This week my 13-year-old friend from Cuba described comments made by the white classmates who passed her in the hall with calls like, “Hey, Mexican!” or “I hear you like tomatoes!” or some other comment meant to be a general, pejorative reference to Latinas. She lives in a northern suburb of Minneapolis known for its conservative views on immigration.
Her father, my dear friend and dance maestro, added, “I remember a time when people who could speak four languages were admired.” And that reminded me of a conversation I had in 2003 with my Lebanese friend Sadie Anton (chapter 3 of Before I Leave). That was two years after 9/11 and she had told me that she would not discuss war or politics during our interviews. Period.
It was a time when some Americans felt free to express open hatred toward anyone who even looked like they came from the Middle East. So I had “wondered,” within the copy of the chapter I had given Sadie to review, whether she had been afraid of being profiled or discriminated against because of her heritage. She had written “Please Omit” next to the paragraphs that explored my concerns. But she left the question, “Did Sadie feel vulnerable?” alone, and answered it this way: “I was born in America, and [am] a true American.” Later in the manuscript she added, “Our people went to night school to learn the English language. They were true Americans.”
Sadie is gone now, but I wonder what she would have had to say about our national immigration dispute. For me, the bigger question is whether we will ever get beyond it. And an even darker question: Is it really about immigration? Or, is it about race.
I’m afraid of the answers.