mr. rogers, spirit amulet

Yesterday, I watched the new Mr. Rogers’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” In Pittsburgh, showings of the documentary are communal practices of catharsis. Mr. Rogers’s record as an exemplary human being is, of course, well-known outside of Pittsburgh, but here he’s like a totem. I have heard him referred to (in non-joking tones) as the second coming of Christ, and the popular question is not WWJD, but rather WWFRD.

I knew he was a nice guy. You don’t need a documentary to tell you that: I feel like the cardigans and the Keds are enough. I did not know how much of a radical he was, or what made him so radical—it wasn’t just taking on racists, or explaining assassination and death and tragedy to very little kids. It was this driving, soul-pumping idea that every single person is valuable, reasonable, and worthy of time and effort. That our main job is to invest that time and effort into other people and to reflect their best parts back onto both themselves and onto the world.

I think paying attention to other people is its own form of radicalism. Amidst minute attention spans and never-ending lights, letting someone else know that I see you changes things. I know I’m grateful for the people who see me.

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on teaching/learning/speaking spanish and portuguese in trump’s america

First, I hate saying “Trump’s America.” Like no. He’s one guy with one bad hairstylist in one white house that finds itself in one city that’s, I guess, fine (sorry, DC, we both know it’s true) . He is not Leo DiCaprio circa 1997–there is no omnipresence/omnipotence here.

But now that my disclaimer is out of the way, there is still obviously a tide of white resentment that brought Trump to power. That tide of white resentment is as old and grounded as whiteness itself, but its spot in the limelight as of late (pushing all levers of governance) has made it a much more overt part of daily national life.

People who come from other countries, or who are labeled as other than white, of course, have always borne and continue to bear the full weight of this pathology. As someone who studies Latin America, though, I have noticed some palpable changes in how people interact with what I do, particularly when it comes to my language teaching.

As many of you know, learning a language is hard. It’s a real struggle. Being able to confidently communicate who you are to the world (which is really what language has been invented to do in our need/desire to create communities) in a tongue that is not the one you grew up speaking takes an almost herculean amount of effort. And yes, it is easier for some people than others. But it’s never easy, per se.

That’s true for any language. The relentless wheels of cultural valuation obscure this fact, though. What I mean is this: languages are assigned a value. French, Spanish, Arabic, German, Russian, Tagalong, Japanese, and Portuguese are all ranked according to this hidden system of worth, and in this system, Spanish and Portuguese sit near the bottom.

People come to take Spanish and Portuguese because they’re looking for the easy “A” that they don’t think they can get in Latin. Spanish and Portuguese are “simple.” They don’t contain great literature, like French, or philosophy, like German. They are the languages of spring break and soccer. No one expects them to require any work.

Of course, Spanish is the second-most spoken language on the planet after Chinese. The first novel ever was written in Spanish. Brazil is the eighth-largest economy in the world and Portuguese is skyrocketing as an international communication language not just in South America, but also in Southern Africa.

These are complex languages, with complex grammars and complex regionally specific vocabularies that lend endless shades of meaning to speech. But like people expect tacos to be cheap, they always expect Portuguese and Spanish to be simple, which of course reflects an insidious racism that holds that the people who speak them are similarly simple.

Most students end up in the class fishing for a good grade. Others see Narcos or Cidade de Deus and basically want to talk like Pablo Escobar. It’s strange and a bit upsetting to see how transparently we stereotype and value something that is inherently outside of value.

That’s what racism as a systemic and diffuse engine of society does.

desamor

You don’t love her—or maybe you think you don’t,
Stuck stubbornly on the old toothless idea
That what you want means anything in a dusty world.
You don’t love her, but love doesn’t work like that,
And no one knows it better than you.
You don’t love her, and yet your wound is a wound
That burns nameless in the empty moments when
There is no distraction and no explanation.
You don’t love her, and you never would,
Only when someone says her name there are
So many words that want to tumble from your throat—
A million fish haphazardly caught under a distant moon.
You don’t love her, because it is better that way,
For her and for them and, most of all, for you.
No, you don’t love her, but your unlove pushes
Bitter flowers from your mouth while you sleep.

Last week, I started teaching my first summer term.

If you’ve never participated in one, summer terms are extremely condensed—at my university, they cram four months of content into six weeks of classroom instruction. As I was preparing my syllabus, I myself had a minor stroke, so I can only imagine how my students are feeling.

Teaching as a graduate instructor strikes a very perplexing balance between legitimacy and illegitimacy. At a public(ish) university, I always have students who are older than me (I have two medical doctors this term. Yes, two), and I don’t have a PhD title yet. But I still have to frankenstein together exams, manage needs, design curriculum, etc. It’s like all the work with about four percent of the benefits. Just kidding, except not.

Anyway, I’m enjoying this stage of #gradschoollife a lot. Except the lesson planning, which can be kind of painful, and explaining the difference between “ser” and “estar” for the sixty-billionth time. At some point, you just need to send them to YouTube.

Classes are a weird sort of artificial habitat, if you think about it. I’m spending face-time with these eight humans every single day for three or more hours, and we’re stumbling through grammar and vocabulary and culture and politics and life. And then in August, we all go our separate ways to (perhaps) never see one another again. So many of our interactions in life are like that—ephemeral, almost dreamed up.

27.

Twenty-seven years in this world, not one step
closer to home. I feel wet and skinless, made
up of paper maîche and glass prophecies.
This body.
There is something violent in me, something
that grows bigger and swells fatter every
season I stay and wait for a sign.
The refugee.
I am the voice crying out in our pale-boned
wilderness, exiled from my own land,
stumbling among remnants.
How I suffer,
unable to cross the ancient border, to appease
my neglected skin and bones in their
thirst for your most broken parts.
Insatiable.
Twenty-seven years in this world, and I am older
than the oceans that toss and turn beneath
our matchstick universe.
Ache.
I ache.
Every muscle,
joint,
every unblessed,
profane piece
of this body,
this body
born homesick.

An open letter to fellow white people upon this backlash of vitriol against brown people

Hey there, white people. Have you been following the news? There are a lot of things happening in this country, and many of them have to do with black and brown people. I can already hear the backlash—Why do you have to make this about race, though?Coincidentally, I’m sure black and brown people ask themselves the same thing.

Today, though, I want to talk to you about undocumented immigrants, mainly because our president is obsessed with them. Perhaps he has a night journal where he writes down all sorts of horrid little ideas to make their lives just a bit more grueling before he goes to bed. Or maybe he hosts afternoon brainstorming sessions with his Goon Squad (hey, Steve Miller). He might think about them over his morning McMuffin. I can’t pretend to know.

What I do know is that he is verifiably, wholly obsessed. I also think I know why—he’s obsessed with undocumented immigrants because he knows he can use them to get to you, white people.

Hence this open letter. You’ve probably seen news stories replete with photos of brown children being ripped away from brown parents with tears streaming down their faces, or shots of President Trump signing an executive order that permanently imprisons these parents and children as a not-solution to the problem he created. You know what I’ve seen? I’ve seen your comments beneath these photos: I would never bring my kid with me to the border if I knew there was a chance we could get separated. This is sad, but if the parents didn’t break the law they wouldn’t be in this situation. If they want to stay together, they should stay in their home countries and fix their own problems. And my personal favorite, WHAT ABOUT ILLEGAL DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?

White privilege is a funny thing. Now, wait a minute. I know you hate that term. White privilege? I’m working three jobs to pay my rent, that’s how privileged I am!I hear you. Maybe we can brand it as something else? I’ll get back to you. The point is that you, somehow, can make these crushing statements and go vote at the polls and affect people’s entire lives while (here’s the key), the entire time, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

You, with your supposedly operational democracy and a police force that most likely won’t dissolve your son into acid or rape your daughter, don’t really understand the phrase “between a rock and a hard place” to the extent that Central American and Mexican (and Black) parents do. You see these parents at the border being torn from or imprisoned alongside their toddlers, and (can you believe it?) you somehow manage to convince yourself that brown people love their kids less than you do.That’s some high-level gaslighting right there.

Since it apparently needs to be said, I’ll say it: Brown people love their kids, too. They love them a lot. Doing what these parents do—leaving behind family, friends, and communities, sheltering their children along a deadly, dehumanizing journey—is an ultimate love story. It drips with love. It explodes with it.

Here’s the question: What does it mean to criminally prosecute migrants who come here to whittle a way out of crushing poverty and jaw-dropping violence? Here’s the answer: It says a lot more about us, white people, than it does about them. You know our dirty secret, don’t you? White people adore undocumented labor. We thrive off of it. We love paying 60 cents for a Gala apple, and we love rock-bottom prices during happy hour at our favorite local food joints. We very much enjoy the cheap hands that care for our lawns, clean our houses, and raise our children. So what if these same hands pour billions of dollars (a net of $10 billion in 2010) into our government to save a social security net that they can’t access? All the better.

That, in Migration 101, is called a pull factor. We pull bodies of color here to do work for blushingly low pay because that’s the way it’s always been (except, of course, during slavery, when there was no pay at all). With our unemployment rate sitting at a trim 3.9%, these people form a permanent under-underclass that supports everything and everyone. You know when farmers and restaurant owners and factory foremen tell us that their industries would collapse without undocumented labor? That’s because they would.

What about push factors, then, the other half of Migration 101? Glad you asked. Latin America, a complex region with some of the highest measures of income inequality in the world, has a myriad of push factors to choose from—and do you know the rub? We, white people, have been involved in almost all of them.

For example, drug violence in Latin America gets a lot of airtime, and it’s easy to see why. Since December 2006, 120,000 Mexicans have died as a result of violence connected to narcotrafficking, and an additional 27,000 people have been declared missing. El Salvador suffers from a homicide rate nearly triple that of Mexico. Guatemala and Honduras endure similar levels of violence that really rock the brain if one thinks about them too long, but fortunately, white people rarely do. If we did, we’d have to consider the demand that fuels drug violence, and guess what? It doesn’t come from Latin America.

Drugs are as American as apple pie and Black Friday. We’re living through a full-blown opioid crisis, but we’ve been building up a ravenous drug market for decades and decades. Who has to pay for that drug market with their lives? Addicts, yes, and also brown people—brown people born and raised in our supply territory. Of course, we manage to erase these brown people by lumping them into the fiendish categorization of drug traffickers, as if families who suffer drug violence only exist if they’re white. Brown people trying to escape drug violence? Impossible, we say, because all brown people carry that violence out.

Of course, American support for cruelty against brown people extends beyond buying drugs. I know you don’t want to hear about how our government set Latin America aflame by supporting dictatorships throughout the entire 20thcentury. No one likes talking about kidnapped and murdered people, am I right? We’d rather just focus on Castro as the sole proprietor of Latin American unfreedom, which is fine. We won’t talk about the Platt Amendment of 1901, or the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1922, or the 1973 Chilean coup, or Operation PBFORTUNE. Ever heard of the Banana Wars? Thought not, and why should you have? They’re an ugly business.

Instead, let’s talk about poverty. NAFTA is really great because we get cheap cars while Mexican people get jobs and foreign investment, or so the story goes. Here’s the thing, though: trade is made up of two parts, capital and labor, and when only capital can cross borders, free trade isn’t really free. Immigration law forces human beings to participate in restricted markets instead of allowing them to move to whichever one serves their interests best, while money can hopscotch like there’s no tomorrow.

Basically, this means that Walmart can roll into Mexican towns and set up massive corporate farms that drive little farmers out of business, but when said little farmers want to move to the United States to take advantage of higher wages, they can’t—a border stands in their way. They need to stay in a collapsed rural economy and work for collapsed rural wages. You can see how the problem self-perpetuates, right? It’s no coincidence that the Mexican peso tanked in 1994 at the end of NAFTA’s first year, or that illegal immigration to the United States nearly doubled between 1994 and 2000. Who built that? We did, or at least a part of it.

So drug violence, political instability, and poverty are three big pushes that combine with the pull of plentiful jobs to bring brown people to the United States. This is nothing new, and it’s not what’s coming to a head right now. In fact, illegal border crossings are way down—from 1.8 million apprehensions in 2005 to under 304,000 in 2017. Why are people all hot and bothered about immigration in 2018, then?

Like I said, white people, it’s about us. Trump’s unabashed baiting of the white psyche with the specter of the undocumented immigrant is making us see ourselves, and we’re freaking out. That’s because being white is a pathological condition best summed up as this: we know, but we don’t want to know we know.

You, white person, might not know that the CIA launched Operation PBFORTUNE in 1952 with the explicit goal of overthrowing the Guatemalan government after land reform threatened the interests of the gargantuan United Fruit Company, or that the subsequent Guatemalan military dictatorship carried out a nearly forty-year genocide campaign against the country’s indigenous population for which the U.S. supplied money, weapons, and training. You might not remember exactly how the Mexican peso collapsed, and you may be a little fuzzy on why Mexican President Felipe Calderón began Mexico’s disastrous war on drugs in 2006. Perhaps you don’t recall the average wage for an undocumented immigrant or understand how that wage relates to the money you save annually on cheap goods and services. You might not know how many dollars undocumented people paid into your social security check last year.

But you probably do have a general sense that we benefit from other people’s misfortunates, and indeed, that it has always been this way. This isn’t white guilt, it’s just pure fact, and if you feel guilty, that’s beside the point. I’m uninterested in your guilt except to say this: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I’m talking about fire.

Whiteness is such a delicate dance, isn’t it? It involves all of these acts of raw power to maintain and maximize that power, but it also involves making those acts invisible. We don’t want to see them, because if we did, how could we say that we are better than everyone else? That we’re an aspiration to live up to? This is exactly why we disguise our powerplays in ethnocentric discourses of divine favor and birthright. That way, you see, we didn’t take anything from anyone else—theyare trying to take something from us. If only brown people could be as rationalas us, as hardworkingas us, as morally centeredas us, if only they loved their own kids as much as we do and fixed their own problems like we know how to, they would have what we have.

It’s such a comforting delusion. It allows us to push and pull a brown body along a deadly journey to a deadly border, reap the benefits of that body’s dislocation and its work, and then spit on parents with the label “ILLEGAL” as they try to forge an alternative for their kids. The law, we like to say, is the law. Our ancestors migrated legally—after massacring an entire indigenous population, of course, and under wildly different immigration laws that admitted any white person who could pretend to have some money and didn’t appear to be a prostitute. Our complicity is thus hidden beneath a mask of innocence that we ourselves build, which is why, in the words of James Baldwin, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Brown people aren’t criminals, and neither are they victims. Refugees and asylees and migrants and illegal immigrants are all categorizations of daring people of color who build lives for themselves despite it all, despite the fact that we skim off both the top andthe bottom of their efforts even as we condemn them. It’s time to reiterate: These categorizations say a lot more about you and me, white people, than they do about them.

That’s why Trump can use them to get to us so easily. That’s why everyone is losing their minds. The ugly process of manufacturing whiteness is supposed to be invisible, and it’s not quite so invisible anymore.

Have you noticed how people of color aren’t surprised about, well, any of this? The secret of whiteness is not a secret to anyone who isn’t white. It’s time to confront the crime of our innocence—it’s time to free ourselves from the tyranny of whiteness.

Let them in. Let them in not as the permanent under-underside that holds up the invention of whiteness, but on terms of human decency and human health and human benefit. Not for people of color’s sake, white people, but for ours. Delusion is a symptom of unwellness in this patient as much as in any other, and it’s for the mutual benefit of all that we treat it.

 

the never-ending tournament, or why it’s so hard to make friends after twenty-two

Last night, I was sitting in an Uber with two friends of mine on our way to a concert. We were talking about unimportant things, but we were laughing so hard that it actually hurt and I think the Uber driver got a little nervous. It made me think–these were the first post-college friends I had been able to do that with. Maybe they were just my first post-college friends, period. Full stop.

It is so sad that right at the moment we need friends most (read: right at the moment we’re cast out into the cold and lonely world), our friend-making opportunities simply dry up. What happens instead? Happy hours, work bake sales, and (in grad school at least), lots of talks with free luncheons. I don’t know when the bait-and-switch happens, but we suddenly all become people who ask things like, “What do you do?” and “What are you working on?” and “How’s ‘x’ project going?”

No one cares about what you do or what you’re working on or how ‘x’ project is going, and usually, they’re really bad at pretending they do. I mean, it’s hard for me to value someone’s work before I get to know them as people first. Not that your marketing campaign or dissertation or whatever isn’t cool, but like, I could just read your CV. Thanks.

Maybe it’s because we all become insecure? I get this odd feeling that everyone is playing a game and we all abide by these arcane rules that make literally no sense, but everyone is afraid of being the one to puncture the bubble.

I’m all for puncturing bubbles, which is exactly why I’m gifting you–for free!–with my top five rules for making friends after college. I feel pretty well-qualified to hand them out, since I have (as previously noted) made two whole post-college friends.

  1. Join some kind of club. It can be literally anything. A book club, pickup soccer, one of those weird geocaching groups that I still don’t understand what they do (look under rocks for stuff?). It doesn’t matter. Some kind of structured environment outside of work automatically begets conversations beyond work, which is a good thing.
  2. Do not start any conversation with “So, what do you do?” Just no. Lots of people work, and you don’t get a cookie for also working.
  3. Remember people’s names (Yeah, I know, but it’s important).
  4. Listen to good music. “Good” here  just means music that you’re passionate about–I’m not trying to be hipster-elite or whatever. Almost everyone likes music of some sort, and connecting over music (or just your love of it), can spark bridges.
  5. Stay connected to yourself. This sounds super vague, but it isn’t. Like crime novels? Don’t stop reading them. Are you into new languages? Keep plowing through levels on Duolingo. As long as you don’t forget your best qualities, it makes it easier to detect other people with qualities that are complementary to yours–or for those people to find you.

Any other ideas? Is making friends after college impossible, or is that just me? Probs just me, I know.