For those of us that teach in urban, immigrant neighborhoods these are frightening times for our students. While black and brown students have traditionally been otherized and scapegoated more than their counterparts of other minorities, they are especially under fire in Donald Trump’s America. Latino and Muslim children are under the gun especially as the disastrous rhetoric of the Commander-in-Chief places millions of school children in the crosshairs while revisiting the very tropes that we’ve always placed on waves of immigrants: they are changing America, they are criminals, they are poor, they have no educations. Some of these arguments are false on their face as generalizations and others are not symptoms of a problem but rather indicators of the promise and appeal of America. The President’s promise to “Make America Great Again” completely misunderstands what America’s greatness is. America is a place where the next generation can achieve more than their parents dared to even dream.
The way this dream is achieved is through twofold opportunity: employment and education. One upholds the other, greater employment opportunities afford better education which afford better employment opportunities. In this way, the society is moderately leveled and the possibility of achievement is born. Under the callous charge of billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos, the leveling agent of public education is being dismantled. Funding for the neediest schools is on the chopping block in a variety of unproven, virulently touted ways (vouchers, charter schools, and general budget slashing). I work in a school were these children are educated and for our students November 9th, 2016 was not somber…it was terrifying. That morning a message trickled down from our Principal directly and through our staff, and to our students: you are safe here, we will support you, you are Americans. For my students in 5th grade this message was especially important as they are naturally the most aware and media savvy in our elementary school…they are “seniors”.
Fast forward several months, and Donald Trump’s agenda is slowly materializing in all our lives. Newspapers have reported a dramatic increase in immigration raids in our student’s neighborhood and their otherization has grown to new levels, perhaps in ways they are unaware of. During the course of the ceremonies (we have two because we have difficulty booking a venue that can accommodate our 320 plus graduating class and their families in one sitting) I had personally moving moments which put into clarity the dissonance between the political discourse of the Trump Administration and the realities of the immigrant and minority children they are targeting.
The first of these came when our color guard took the stage as, hands on hearts, a sea of black and brown faces who can trace their roots to Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa pledged their allegiance and sang the National Anthem. Denial of the American Dream to these children and their parents based on their place of origin, economic status, or their circumstances under the banner of restoring some undefined American greatness is not only disgusting it is wholly un-American in its conceit. Not only are these children and their parents undeniably American, the American Dream is perhaps more theirs than it is for those of us who were born here and more than a generation in. Even as a minority from every angle, the generational acclimation to systems, accumulation of familial wealth, and appearance of whiteness I’ve experienced has made my path to success easier than those of immigrant, first generation, black and brown, or simply impoverished children. The American Dream is theirs to dream while it has ever been my reality.
Our school’s community is ramping up to reap decades of sweat, tears, lobbying, and debate. Local State Senator Jose Peralta was in attendance at our moving up ceremony to award our school with a check for sorely needed new technology, to mark the construction of our new wing, to award our Salutatorian and Valedictorian, and to address our transitioning students. Our overcrowded school, split between trailers, a mini-building, and an annex is packing itself up for several years of construction which will see us unified in a single building, thanks to years of community outcry and Mr. Peralta’s support. The Class of 2017 won’t benefit directly from our new building, but our incoming Kindergarteners will. The generations it takes for our families to become established and move up, is paralleled by our students’ moving up to middle school, and also in the amount of time it took for our families and their local representatives to fight for a building that more established, more privileged, and wealthier communities would have received unquestionably.
When I hear rhetoric about American values, the American Dream, and an American way of life, it occurs to me that for those of us who were born here–especially for those of us who are supported by or benefit from institutional privileges–and it excludes people like my students and their families, I feel like they haven’t only missed the target…their understanding of America has failed. The American story, at least the idealized one, is an anthology of immigrant stories written in the blood, sweat, and tears of otherized people. Certainly, established but poor families are owed their opportunities to climb the economic ladder, but exluding others based on their point of origin, as a mindset, will reach back far enough to exclude everyone. When I see my students and their families, I see Americans. Not Americans in training, or soon-to-be Americans. Our spirit as a nation isn’t in flag waving, or song singing, but in striving for better for our kids and their kids through hard work and sacrifice. Before you try to knock any immigrant’s struggle, I suggest you try their journey. Navigate a new country’s systems, learn the language regardless of your level of education, find work with a stigma attached to your presence, your appearance, your color, and your intelligence questioned due to your accent or broken speech in a second or third language, and also find suitable living, clothes, and food every day. Oh and all the while, pledge allegiance, salute the symbol, and sing the songs…even when the president calls you a rapist, a drug dealer, and a thug, or when they send federal agents to remove your 9-year-old from a classroom for attempting the multiplication table.
How far will self-determination and American exceptionalism take you there? And how many generations would it take to get your family really mobile? I never bought into this idea of “making America great again,” because I never thought America wasn’t great. It has many flaws, many systemic inequities, many power gaps and barriers, it can be downright unfair and is far from perfect…but it is a great nation, with great promise and potential. America, ideally, holds the potential of our whole species if we can get past white supremacist rhetoric that attempts to close inclusion in “American-ness” to some semi-white ethnic ideal.
Who are we, as Americans, without the come up story? Who are “we” the “people”? Not a nation of immigrants, not a nation founded on non-sectarian judeo-Christian values, and not a great nation of infinite possibilities. Only then are we something ugly and broken; then we truly become something “un-great”.