Looking at my children, their brown faces a reflection of mine and my husband’s —with their bright and happy eyes, their innocence and curiosity shining through — I can’t help but worry for their future as Latino citizens of the U.S., children of immigrants, with difficult-to-pronounce Spanish last names, and the certain recognition that comes with it.
Like me — a proud Latina who loves this country — countless black and brown parents have had these thoughts and concerns about their children. While we tell them that anything is possible if they dream big enough, and we read them bedtime stories about being unique and celebrating diversity, the reality is that we live in a sometimes ugly, politically-charged world right now, where prejudice is rampant and blatant discrimination, even racism, is our daily bread.
We all have seen the videos, photos, social media accounts and a myriad of other instances where Latinos, blacks and other minorities have been attacked, verbally or physically—from coast to coast, in coffee shops, trains, traffic stops….everywhere and yes, that includes Congress, the White House and our little corner of America, the East End of Long Island.
Earlier this month, Dafne Barrios, a born and raised East Hampton native, decided to post on the very popular Facebook group Bonac Rentals, which connects people who are looking for a space to rent with people who have one available. She needed an apartment, and being young, she could only afford to pay $1200 a month, which she made clear on her post.
That night, she received a private message from someone named Patti Wicks saying “$1200? better go back to your country.”
“I was in complete [and] utter shock when I read it,” Barrios said. “I just stared at my phone not knowing what to say.”
Confused and outraged, Barrios quickly realized she had been a victim of hate speech. Why? The only criteria Wicks could have used to send Barrios a private message was Barrios’ profile picture and she, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, is obviously Latina and brown.
Barrios said she reported Wicks to Facebook and even tried to reply to her, but she had blocked her. She then posted a public message about the incident. Within days she had received countless messages of support from locals.
“I hope that she has learned a valuable lesson to not judge someone by how they look, what price they can afford, their name or last name and what their skin color is,” Barrios said. “I am proud to be a Latina and no one will take that away from me.”
I, like Barrios and many other Latinos living on the East End, have also gone through similar experiences. Not once, but several times over the years.
Earlier this year I was at a traffic light in Hampton Bays, waiting for the red light to turn green, singing loudly and happily to a Spanish song. A pick up truck was waiting on the lane next to me. The ball-cap wearing driver had his face angled towards me for the entire time we were waiting, and then, when the light turned green, he yelled at me “Speak English and go back to your country!.” I was stunned. The shock quickly turned to anger and sadness, but what could I do, but swallow the hurt and keep going with my day.
But these attacks are not limited to random people. In some instances, they can have even bigger consequences.
Last weekend, on a family trip upstate, a New York State trooper stopped our car. My husband was driving. When we asked him why he was stopping us, he said “tailgating,” which I found ludicrous since we were not, and then he asked my husband with a side glance: “Do you even have a license?.” I couldn’t believe my ears.
Fortunately, yes, we do have valid driver’s licenses, but, what would have happened if we didn’t? And, aside from the legalities of having or not having a license, the issue is about the attitude, the assumption, the baseline sentiment of rejection, that no matter the profession or location, certain people exhibit towards Latinos and other minorities in this day and age.
Let me tell you what it feels like for Latinos on the East End of Long Island.
Yes, there are amazing, beautiful moments, with great people of all creeds, races and ethnicities, where we live and let live.
There is also this:
To me, and people like me, sometimes it feels like wanting to belong, but never fully succeeding, because of a certain group of people, despite our accomplishments. You can be a second-generation U.S. citizen, you can be a Dreamer that enrolled in the military, you can work at the local restaurant washing dishes and quietly and proudly making your way in this country. The assumptions made about us are similar, the prejudice, something we have all experienced at one time or another.
It feels like being uncomfortable when certain white people are around you and being aware about your physical traits, even your way of dressing and cultural mores. It also feels like distrusting others. It’s wondering if this white person in front of me with the red MAGA hat will make assumptions about my life without knowing anything about me. It’s going to court for a traffic ticket and standing up in front of everybody and the white people sitting behind you assuming you are there because you don’t have a license. It’s also being at a restaurant with your kids and their cousins and getting glances from the older, white couple next to you and hearing “Latinos breed like rabbits.”
Then, there’s the language. As Latinos we know that when we start speaking Spanish in public we risk getting the looks, the frowns and disapproving faces and sometimes, the threats.
Barrios said that once she was at a store in Sag Harbor with her U.S. citizen mother—who doesn’t speak English fluently and is most comfortable speaking in her native Spanish—when someone started following them around.
“We were told to speak English because we are in America,” Barrios said. “It hit me that people are so ignorant and not aware that [their ancestors] also are not from here or at least their family isn’t. We always get glares from people when we speak in Spanish.”
Glares that exemplify the prejudice, that even though has always been present, it has been exacerbated since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015. (We can all remember his disparaging comments about Mexicans when he announced his candidacy: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”)
In the end, it doesn’t matter what your political affiliations are, the rise of white supremacy, and the so-called “white anxiety,” is a reality. (See related story)
Despite the spin from people who justify this kind of attitude—and there are plenty— immigrations status, circumstances of a particular person or group of people, wanting to succeed in this country, pursuing the American Dream for decades… all of those factors have become irrelevant. President Trump’s policies have made very clear to Latinos and other minorities, where we stand.
If curbing illegal immigration was the goal, immigrants that are documented have been a prime target: from trying to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status programs, to the Muslim ban, to separating kids from their parents at the border, even if they had valid asylum claims, to Rep. Lee Zeldin’s proposal to revoke citizenship of people who came to the U.S. as immigrants if they are involved in gang activity (the “being involved in gang activity” is defined by ICE, which doesn’t have a known criteria for what this means.)
The notion of a perceived white anxiety is in reality a euphemism for xenophobia, the “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.
And that xenophobic sentiment extends to all realms, infusing with toxicity even the most everyday-type of situations, like grocery shopping, or riding the train.
Harvard political scientist and associate professor of government Ryan Enos wrote an opinion piece last November on Vox about a social science experiment he had conducted, where he tested how seeing diversity around us (meaning people of color) affected people’s political opinions. The results are well, sad, and we can see them reflected on the East End:
I sent Spanish speakers to randomly selected train stations in towns around Boston to simply catch the train and ride like any other passenger. I focused on stations in white suburbs. The intent was to create the impression, by subtle manipulation, that the Latino population in these segregated towns was increasing.
Before and after sending these Spanish speakers to the train platforms, I surveyed passengers on the platforms about their attitudes about immigration. After being exposed to the Spanish speakers on their metro lines for just three days, attitudes on these questions moved sharply rightward: The mostly liberal Democratic passengers had come to endorse immigration policies — including deportation of children of undocumented immigrants — similar to those endorsed by Trump in his campaign.
There is a ‘white anxiety’ on the East End that, like in Enos’ experiment, stems from an increase in the Latino population.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latino residents in 2017 represented 19.5 percent of the total population in Suffolk County, an almost 3 percent increase from 2010 when they represented 16.6 percent of the population. In Riverhead, this is clearly exemplified by the changing demographics in the school district. This year about 60 percent of the pre-K population is Latino.
The truth is, ‘white anxiety’ is a myth and what we have today is “black and brown anxiety.” Latino kids feel it. We all feel it. Local immigrant advocates, private citizens, politicians, faith leaders, doctors and a myriad of organizations are denouncing it. They are also trying to be the bridges between Latinos and local police departments, and other official agencies to mitigate the fear and rejection the community feels, so people come forward when they are victims of crime for example, or so they get a fair day in court, or go out to vote when the time comes.
“Silence is the biggest enemy the Latino community faces,” said Southold Anti-Bias Task Force co-chair in a recent interview. “People have to speak out and report what is happening to them.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of people of all backgrounds who have been welcoming to immigrants, who stand side by side with all minorities and who, especially in the last year and a half, have raised their voices agains injustice.
Because, when someone is being attacked, it is easier to retreat—the natural instinct a person has when is hit, figuratively or otherwise—but now, more than ever, the test is about remaining strong and showing by example to those who fear change and fear, even hate, what is strange to them, that living as a united and diverse society is possible, if not inevitable, and the only way forward.
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