t it ironic? It took me coming to America to see just how fucking stupid we are as a country to willingly devalue the indigenous, the land, the women and the children.
And as a woman born in Ecuador, it’s really hard to claim my roots. I want to, so badly. When I visit, I pray on the lands I walk, I’ve taken the journey back to the mountains where my great-grandmother and her ancestors came from, I take in with awe and wonder the majestic natural landscape, and I do what I can to shine my love on the indigenous people I encounter, even though it’s tinted with the heaviness of white-ish priviledge guilt. Still, I feel disconnected from the land. And I do not hesitate to board the plane back to the States, because by that point I’m usually fed up by the ignorance of the collective.
And board the plane I do. Just like I did the first time I migrated to the States, with visa in passport, and passport in hand. Each time, counting my blessings for my American citizenship.
Over the years, I’ve heard stories of people crossing the boarder illegally. Some stories are adventurous and straight up courageous. Others are frightening. And yet, in all my years living in New York, word on the street was always this: as an “illegal”, as long as you’re doing your thing (working + living) and not engaged in some sort of illegal activity, you were fine. Cause, let’s be honest, there are more than a handful of foreigners who come to the US and commit heinous crimes. And I get why those people would get incarcerated and deported. But that’s not the majority of the immigrant population. Most are simply fleeing terrible circumstances and wanting for themselves what you or I would want as well: freedom to live.
The way that the current administration is handling immigrants from South and Central America is horrifying and inhumane. And yet it’s created a collective outrage, and I am glad I am not alone in my anger. So many are rising up. And for those of us who can, we need to speak up for those who are held behind bars, for those deemed “illegal”, for those “without papers”. Unable to understand the language. Being held for an indefinite amount of time. Separated from their children.
There are a lot of people on the front lines. (There’s places you can donate some money to: and please do- let’s all chip in! All ya gotta do is click here.) But if all you can do is close your eyes, put your hand on your heart, sing out loud a loving lullaby, and trust that in some level it’s reaching the hearts of those children.
A dear friend made a good point recently: yes, we should all be feeling deeply for what is happening at the border. But let us not forget that there are children suffering everywhere in this world. And let us not forget the reasons why these children are on our boarder to begin with. Yes, the political leaders of South America are nothing to write home about, but let’s remember that the US has also had it’s hands in the mess.
So as we, women, and the men that stand beside us, rise into roles of power, may we remember that in the world we are creating, the children need a safe space. And may we do everything we can to provide that for them.
PS- People outraged over the treatment of people at the borders are coming together. Over 400 events + peaceful protests are happening around the country this Saturday, June 30. Find your closest events by clicking here.
PSS- I just read an article published 2 days ago titled “Border Patrol agents shut down highways in Maine and New Hampshire with checkpoints.” I shudder as I think about this.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain
“Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.” Anonymous graffiti written on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall. Circa 1990.