[thursday recs] can't we make the world a bigger place?

i came from méxico, but there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think i crawled out of hell. they hear “méxico,” and they think: bad, devil, i don’t know. they got some crazy ideas. any of them ever been to méxico? and if they say, yeah, i went to acapulco back in the day or i been to cancún, papi, then that shit don’t count. you went to a resort? congratulations. but you didn’t go to méxico. and that’s the problem, you know? (236)

hi! ok, so, we’re a week into this presidency, and our cheeto president is already doing some truly heinous, insidious shit, continuing on his track of xenophobia and racism, of lying and fear-mongering, of thin-skinned egomaniacal tweeting.

i’m sure i’m not the only one waking up to nausea, dealing with anxiety and fear on a daily (or, dare i say, hourly) basis, and, like i said last week on instagram, i’ve been thinking a lot about the different forms of activism and resistance take as well as what it is i can do. i can’t march; i’m not someone who feels comfortable putting myself out there; and i struggle with suicidal depression that often saps me of everything. in many ways, i feel like i am not “qualified” to be an activist, that i do not check off the “right” boxes, even though i know that’s bullshit. there are many ways to resist.

what i do have are books — books and words and stories — so here’s a little something: every thursday, i will post a book by an author who is an immigrant and/or a POC and/or LGBTQ and/or a woman. sometimes, it will be a book by a non-american author, someone who’s been translated who writes about another culture, another people. sometimes, it might be a book by someone else who falls into completely different categories altogether. the point is simply that i will share a book that hopefully opens up the world a little more and reminds us that humanity is a universal thing, and there is no need to fear and discriminate against entire swaths of people simply because they appear different from us.

maybe i’m preaching to the choir here, but i think most of us, myself included, can stand to challenge ourselves more. for example, for myself, i know i’d like to start reading outside asian-americans, outside east asians more. and i hope this will produce a good archive that’s easily sharable with anyone who might be curious, who might want to read more diverse books but feel unsure about where to start. i’ve been there before, and i know it’s sometimes intimidating to try to find what’s worthwhile amidst all the books out there.

ultimately, i do believe in books. i believe in stories. and i believe in the greater importance for stories over the next four years — and i’m going to repeat myself here (from instagram) — we are going to need stories that affirm and reaffirm and reaffirm again and again and again the difference faces of humanity, that say/shout/scream to a hostile administration that we are here, we are alive, we will outlast you, and you will not silence us.

so let’s get started.

these people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. about all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the mexicans. you listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy america, we still think texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. i swear to god, i’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. happens to me all the time. i walk into a store and the employees either ignore me or they’re hovering over every move i make because they think i’m going to steal something. i understand i might not look like much. i work as a photographer, so i’m not in a business suit or nothing, but i have enough money to be in a store and even if i didn’t, i have the right to be in any store. i feel like telling them sometimes, you don’t know me, man. i’m a citizen here! but i shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. i want to be given the benefit of the doubt. when i walk down the street, i don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. i want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right thing. (236-7)

maybe cristina henríquez’s the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014) is the obvious first choice, but i really couldn’t recommend this book more, especially given this week with trump’s ordering of the border wall and the muslim travel ban. 

in an interview with the LA review of books, henríquez summarizes her book thusly:

it’s really a story about two parents, devastated after their only daughter suffers a brain injury. they bring her to the united states [from mexico] so that she can attend that specialized school to help her recover. they end up in delaware, in an apartment building with residents from all over latin america, neighbors that become something like a family. and while they’re there, one of those neighbors — this 16-year-old boy from panama — improbably falls in love with their daughter. it’s a story about tragedy and guilt, but also about hope and about what it means to belong somewhere, to find a place to call your home.

the book of unknown americans is told in multiple narrators, each telling his/her story. henríquez deftly handles each voice, giving each its own character and distinctness, and it’s a testament to her writing that the voices don’t become muddled, carry their own individual strengths instead.

i won’t go into each character here, but, overall, henríquez doesn’t obviously try to speak against the stereotypes that latin americans face, that they’re rapists, criminals, drug dealers, here to terrorize our women and corrupt our societies and steal our jobs. she simply lets them tell their own stories, and, by doing so, she allows them their humanity in all their three-dimensional ways. it’s not that she ignores the political or the social; she recognizes that everything is political, that even having the last name she has is political; but she isn’t bashing anyone on the head with her novel or slamming her fist on the table and shouting, “you’re racist; you’re horrible.”

instead, she simply asks that you sit down and consider these stories, these people.

she asks that you see them as who they are: human.

i wish just one of those people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. and yes, you can talk to us in english. i know english better than you, i bet. but none them even want to try. we’re the unknown americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. and who would they hate then? (237)

i think this is the thing with fear: we fear what is unknown, but, most of the time, when we actually encounter our fears, we learn that they are not what we expected — they are not actually that unknown. we learn that our fears say more about us than about the people, the decision, the place we’ve been fearing, and, sometimes, that’s what makes it so hard for us to “conquer” our fears because then we’d have to give ourselves a long, hard look in the mirror, and a lot of us would not like what we see.

and the thing with people is this, that no one is unknowable, that all it takes is to sit down and listen to someone’s story to realize that, hey, s/he’s not that different from me. s/he isn’t someone for me to fear and hate.

this is why i believe in stories, because stories show us that, at heart, we are not all that unique. regardless of the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, the god we worship, the condition of our bodies, we all essentially want the same things. we want to love and be loved. we want to be safe. we want to have families and raise them in open, loving communities. we want to live good, meaningful lives.

and the unfortunate truth is that, sometimes, some of us have to leave our countries to find safety and opportunity elsewhere. some of us have to flee because of unrest, instability, and/or war. some of us have to leave home in the hopes that our children will lead better lives, receive better educations, live without fear.

and that doesn’t make them people to be hated, to be feared. that simply makes them people, people who have suffered, people who have gone through all kinds of hell and survived, people who have lost their homes and loved ones and countries. they are people who don’t come here empty-handed either, bringing with them their skills, their cultures, their stories, and, if this administration thinks that those are things to be feared and not welcomed, then all i can say is this: do not forget how this country was founded. do not forget that this is land you came in and took, land you built on the backs of slaves, land you developed with the contributions of immigrants. do not forget what makes this country great.