wizdUUm Blogs on Social Justice

A Few Drops in the Ocean

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."
-Mahatma Gandhi

This was one of my favorite quotes. A year ago, it took on a particularly poignant significance when the Deep Water Horizon well exploded and the earth began to hemorrhage crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. With the Pacific garbage patch, mercury laden fish, and now Japan releasing exceedingly radioactive water, I wonder just much longer this quote will be relevant. Or, it it already a relic from a time just over a century past?

Spring is here fulfilling its promise of renewed life. What other new metaphors can we use to restore a belief in humanity, especially in the face of a tiny minority (Not Japan but the top 1%) who is in a race to exploit, sell and use up our beloved earth’s gifts.

“Go Back to Where You Came From!”

Ever since April when Governor Brewer signed SB1070 into law in Arizona, I have been following developments down there with rapt attention – checking the updates of various facebook groups, scanning online news headlines, reading analyses… With each new day the news seemed to get worse and worse. First, there was the passage and signing of SB1070 itself. Before the worst parts of the legislation were suspended in July, SB1070 directed officers of the law to investigate the legal status of people “where there is reasonable suspicion” that they may be undocumented. Then came the news that the state of Arizona had also banned public schools from offering ethnic studies – classes designed to give students of color, predominantly Latin@/Hispanic and Native American students – a sense of self worth in this Euro-dominated culture. At the same time, teachers with noticeable accents were barred from teaching English. Arizona Republican Senate candidate J.D. Hayworth called for a moratorium on LEGAL immigration from Mexico.  And finally, the AZ state senator behind SB1070, Russell Pearce, intends to introduce legislation that ends birthright citizenship, in clear contradiction of the 14th amendment. Taken altogether, it seems obvious that the state of Arizona has declared war on immigrants in general and Latin@/indigenous people in particular.

Luckily, it is my job to keep track of legislation and other developments around immigration or else my obsession with the issue these last few months would have severely affected my work. It was more than just passion, more than compassion, more than the fact that my parents, paternal grandparents and uncle, maternal cousin, and many of the non-biological “aunts” and “uncles” from my childhood are all immigrants. This was personal to me to the point where I felt like it was me who was being attacked.  The reason why became clear one afternoon in May as I sat at home, reading developments as usual, and saw the story of Juan Varela, a third-generation Mexican-American who was shot and killed by a neighbor as he yelled “go back to Mexico!”


“Go back!” “Go back to China!” was what the kids at school used to yell at me. It did not matter how many times I tried to explain to them that since I was born here in the U.S. and had never been to China, I could not “go back.” That was my first introduction, at the age of five, to how little logic/reason plays in these “discussions.” They saw me as foreign, un-American, and no matter how hard I tried to assimilate – refusing to speak Mandarin, pleading with my mom to eat spaghetti and tacos for dinner (ironic, isn’t it?) – it made no difference. It was my skin tone – the one thing that I could not shed – that made me a target. All these years later, I still know that my standing as a U.S. citizen is considered conditional to a great many people.

Tears flowed for the loss of life for Juan Varela and the pain of those who love him, but also for the loss of whatever sense of security that Latin@-American kids might still have had. I’m sure that many had already heard the words, “Go back to Mexico!” (regardless of whether or not they are actually of Mexican descent). In Arizona and across the country, states have or are considering similar SB1070-like legislation. Talk of ending birthright citizenship has reached the national level. And incidences of hate-crimes against Latin@s are up around the country.

It was also back in May when I first heard about the proposed Muslim community/cultural center (wrongfully described as a mosque just about everywhere). It had made the news when conservative radio show host, Michael Perry, declared that someone should blow the building up if it is built. I wondered if the irony of threatening to blow up a building near ground zero due to religious differences was lost on Mr. Perry, but in general dismissed him as a right-wing extremist and went back to paying attention to Arizona. Now it is August and not only have other right-wing celebrities weighed in to oppose the cultural center – Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, Gingrich – but people who should know better – Harry Reid, Howard Dean and Governor Patterson – are saying that it should be moved. Polls say that between 61-70% of U.S.Americans oppose the “mosque.” I am appalled, and also obsessed, to the point where I am checking the updates of various facebook groups, scanning online news headlines, reading analyses…

Like SB1070, the controversy over the cultural center feels very personal. Because, like SB1070, the controversy over the cultural center is indicative of a much bigger issue than the one everyone is yelling about. Claiming that the center is “too close” to ground zero does not explain why residents are angrily opposing the building of a new mosque in Staten Island, and it certainly doesn’t explain opposition to building mosques in TennesseeKentucky, and California. It does not explain why mosques across the nation have been targeted for vandalism, arson, gunfire, and even a pipe bomb.  In NY, four men brutally beat an Arab man, shouting “Go back to your country!”  In California a man assaulted a Muslim American, shouting “Go back to where you came from!”

“Go back to your country!” “Go back to where you came from!” The events in Arizona are supposedly about “illegal” immigration, and the controversy over the New York cultural center is supposedly about unhealed wounds from 9/11. But what they have in common is groups of people who are seen as foreign, un-American, their loyalties suspect, due to the color of their skin and/or their religion. As an ally with a very personal interest in these issues, I have tried to explain how Mexicans have lived in Arizona since before Arizona was part of the U.S. I’ve tried to explain that Muslim Americans also died in the attacks on 9/11. But when talking to some people, it feels like I’m five years old again and faced with the frustration that perfectly good facts don’t seem to make even the slightest dent in their preconceptions of “us versus them.”

Based on our history, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will *eventually* prevail, as our nation fitfully expands its notion of what “equality” means every generation or so. But in the meantime, I am afraid that a generation of Latin@ American and Muslim/Arab American kids will carry the burden of not quite trusting that they are accepted as “American” well into their adulthoods. I know that had there been even one person who stuck up for me when I was a kid – just one (non-Asian) ally – it would have made a huge difference. And that is what I keep in mind during these trying times when the hatred seems limitless and people standing on the side of love seem so few. We do not need to be able to convince everybody. We just need to speak, so that those who are being attacked know that they are not alone.

It Takes A Village To Hold A Protest

Let me start by saying that I am not a “protest” kind of person.  My experience with numerous protests is that a lot of people assemble, shout angry slogans, maybe sing a few songs, and then go home, leaving piles of garbage in their wake.  No matter how much I cared about an issue it always seemed to part of me like protests were something that we “attend” the way that one might attend a rock concert, and that they were geared more towards letting the participants feel good about having “done something” than actually effecting change.  For that reason, I approached the Day of Non-Compliance (July 29th) in Phoenix with some personal apprehension.  Since I knew that I was not planning on getting arrested, I wondered then what exactly it was that I would be doing.  Was I flying two-thirds of the way across the country just to attend a protest?  But I tried to approach the coming days with an open heart – letting the Spirit guide me.


At six am Thurs, we arrived at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for an interfaith service.  A rainbow hung high in the sky, seeming to make its arc right over Trinity. Seeing it, my heart leapt with hope.  I thought of the biblical story of God’s promise to His [sic] people.  I thought of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice.  After the service, we started marching towards downtown.  So far, this was not unlike other rallies/protests/marches/vigils that I had attended.  But it was during the march that I first noticed them – people carrying plastic trash bags collecting water bottles and other refuse from marchers, so that the streets remained clean.  Cleaning up after ourselves?  What a novel concept!  How lacking in sense of privilege!  I smiled at the young Latino man carrying the garbage bag and felt that he was playing a role as important as any cleric who spoke from the pulpit or any of the rally organizers.

When we got to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I saw that Puente (a local Phoenix movement with whom we’re partnering) had set up a staging area where bottles of water cooled in kiddie wading pools full of ice.  Two cots were available for those who fell ill.  Hand made signs were available for those who wanted to carry them.  Those of us who were not going to get arrested made sure that others had plenty of water to drink, grabbing bottles from the kiddie pools and handing them out to everyone, including the police officers who must have been roasting under their riot gear.  Someone from the staging area called for volunteers to run sitting pads over to the demonstrators at the intersection in front of the Wells Fargo Building (Arpaio’s office).  I was handed a pile of bath towels that had been cut in half and then sewn to an insulating backing, to protect people’s behinds and legs from the baking asphalt.  Wow, I thought, they had prepared for everything.  Little did I know.

Much later, after watching the last of our people get loaded into the police paddy wagon, I started heading towards the 4th Ave jail where other demonstrators – including Peter Morales, Susan Frederick-Gray. and Puente’s Salvador Reza – had blocked the jail entrance.  On my way, I stopped by the staging area to see if I could carry some bottles of water over.  I was told that there was plenty of water at the jail already but I could carry over two spray bottles for cooling people down.  I walked the two blocks with the spray bottles alone – a curious sense of solitude given the frenetic energy all around me, including the beating blades of a police helicopter overhead.  Once at the jail site, I looked for red faces to whom to offer a cooling spray of water.  (By the time the 4th Ave protestors were arrested some time later, I was pretty red-faced myself.)  Roaming the crowds, I also saw volunteer medics coming to the aid of those for whom water was no longer enough.

Those of us who had not been arrested straggled back to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix during the mid to late afternoon.  We ate some food.  We cooled off as best we could.  We attended to those of us who had succumbed to heat exhaustion.  But now what next?  Do we just wait at the church?  Go back to our hotel or homestays?  That didn’t seem right.  The answer came from Puente, who had had the foresight to apply for a permit to hold an all-night vigil at the jail.  It turns out that whenever one of their own is in jail, they hold vigil so that no one is released out to an empty street – every member who was arrested comes out to cheers and hugs.  So, with night fall, we boarded our vans and headed over to the jail.  Puente people had already been there since 4 pm.  We lit candles.  We prayed.  We sang.We tried to sing in Spanish.  (Note to self: that is something we have to work on *before* we get to the vigil.)  Word came that the 4th Ave arrestees would be arraigned at 11 pm, which meant they would be released in the wee hours of the morning.  A group of us stayed all night to greet them as they got out.

Friday dawned, tentative.  Those who had been arrested in front of the Wells Fargo Building would be arraigned at 10 am, which meant they would be out by early afternoon.  Members of UUCP bought food and fed us breakfast/lunch.  Some of us volunteered to go over to the offices of Puente and the lawyers who were helping us to see if there was a way to pitch in.  Others headed to the jail to be there when people got out.  By mid afternoon, all of our people had been released, and we started packing up the base of operations at UUCP to head over to Valley UU in Chandler, AZ.  The plan had called for a potluck dinner, followed by a Taizé worship service and debriefing.  As far as we were concerned, we were done (for this round – we knew there would be others).  At the potluck, we were told that the delicious cheese enchiladas and chicken tamales were made by Puente, in appreciation for our participation.  Once again, I thought, they really understand community.

We had not even finished our worship service when the word came – more people had been arrested.  That part was not too surprising as we knew that our partners intended to keep up the pressure by demonstrating in front of Arpaio’s Tent City prison.  But what sent a shock wave through all of us was word that Salvador Reza, who had already spent the previous night in jail, had been taken in by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies even though he was across the street and no where near the site of the protest.  I could call that moment a decision point – the kind of moment that determines what kind of people we were going to be by how we respond.  I could call it that but in truth people responded so quickly that there was never any doubt.  We packed up as quickly as we could.  Audra opened up the boxes of yellow “Love” t-shirts, offering a free clean one to anyone going to the vigil.  We loaded our vans and cars, and away we went… to Tent City.  I had wanted to see Arpaio’s notorious prison but did not know it would be under such circumstances.

By the time I got to the vigil across the street from Tent City, it was in full swing.  People lined the street – an intermingling of Puente and Standing on the Side of Love signs.  A drummer stood at the center, with at least one person with a smaller drum accompanying him.  UUs and Puente people took turns leading chants (so that no one got too tired).  Some of us held signs that said “Honk if you oppose SB1070!” and a steady stream of cars flew by, many of them honking.  We were especially gratified whenever a bus would honk.  At least two different people walked up and down the length of the vigilers, holding smoldering sage – blessing & protecting every one of us.  As had happened the previous day, people handed out water continuously.  About two hours or so into the vigil, women started handing out bean burritos and tortas with some kind of meat, and little ice cold cups of lemonade.  It was another thing that they had thought of.  We on the outside supported those inside the jail by keeping vigil, but the vigilers too were supported, ensured that standing outside holding signs and chanting did not mean going hungry or thirsty.

At one point a local leader played the drum while chanting a sacred song.  Instinctively, we gathered round him in concentric circles – as if the drum were the center of our little solar system.  It was a deeply spiritual moment, not only because of the drumming/chanting but because our people – UUs and Puente – were united as one.  The only sour note was when, at the end, a handful of UUs started clapping.  In Euro culture, that is a sign of appreciation, but it also tends to turn the ritual into a “performance.”  The leader admonished us “Don’t clap!  This is sacred.”  Oh well, we are two groups learning how to be together.  There will be small mistakes.  (Note to self: instructions on not clapping should be part of our orientation for future groups of UUs.)

After 10:15 or so, after we had stayed long enough to be featured on the local Fox affiliate, we packed up our vans to move the vigil over to the 4th Ave jail.  Word had come that Sal had been moved there.  Once again, people – both Puente folks and UUs – picked up every bit of trash that we had generated.  When we were done, you would not have been able to tell that dozens of people had just been there.  I climbed into the cool AC of the van.  Such relief.  I was so tired.  I did not know how I would be able to stand for another set of hours, however long, once we got to the 4th Ave location.  But I knew I had to.  With grim determination I got out of the van with my fellow passengers and we walked towards the jail.  We heard music.

Puente folks who had arrived before us had set up a speaker and they were blasting salsa music.  People were dancing on the sidewalk.  My heart filled with joy.  It was a lot easier to dance than it was to stand.  These people knew how to throw a protest! – how to make it so that everyone felt involved and important, so that everyone was nourished physically and spiritually, so that the streets were cleaner for our being there, and so that everything was infused with both reverence and joy.  We danced with crazy happiness, grateful for these last few days.  When a few sheriffs opened the doors to take a look at us, we dance over to greet them and invite them to join us.  (They retreated back into the building.)  That gesture – loving and inviting into community, joyful even in the face of oppression – epitomized to me what our days in Phoenix were all about.  I plan to go back to Phoenix and learn more from our partners, Puente (and others).  But even if I for some reason don’t, I will never forget the lessons learned in Phoenix.  It turns out that I am a “protest” kind of person after all, when it’s done right.  And to do it right, it takes a village to hold a protest.

On Borders...

It was a family tradition when I was growing up that almost every summer we would pack the car and drive from San Francisco where we lived, to Yosemite National Park, then Lake Tahoe, then Reno. The city of Lake Tahoe is bisected by the border between California and Nevada. The first time I saw the Cali/Nevada border, I was disappointed and confused over the lack of a big black line, as I had seen on the map. Instead, there was only a small sign on an otherwise normal looking street. As an adult, I can now see that one direction has casinos and the other only the cheesey tourist shops, but as a kid I would look down the road in one direction and then the other, and it would pretty much all look the same to me. If the little sign were not there pointing it out, I would not have known that there was a border at all. But since there was a sign, I would hop one step to the left and say I was in California, and hop one step to the right and say I was in Nevada.   Looking back on it I see now that my child brain was trying to understand what a “border” actually meant. Yet try as hard as I might, I could not feel a real difference in the land.


Now I live about a block and a half away from Eastern Avenue, which also serves as the northeast border between the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland. In some subtle ways, you can tell that something has changed when you cross Eastern. The houses are slightly larger and more spread out in Chillum, Maryland, and there are streetlights on the Washington side of Eastern Ave, but not on the Maryland side. But in most respects, people cross the border multiple times a day without a second thought – to go to and from work, to buy groceries, to run errands – by foot, by car, by bike, by bus, by rail. The closest grocery store to my house is half a mile up Eastern Ave, on the Maryland side of the street. The nearest drug store is also on the Maryland side of Eastern, a few blocks in the opposite direction. When the need arises, I hop in my car and drive to Maryland to bring my cats to the vet, to shop at Target, to buy pet supplies, to meet friends in Takoma Park or Silver Spring… While I often underestimate the traffic when calculating how much time it will take to get to my destination, I have never had to estimate how long it will take to get through a checkpoint. What would my life be like if, because of a border, I was no longer allowed to go to the grocery store a half mile away from me and instead had to go to one miles away? Or if I had to factor in the time it would take to cross the security checkpoint both ways when running errands? No more spontaneous runs for ice cream, that’s for sure.

I imagine that people who talk about “sealing” the border between the U.S. and Mexico don’t really know what the border looks like. Maybe they imagine a big black line spanning four states like we see on the map – 2500 miles with nothing on either the U.S. or Mexican side for at least a half mile. A “no man’s land.” Maybe they think that on the northern side, everyone is “American,” i.e. – white, and on the Mexican side everyone is Mexican, i.e. – brown, forming two distinct populations. In reality, not only does human activity encroach all the way up to the border but there are towns, cities, Native American reservations, privately-owned ranches, and sometimes even individual buildings that straddle both sides. Between 30 to 40% of Arizona is Latin@/Hispanic. Spanish is spoken in border towns across the U.S. and always has been. Families living there for generations did not immigrate cross the border; rather the border crossed them. They were of that land before that land became of the United States.

Even after the Southwest changed nationalities, people traversed it nearly as freely as when it was all part of Mexico. A Latina friend tells me how her family has lived in the Los Angeles area for generations – some of them U.S. citizens and some Mexican. For a long time, citizenship status mattered so little that they did not bother to consolidate. She tells of how it used to be routine to spend weekends visiting family in Tijuana. They would cross the border going south on Friday evening and cross it again going north on Sunday evening. In this way, births, anniversaries, and funerals were observed together as a family. A Euro American friend who grew up in the border town of El Paso, TX, tells me how she used to cross freely back and forth, noting the obvious difference in wealth between the two sides. She tells of how her first boyfriend in high school was Mexican and they went to his home in Juarez (in Mexico but right next to El Paso) to meet his family. When I visited Nogales, a woman talked of growing up living in Nogales on the Mexican side and going to school each day in Nogales on the U.S. side. On the days when she forgot her pass, the border guard would wave her through anyway, telling her that she wasn’t going to get out of class that easily.

This was the reality of the border long after it became a border. People crossing back and forth with ease – to visit family and friends, to go to school, to buy groceries, to run errands. People mixing freely…until some in the U.S. decided that was a bad thing, built a wall and militarized the border. In reality, if it weren’t for the border guards with the automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. If it weren’t for the 15-foot wall made from recycled landing strips from the Vietnam and Gulf wars. If it weren’t for the obvious economic disparity caused by economic imperialism, you could hop on one foot on one side of the border and then on the other, and not feel a difference between what is called the U.S. and what is called Mexico.

Border Trip: Tuesday, Nov. 10th


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