Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at San Francisco.
On the first day of planned immigration raids across the country last Sunday, eerie quiet settled over Fruitvale, the heavily Mexican and Central American neighborhood where I live in Oakland, Calif. Fliers on lampposts in English and Spanish offered instructions on what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to the door. So far, only a handful of ICE arrests have occurred, but fear has already imposed its toll.
Absent from the streets were the many “familiar strangers” I see during my daily travels, despite urging from the city councilperson who represents this district, Noel Gallo: “Don’t run and hide in your home because that’s not going to solve anything. Continue to work, continue to be in school, and do well and continue to do your paperwork to become a citizen.” Calls to carry on with business as usual reminded me of similar appeals in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2019, we live with a new yet familiar terror.
Sunday services went on without interruption at the sanctuary church Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana two blocks from my home. In his sermon, the Rev. Pablo Morataya said, “It’s impossible to put yourself in the shoes of somebody unless you’re in the same situation or same condition. I have heard in the last two days of at least three cases of people who, from my point of view, have all the reason in the world to be full of panic.”
Normally bustling places were deserted and somber. The feeling of a community holding its breath hung like a fog. Few vendors roamed the sidewalks selling raspados, ice cream and sliced mango. Missing were the mothers I glimpse from my porch walking with young children toddling alongside or babies expertly wrapped in cloth bound to their backs. The baseball diamond and playing fields of Brookdale Park remained empty. Finally, around 8:20 p.m., with the sky still tinged with faint light, the park filled with children and a group of men playing soccer on a neighboring field. The fog of fear had lifted, allowing everyone to burn energy pent up after a day of hiding.
I boil at the reality of children living in fear and under house arrest on a beautiful afternoon when they should have been laughing and playing — not hiding like fugitives. As days such as these accumulate and nick at any feeling of belonging and security, even for those of us with the privilege of American citizenship, what collateral damage are the children absorbing?
I am the daughter of a once-undocumented immigrant from Chile. I’ve tried my entire life to set a good example and be a good American. But I’m sick of hiding, too. I never thought I’d feel compelled while grocery shopping to carry my own passport to prove my citizenship “just in case.” Or that I’d have to remind my 76-year-old father in New York City, where he has lived more than half his life, to bring his original green card when he walks the one block from home to the restaurant where he goes for food, company and conversation in Spanish.
A few days later, the mothers and children return. After all, it’s summer and school’s out. Many head to the Fremont Pool, which advertises itself in English, Spanish and Chinese signage on its nondescript exterior. A little girl in flip-flops walking alongside her mom and sister eagerly pulls goggles and a fluffy pink towel from her bag a half-block before reaching the pool’s entrance. She’s ready to splash. Other kids accompany their parents to work, like the chubby-cheeked, pony-tailed girl at her mom’s snack stand near the Bay Area Rapid Transit station, cheerfully informing passersby of their ice pop offerings: “Coco, fresa, limón.”
Families also frequent Romo’s Caffe, a bright and airy coffee shop on the corner of Bancroft and Fairfax. In the year since owners and sisters Laura Romo and Irma Enriquez, originally from San Juan de los Lagos in Mexico’s Jalisco state, opened it, the cafe has fast become a clearinghouse for vital information. In addition to homemade fare and free WiFi, patrons find notice of community council meetings and can stock up on wallet-sized “red cards” in Spanish with a bullet-point list of constitutional rights, cards for small businesses and fliers for nonprofit organizations that provide youth job training, health care and legal services.
As we move toward a minority-majority U.S. population, President Trump’s racism is the last siren call to a white electorate threatened with losing its power. Researchers project a third of eligible voters in 2020 will be nonwhite and just over 13 percent will be Hispanic. We need to make sure these voters understand their power. Mobilization will require a concerted effort to help the newest and youngest eligible voters to register. They might not have seen their parents vote in this country. When I turned 18, my father warned me against voting due to fear my name would go “on a list” — a reasonable worry for someone from a country where the brutal Pinochet dictatorship had taken over.
“I know it’s a lack of history and representation in schools that makes us vulnerable. It’s a damaging dynamic, and I experienced it,” says comedian John Leguizamo, who is now touring his one-man show, “Latin History for Morons.” Our ancestors helped build this country, and its future rests on our shoulders. Our story in this place is long and rich and indelibly American.
Voters of color, the sun is shining, and you have strength in numbers — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.