Esther J. Cepeda


 Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. 
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(Advance for Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- There's a lot of fear in the Latino community right now of being targeted by someone with a grudge against immigrants.

But attributing the unease to the recent shootings in El Paso, which specifically targeted Mexicans, overlooks the relentless struggle of being nonwhite in America. And the tension ratcheted up after Donald Trump first launched his presidential campaign on the premise that Mexicans were "rapists" and "murderers."

The journalist Rachel Hatzipanagos recently wrote in The Washington Post: "Across racial and ethnic groups, about two-thirds [of respondents to a Pew Research Center study] said that it has become more common for people to express racist views since Trump became president. Researchers say victims of racism experience negative health outcomes. Studies have linked Trump's rise to an increase in premature births among Latinas, and others have tied it to increased anxiety and depression in the general Latinx population."

I worry most about all the Hispanic children who will grow up not trusting white people.

I grew up in a friendly, predominantly white, working-class neighborhood in Chicago -- the kind where plumbers, nurses and sanitation workers were able to own a home (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) send their kids to the local Catholic school. I can't imagine how different my life would have been had my parents lived with suspicion or rancor from their neighbors.

It's impossible to say for sure, but it seems unlikely that I'd be as successful had Mrs. Hannigan, who lived three doors down from me, not made it her habit to sit on the front porch just around the time the ice cream truck came by, ready to give me her spare change so I could buy an orange push-up.

Would I have grown up to marry a white man if the lovely and persistent German-born lady who lived next door to my family had not navigated the protective bubble my strict father enforced around me to introduce me to rocky road ice cream for the first time?

Would I have excelled academically through an elite college-prep high school if my white elementary school teachers hadn't nurtured me, teased out my strengths and held me to their highest standards?

It's difficult to know, but the difference is striking between those who grew up being oppressed by people who didn't respect nonwhites' language or culture and those who were treated kindly.

In his 2017 essay "My President Was Black," Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that Barack Obama's biracial upbringing imbued him with the ability to trust whites, resulting in Obama being "phenomenal -- the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people."

Will Latino children be able to trust white people with that same level of confidence after the Trump presidency?

If not, it would be foolish to lay that shame solely at the feet of our racist, anti-Latino president. Stop to consider that -- though the tenor of attitudes toward immigrants has gotten more hostile under Trump -- decades of underinvestment in Hispanic students have kept them isolated from the very people, whites, they need to understand in order to succeed in this country.

Though low-income students of all racial groups are likelier to learn beside more middle-class pupils than ever before, racial segregation in schools has intensified. In fact, Latino children are likely to enter elementary schools this year with fewer white peers than a generation ago, according to a new study published in "Educational Researcher," the peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

On average, the nation's Latino children attended elementary schools in which nearly 40% of their schoolmates were white in 1998, but that fell to just 30% by 2010, according to data analyzed by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Maryland; and the University of California, Irvine.

The net result is that between 1998 and 2010, Latinos nationwide became more segregated within districts enrolling at least 10% Latino pupils, including in large urban districts.

We can't blame that on Trump.

That's on a society, in which the best teachers and resources go to affluent students. And the least trained teachers populate the most under-resourced and highly segregated schools, in which students are most dependent on school for an education.

Inequality -- and Latino distrust -- stands to haunt our country for decades to come.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- The last time I saw Sil Ganzó, she was beaming as she gave a tour of her after-school care facility for newly arrived immigrant and refugee children.

Based on her enthusiasm, you'd have thought the tiny, two-room storefront for the elementary-school students had the grandeur of Google's headquarters. But, as I recall, it had few windows, and she was fighting to get local dog owners to pick up after their pets on the loose gravel outside the building -- the barren spot where the trash cans were kept but also where the kids liked to make up games and run out their wiggles.

That was back in 2015, when I visited the OurBridge program in Charlotte, North Carolina, which Ganzó runs as executive director. I learned on my visit about the astounding diversity and expanding population of U.S.-born Hispanics, immigrants and refugees in the American South.

Charlotte continues to expand and serve as a gateway for new Americans. This has meant major changes for OurBridge and for Ganzó's newcomers.

"We've grown! In the last couple of years, we tripled the number of kids to about 200 and expanded to middle school-aged kids. Our home is now a beautiful building with hundreds of acres of green space, a lake and a kitchen," Ganzó gushed to me on the phone recently. "We partnered with an elder care organization and are renting it for one dollar a year! We can take the kids to cook, on hikes; they have soccer fields and have planted a garden."

It sounds like an oasis for children who are often scarred by the effects of war, deprivation and unspeakable trauma -- whether it be from crossing our southern border or arriving here from Syria, Burma, Bhutan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Truly, it's a sanctuary. And I don't mean the new facility -- I'm sure it is beautiful, but when I visited, I witnessed gold-standard student-centered engagement. Kids working with each other to build block towers, teachers modeling self-advocacy and problem-solving, older students helping younger ones with homework, groups practicing English and filling in the blanks with their shared language of hand gestures and smiles.

My visit to OurBridge sprung to mind when I heard Ken Cuccinelli, the White House acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, make a mockery of the Statue of Liberty's famous Emma Lazarus-penned inscription. He suggested: "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

What he didn't say was that almost all poor, undereducated immigrants can pull themselves up by their bootstraps -- they just need a loving, helping hand.

"We make our families feel cared for, not just by teaching their kids English, but by advocating for them in the community," said Ganzó, herself an immigrant from Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Last year when we had ICE agents knocking on doors, I had a parent calling me from the closet, scared because they were outside her house. We went to our elected officials to ask that the city not cooperate. Unfortunately, the mayor didn't sign on to do that, like many other major cities, but it gives our families peace of mind that someone is fighting for them."

Ganzó said that both parents and students come to understand and eventually love the U.S., not because they're offered English as a second language classes or after-school care, but because they feel connected to their new home when their own homelands are honored.

"We know we don't want our families to 'assimilate' -- that word is misused because it means that one culture supersedes the other. What we want to achieve is acculturation, where you learn and become part of a culture without losing your identity or where you come from," Ganzó said. "We take the kids to their markets where they see their flags. We'll go to the Nepali store, the Asian market, the Latino food market, the African store -- then we ask them to help us buy the food for their recipes, and it makes the kids so proud that they know something that we don't know."

People who seek to keep others out of this country don't realize that people who make the treacherous and heartbreaking journey to this country do so because they (BEG ITAL)want(END ITAL) to get on their own two feet. They don't want a handout, but their success here does rely on being met with a welcoming hand.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- The massive immigration-reform marches of 2006 started as a response to, among many other things, pending legislation that would have made unlawfully present immigrants into felons.

The marches helped squash the legislation, which was known as the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. But the rallies also had a lasting impact on our country by marking the beginning of a move toward bringing unlawfully present immigrants out of the shadows and into the spotlight to take a well-deserved bow. These are your neighbors, the people who cheaply cut your lawn, help you take care of your elderly, prepare your food from farm to table and clean your homes and offices.

After the 2006 marches, unlawfully present immigrants began to "come out," echoing the phrase that LGBTQ people use when disclosing their sexual identity to others.

"In the last few years, many immigrants, particularly those who were brought to the United States illegally when they were very young, have invoked the narrative of 'coming out.' Specifically, they have publicly 'outed' themselves by disclosing their unauthorized immigration status despite the threat of deportation laws," wrote University of California at Davis law professor Rose C. Villazor in "The Undocumented Closet," an article published in the University of North Carolina's Law Review in 2013.

"In so doing, they have revealed their own closet -- 'the undocumented closet' -- in which they have been forced to hide their identity as 'undocumented Americans.' Notably, by choosing to become visible, these undocumented Americans are slowly yet powerfully reforming immigration policy by demanding that they are recognized as lawful members of the American polity."

Most people will remember a period of time when young, unlawfully present immigrants were making headlines by being publicly "undocumented and unafraid." And then some of their parents started being open about their illegal status.

That really stuck in the craw of people like President Trump and his immigration advisers -- official ones like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon and unofficial ones like Kris Kobach -- who have made demonizing immigrants the cornerstone of Trump's election and reelection campaigns.

Trump popularized making America "great again" -- an idea that seemed to rest on the belief that immigrants, regardless of whether they are legally or unlawfully present, are what made America not great.

Cue the rash of white Americans getting caught on tape attempting to shame non-whites for speaking languages other than English out in public, or physically harming non-whites seemingly for just being themselves. The shooter who killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart in early August freely admitted he was targeting Mexicans.

Not "illegal immigrants," but what he and Trump's followers consider a "Hispanic invasion."

Hispanic -- as in legal immigrants and naturalized citizens from Latin America and U.S. born citizens from parents with ties to Latin America.

Though the shooter said in his manifesto that his views on immigration pre-dated Trump's run for president, it hardly matters.

Trump's hard-charging campaign to keep immigrants away from the U.S. and make those strident "undocumented and unafraid" people scared is no secret.

Now that every brown-skinned immigrant and U.S.-born-Latino feels they are a target, Trump is moving on to terrorizing those who got into the U.S. "the right way."

This week, the White House announced new standards for obtaining a green card, and thus U.S. citizenship, increasing the scrutiny of applicants' finances to ensure they are not likely to someday use taxpayer-funded benefits like Medicaid, housing assistance or food stamps. These measures are expected to weed out low-income immigrants of color who Trump and his followers consider to be undesirable.

Starting last fall, when the idea of tightening the standards for which immigrants might eventually become a "public charge" was floated by the administration, the effects have been chilling. There are reports that immigrants are forgoing their U.S.-born children's food assistance and medical benefits for fear that if they used them, it could threaten their ability to eventually obtain a green card.

It's all a part of a master plan to make immigrants, even those who are documented, afraid.

But there are a lot of U.S.-born Latinos who aren't buying into this noise.

Many of us recognize there (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL) a target on our backs. But some of us are happy to say -- to Trump and to anyone who feels they need to rid the country of Hispanics -- come at us.

Everything that happens to vilify and frighten Latinos in this country only serves to make us more willing to call our legislators, to register voters and canvas neighborhoods to get out the vote.

In other words, (BEG ITAL)their(END ITAL) hatred makes (BEG ITAL)us(END ITAL) stronger.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.