The precipice. The small, overhanging space that tips over a very high place. Where you have an equal chance of tipping over the edge into the uncharted, unknown abyss with no discernable end or to fall back into the familiar arms of solid ground. This is where Michaela stands. This is where DACA recipients and their families have been forced to stay, inching ever closer to the edge of the precipice by the sharp instruments of unfinished policy at their backs. They are forced closer to an uncertain destiny of deportation with the knowledge that there may still be a chance to walk to the free open spaces of status in the U.S. It is a tortuous affair, which many people are not sure where to go to change their fate. There is a feeling of hopelessness that comes with the experience and it may be difficult to pick oneself up to do what one can. But not to immigrants.
You see, Michaela worked hard the entirety of her school career and was heavily involved in her high school’s JROTC program. She knew that, if she wanted to get something done, she would have to do it herself. After speaking to her First Sergeant, Michaela was able to get connected to the Collier County Neighborhood Stories Project (CCNSP), a grassroots movement with a goal to engage and empower the Florida immigrant community into a dialogue about the police abuse experienced by immigrants. It was there where she met an organizer named Grace, who shared her own story of being undocumented and introduced her to other undocumented citizens and allies to the immigrant community. I asked her what finding this community meant to her and she responded, “This encounter became a life savior, I felt secluded during those times.”
When you ask Michaela about immigrant rights, you can see the fire that roars behind her eyes. There is a tinge of pain for things that have been seen but, more importantly, and ferociously, there is an inferno of strength and justice that challenges the opposition to take another step; to try and tell her that what is stated in the media is fact.
Putting Voices to Action
However, unlike the voices that over saturate the airwaves, she actively puts her voice to action. Alongside CCNSP, Michaela aligned herself with the Collier for Dreamers (CFD) organization. With CFD, Michaela handed out pamphlets explaining the rights of immigrants to those who had not been able to learn. Michaela told me that education is one of the most important tools when it comes to activism. Whenever speaking with her about immigrants’ rights, she is always quick to spit the facts, to tell it as it truly is. As she works alongside CFD, she makes sure that everyone she comes in contact with truly understands the plight of immigrants in this day and age. From teaching other immigrants various options that are available to them to teaching non-immigrants what immigrants are really like to create relationships, it is this work that she is most passionate about and what simply lights up the entirety of her being. It is her community. It is what she loves.
Of course, demanding rights does not come without a price to pay. As I spoke with Michaela, I wondered if she had experienced the racism that seemed to be legitimized in the new culture of our country. If I, a white-passing Latin, native-born citizen, had experienced racism, I was almost nervous to ask what she’d had to endure.
Michaela and her family currently live in Naples, FL, an area whose breakdown is 88% white and 5% Latinx. It is a small, conservative town which became a petri dish of hatred. And unfortunately, our ray of bright light was not safe from it. Every time I hear the nearly inconceivable things that people say, a lump builds in my throat and tears prick the inside of my eyes. Perhaps it is because I’m too innocent and naïve to remember that people will say the most racist things.
Michaela harkened back to a moment where she took care of a patron in the restaurant where she worked. In a moment that seems strange to even comprehend, when responding to the patron’s question about where she was from, he responded, “Oh, so you are a criminal and a drug addict.”
When she told me this, I was too shocked to speak. What do you even say to something like that? How does one react? Just nod and act sweet? Avoid confrontation? Apparently not in Michaela’s case, as she took no time to respond in kind, “No, you are the criminal and you are the drug addict.”
This isn’t the only instance of racism she had endured and it has only gotten worse in the past two years. When the Trump rhetoric swept over the nation, so did the idea that it is okay to speak hatred and to incite violence to those of a different color or religion. It is becoming more and more dangerous for us to be out in the light with who we are and what we believe in. The Land of the Free is closing in on those who aren’t fitting a rewritten narrative and it is pushing people to the brink. Michaela has been on alert and sadly had to step back in the involvement where she found hope. In a haunting sentence, she responded to my query as to why “Not only for my safety but for my family’s as well.”
Chasing the American Dream
So why not just step away altogether? Why not just stop speaking out in general and go quietly? What keeps her going? It is the desire that burns inside the hearts and souls of every man, woman, and child that steps onto United States soil. It is the desire that washed over the minds of those who originally came through Ellis Island and still roars inside those on rafts and those walking through the desert to get to us. They are grasping toward that glittering American Dream. I asked Michaela what she wants. What is it that makes all of this fear, pain, and sweat worth it? “When I am able to go to school. Graduate,” she responded. “Somewhere in the future, own my own business and help my parents. That would be my vision of having reached the American Dream.”
There are days when I ponder what happened to us, where we suddenly became so angry with those who are different than us. I wonder, why is it that with every wave of immigration that comes to our shores, we begin to hate their touch and the change in richness they bring to our culture? There are calls to go back to our own countries, to only speak English, and to stop taking jobs. I think it’s because we have become too comfortable. We have had the intensely perfect privilege to live in a nation which allows us to make a change to our government, to build ourselves up from nothing, and to live how we want to live.
We are supposed to be the Land of the Free. We forget how these rights are not so available to everyone. As such, we have lost our ability to empathize with those who simply want the same things as those who saw Lady Liberty pierce the fog almost a hundred years ago. It has become our downfall. It has caused us to forget how immigrants have perpetuated our greatest advancements. It has made us lose sight of what is important. That all peoples are created equal. That all people deserve to have their chance in the land of opportunity.