I cried on election night. I thought I was angry, but really, I was scared. I was scared for my brown-skinned, accented immigrant husband. The campaign season’s anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic rhetoric rang in my ears. I was terrified of the violence I thought it might inspire.
My family, all Caucasian, said I was being paranoid. “He’s legal. He’ll be fine.”
But here’s the thing: nowhere on his person is there a sign that says “I’m supposed to be here.” There’s no yellow star or tattoo with his green card number. (I hope to God he’s never forced to get one). He looks like what he is: a bald Hispanic man with a goatee. But because of that, there will always be people who question his right to be here in the U.S. with his wife and his children. People who shout hate at him on street corners don’t ask for his passport card first. They don’t ask him his immigration status. They just look at him and assume he doesn’t belong.
For the most part, things have been fine since the election. We make sure our taillights work and our license tabs are up to date. We never speed or run stoplights. We do everything in our power not to make him a target. But “fine” for him is never going to look like “fine” for me.
Fine for him means getting followed around in stores. It means people talking louder to him because he has an accent. It means folks asking what part of Mexico he’s from. (He’s from Spain.) It means people asking to talk to someone who “speaks English” when businesses call on the phone. It means a 1,000 little headaches and prejudices that as a White person, I’d never know were a part of life for some Americans.
These are the things he faces, the silent battles he fights. But there is one thing that affects me directly, and that’s the way people react when we speak Spanish in public. While the Hispanic community here is decent sized, we don’t have a lot of connection with actual Spanish culture where we live. In fact, my husband is perhaps the only Spaniard in our county. Language is the one thing that connects him to his homeland. It’s the language of his family – the tios and abuela that my children only know over Skype and on the phone.
And that’s a problem.
Because more and more, people are looking at my husband weird when he speaks to our bilingual children in Spanish.
This might not be the hardest thing he deals with, but it’s the hardest one for me. Our kids are young, but they see those looks. They see them and they know what they mean. They know that where we live, Spanish is different and “other” and undesirable.
So they don’t want to speak it.
Two weeks ago, my daughter had a raging meltdown. That in itself is not unusual – she’s the kind of kid who feels things deeply. But what set this tantrum apart was its cause. She was furious at my husband for speaking Spanish to her.
“I hate Spanish!” she screamed. “Why can’t you just speak English?”
It broke my heart. It broke my heart that she feels like half of who she is is unacceptable. It broke my heart that her Spanish heritage is something to be ashamed of or hide. And it broke my heart that these are the messages people give her on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. Sometimes those messages come without thinking – a subtle change in attitude, a raised eyebrow, a change of tone. And sometimes, as with the case of today’s pardon of a sheriff convicted of illegally targeting Hispanics, those messages are clearly and intentionally given.
I can’t change the big things. I can’t force people to be okay with minorities or confront the idea of privilege. I can't overturn a presidential pardon. But I can do my damnedest to help my kids be proud of their Hispanic heritage. I’m awful at speaking Spanish, but I’m doing it anyhow. When we watch Little Mermaid, I switch the language so Ariel speaks the same way they do. And I tell my children over and over how lucky they are to be bilingual and how beautiful Spanish culture is.
When the time comes to register them for school, I’ll mark them as bilingual, even though I know I’ll have to fight the rest of my life to keep them from unnecessary ESL testing.
Most of all, I’ll keep shouting into the void that anti-immigrant rhetoric affects more than just illegal immigrants. It affects the lives of every person with an accent or more melanin in their skin, regardless of immigration status. It affects me, a white lady from Republican farm country who just wants her kids to be proud of who they are.
I will do these things because my culture of origin shouldn’t be the only one that counts in our family.
It shouldn’t be the only one that counts, period.