A few weeks ago I needed a copy of my birth certificate. I’d never actually seen a hard copy in person, so it was a surprise to me when I learned that since October of 1987 I have been identified as “white.”
Me. The Latina. The Chicana with “Si se puede” tattooed on her arm. White.
I made a few jokes about how that explains why I love L.L. Bean and The Avett Brothers, but somehow haven’t benefited from my apparent whiteness these last 30 years. It was something to laugh about because “beige” wasn’t an option in Cameron County, Texas, in the 1980s.
Of course my mom said not to worry because a paper document did not define who I am. If you’ve grown up Latinx, tus papeles (“your papers)” is a term you’re familiar with. You have them, you don’t, they’re in process, etc. Papers are what define one’s legal status in America.
Earlier this week I read an article in the Washington Post about a man from south Texas who was denied a new passport and whose American citizenship was called into question. I breathed a heavy sigh as I read. Juan is 40 years old. He was born in Brownsville, Texas, and is Mexican-American. The article explained that he was born at home. He had served in the army and then the border patrol. Furthermore, he had the papers. Despite all that, Juan is now stuck in limbo.
My heavy sigh turned into a cold sweat in the middle of a hot summer day, because Juan’s story is not at all unfamiliar to me or my family.
I have relatives who were born by midwives. Both my parents were born at home. My father was born in Harlingen in south Texas. I have uncles who have served in the U.S. military, who have been in wars and who have patrolled our borders. Now, I had to wonder if or when their citizenship would come into question simply because of their ethnicity. Would it happen during a routine traffic stop? At the DMV? Coming back from a trip across the border to visit family? Or, like Juan, during a passport renewal?
Would my mother or father be sent to a detention center for bearing the last name Aldape?
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve heard about how the current administration has systematically targeted immigrant communities since taking office in January of 2017. From appointing an attorney general who has had a record of promoting racist policies, to ordering “non-Muslim” bans to ban Muslims, to jailing immigrant children (after forcibly separating them from their parents) as if they were criminals for seeking refuge.
This topic is important to me as a person of faith, as the daughter of an immigrant and — despite what my papers say — as a Latina. I care deeply about how this administration has terrorized immigrants and normalized hatred for people of color. But I must confess that none of the policies caused me to feel as weak and helpless as this most recent news did. I felt horrible for finally feeling helpless because now it hit close to home — quite literally since this is happening in the Rio Grande Valley where I was born and the majority of my family reside.
My mom, like any mother trying to comfort her child, said not to worry. But that’s also what folks said when Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants thugs and rapists, followed since by many other instances of race baiting. We were told not to worry when he was inaugurated, that his views and policies would moderate.
At this point we should not be shocked by the latest outrageous display of racism at the southern border. Trump told us exactly how he felt about Latinos in June of 2015 and he’s telling us now. Are you paying attention?
I am worried. I urge you to be worried too. I urge you to speak up. Speak up like it’s your own parents in question. Speak up like it’s your very best friend in question. Because papers should not define who a person is.
If you’re paying attention, you also know that even when our papers check out, it’s often still not enough.
If we preach on Sunday that being children of God is enough, yet ignore dangerous policies that tell persons of color — including children and their immigrant families — that they are not enough, we are complicit in this racism.
People of God, are you paying attention?