I write this letter to you while you are still in your infancy. My hope is that you will read it when you are old enough to truly understand its contents. I do not hold enough confidence or naiveté in my being to even entertain the idea that our world has improved from the time when this was written; therefore, all I can ask of you, of anyone, is to indulge me for just a little while.
It would be a lie to say that when I first heard your mother was pregnant with you, I feared for you. I don't remember what my initial feeling was when it was announced to me. I was in New York at the time trying to make a career as an artist: acting, writing, directing, producing, etc. My mind was clouded by the burdens over those efforts, so I cannot accurately pin point the emotional response I had. But that is what the feeling has become: fear. I fear for you because you were born into a beautiful and terrible world that I cannot protect you from.
You are my nephew. My responsibility to you is different than the one your father and mother have over you. Truthfully, it is not a responsibility I relish in, but I accept it nonetheless. So, I will address you as I would have liked to have been addressed when I was a young man.
You were born at a time when the world was in a great state of chaos. That is to say, you were born into the world as it has always been. Chaos is the natural order; however, the word 'chaos' can deceive even the finest academic. Yes, it can mean destruction and mayhem, but in Ancient Greek mythology 'chaos' did not mean disorder. It meant vacant space awaiting occupation. And since all or most of the world is already physically occupied you'll have to think of this vacant space in more complex and abstract terms. This vacant space has everything to do with your mind and body. And the fear I speak of has everything to do with the forces who wish to destroy and rob you of both.
I take no moral high ground in writing this letter to you. If that's how any of this sounds, it is not intended. And it would certainly be undeserved, for I, like so many others, have failed to bring you a better country. And world.
As I write these words thousands upon thousands of Syrians are fleeing their homeland in order to escape the savagery of war. They are running with the clothes on their backs, children in arms, and praying for protection from the monstrous acts being committed by the Syrian government, religious fanatics who took over a secular uprising once the Syrian army eliminated peaceful and militant democratic forces, and, of course, the horrors of Western intervention in the conflict.
But you live in America, which is in a kind of permanent state of war. It always has been. I'm not confident enough to say that this was always intended, but it's safe enough to say, whether the wars were against other countries or against their own citizens, that American wars have produced trillions of dollars for a small and heinous elite since the industrial revolution. But you do not know what it is like to be on the receiving end of an imperialist war. Most Western nations don't or haven't for a long time. You will never know what it's like to have your home bombed by foreign powers in a continuous war that never intends on ending. You will never fear to walk outside because you might be struck by a drone missile. You will never see your neighborhood turn to ash because someone in a suit on the other side of the planet ordered its destruction. You will be free from all of this as so many of our countrymen and countrywomen have been. This is not why I fear for you. The forces I cannot protect you from come from America's suicidal and predatory culture. The fact that our country is not as dangerous as Honduras or El Salvador or Syria makes the danger I speak of no less real.
Earlier, I mentioned Syrian refugees. Maybe your mother and father will discuss this issue with you when you are mature enough to ask about it. Or maybe there is a short passage about it in your history textbook. I can't say. But I would encourage you to also ask about the refugees on your side of the world. The refugee crisis much closer to home. Again, as I write these words, thousands upon thousands of people from all over Latin-America are fleeing their countries in order to escape the violence and brutality of their states and/or streets. They flee poverty, crime, and starvation. Often, these Latina/o refugees are fleeing to America because of the results of American foreign policy in Latin-America (See Harvest Of Empire). They look upon a land where they will be met by hostile citizens whose prejudices match those of their government. Our government. These people, your people, travel by train, by foot. They run across a long and deadly desert searching for a dream, which is just that: a dream. All they can really pray for is a higher level of poverty and that their children will be able to excel in America in ways they would not have been able to in their countries of origins. Some will. Most won't. And yet, if these Latina/o refugees who are fleeing the horrors of their countries are caught by the police or the border patrol or racist vigilantes because they are deemed "illegal," which is a term that seeks only to dehumanize our people, they will be put into detention centers where, according to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights, families are separated, people are brutalized, and where women are sexually assaulted and raped by the very people who guard these inhumane prisons. Some refugees beg to be deported back to their countries because of the conditions of these detention centers. And even when these refugees successfully make it to the United States, they live under constant terror. Why? Because they are not safe. They don't know if government agents are going to kick their doors down in the middle of the night, point weapons at their children, and be deported back to their own personal hells. And I can only imagine the conditions for these immigrants, these undocumented dreamers has remained the same or have become worse by the time you read this letter.
But there is another truth. And this truth is not so abstract or distant. It is not a matter I feel entirely comfortable intellectualizing, but you must know it in order to survive. The truth I speak of is: you are not safe. The reason is: you are a Latino male who was born and lives in America. Your mother is Mexican. Your father's parents are/were native Salvadorans. But I beg you not to mistake the fact that you were born in this country with some sort of armor or shield against those who wish to destroy your body and mind. Neither is safe. That is to say, you are not safe.
You come from a long and proud heritage. In a culture obsessed with labels, you can choose to identify as Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Salvadoran, Salvadoran-American, Latino, Hispanic, American or a combination of some or all of those identities. Or none of them. Pick whatever you feel suits you best, if you wish to reflect on the matter at all. The choice is yours. But make no mistake on this matter: you were born into a nation that didn't want you. In America, your life is disposable. Many people just like you and I have had to endure the pain of what it means to not be white in a white supremacist society. And when I use the term 'white people,' I use it in the way the great writer James Baldwin did: the problem with white people is that they believe they are white. I speak of the people who cling to their whiteness because its benefits are so deeply rooted in the fabric of American society. They mistake privileges for rights. They vulgarly confuse being contradicted with being oppressed. They mistake comfort for freedom. They cry discrimination when all that is being asked for is equality. Now, that's not to say that a white person cannot have a difficult life in America, but it is not difficult because that person is white. Whatever it is, however you want to define it, you are not one of those people and you never will be. This in itself puts you in danger.
It upsets me, even frightens me, to know that I cannot offer you words of comfort on this subject. It's a problem that has an impact on my mind and body everyday. I cannot promise that you will be safe when you leave your home and walk the streets in the day or night. I cannot guarantee you that your life will matter to others, like the police, if you are ever mistaken or fit the profile of a criminal. I can't say you will never be stopped and frisked by the police like I have been. I can't promise that you will never be the victim of police brutality the way I have been. I can't guarantee you that you won't be gunned down by the police the way so many of our people have been simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of these individuals, like (or more especially) our black brothers and sisters, were unarmed. And I can't promise you that those murderers, these state terrorists, will be punished for their crimes.
The country in which you were born sees you in a certain light for no other reason other than you are a Latino male. You are a brown man. You can take pride in this or not. That choice is entirely up to you. But the history of our people in this nation has been defined more by pain and degradation than by dignity and triumph. Never mistake concessions for freedom. Never confuse wealth with dignity. Never mistake the success of the few as the liberation for all. You must know this. It is imperative you know this.
There is no one way to define what it means to be Latina/o. There is no one way Latina/os look. For example, your father and I look nothing alike. We did have different fathers, but that is not the only difference between us. My complexion is darker than your father's. We are brown men, but there is no mistaking that I'm a brown man. Somebody could easily and ignorantly mistake your father for not being Latino. (That is, of course, until you get close enough to him and then speak with him.) If this is a luxury, I do not have it. Neither does your mother. Time will tell what complexion you inherit, but, if you look anything like me or your grandfather on your father's side, it will matter. But being Latina/o is not defined by our skin tone. There are black Latina/os, white Latina/os, indigenous Latina/os, Asian Latina/os, etc. But, more often than not, we are brown. We are brown because our indigenous ancestors were raped and colonized by various European powers for centuries. If you are to look closely at my own facial features, you can see the colonizer and the colonized. Regardless of how you end up looking, you are still not safe.
By the time you are old enough to read and understand this letter people will have already attempted to deprive you of your past and culture. You will be taught in school that your culture is secondary (at best) to European and European-American culture. Be it systematic or symbolic or even well intentioned, the people who believe themselves to be white want you to forget where you descend from. Why? Like any question worth asking there is no easy answer.
In my experience, people tend define themselves by what they are not. We have established that you are not white and will most likely never receive the privileges of whiteness. I have implied that you were born into a nation where you are granted second class citizenry simply because you live in a racist society, which is true. We know the chances of you going to prison are far higher than a white person. You are less likely to get a good job. You are less likely to receive a higher education. And by now you must know that the police are not here for your protection. Unless you settle, which I hope you never do, you will always be searching for your own identity in this strange, bizarre, and stolen land. You must actively seek your identity out. It will not be given to you. States like Arizona have outlawed the teachings of ethnic studies in their public schools. By the time you read this I'm sure there will be more. The state in which you were born was stolen in the Mexican-American war, where more than half of Mexico's land was taken. Some people call it Aztlán, which would make the state in which you were born part of an internally colonized nation. I don't know when a land stops being considered occupied, be it militarily or through settlements (colonization). Maybe when resistance ceases to be relevant. I don't know.
Let me be clear: I'm not exactly advocating nationalism. That's a tricky slope. I'm of the opinion that nationalism or patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I think you should go beyond nationalism, but not without it. To know where you descend from is vital to who you are as a person of color in America.
You will not be proud of everything you discover about our people's history. Or at least you shouldn't be. Our history is as complex as it is paradoxical and some of it is outright shameful. This doesn't make us unique. It makes us human.
I will not go into the search for my identity at length because I feel it would deprive you of the lessons you should learn on your own journey, but there will be people from all political spectrums who will tell you to forget identity politics. They will claim it irrelevant. They will tell you it contradicts the nature of the ideology they are proposing to you. They will proclaim to be your liberators. I've listened to these people. I studied their histories, their literature, their cultures, their art, and I still found myself lost. But it took being lost to see that the only person who could liberate me was myself. Personally, I don't live up to any ideology or philosophy that I'm aware of; therefore, I had to do what is nearly impossible to do in this country: I had to become an independent mind.
I was born a cis-gender male and remain one. Being the kind of man I want to be, the Latino man I would like to think I am, was an endeavor. For many years I, quite literally, felt uncomfortable in my own skin for more reasons than I would like to dwell on. It had nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. I'm afraid it's not as interesting as that. No: the discomfort I had was embracing my own masculinity.
The first reason (perhaps the primary one) was that I saw how Latino machismo was used and it was more than disconcerting to me. On the rare occasions that I saw my father as a young boy, he was often angry. Too angry at times. His presence would often strike a fear in me. Sometimes I feel as though I still have to walk on egg shells late at night out of fear that I might awake an angry bear. He was not kind to your father and Aunt. I suspect it was because they were not his children, but it could be for other reasons. I don't really know. All that I knew was that I never wanted to anger him. That level of machismo, that hyper-masculinity, that chauvinistic and arrogant pride terrified me as a child and, to this day, I have never argued or even raised my voice to my father. This is something I hope you never have to experience. I never got into trouble as a kid because I feared what the consequences might be if he found out. It might seem irrational and maybe it was, but I was a child. I was a very sensitive and unusually compassionate child. I did not inherit my father's machismo. Maybe it was because he wasn't around enough to teach me how to wield it or maybe it was because I never wanted anyone to experience what I had felt. But, truth be told, it's dangerous to be so compassionate in a heartless world. It doesn't prepare you for the obstacles that lie ahead. I had experienced this danger before I had even realized it.
The second reason I did not fully embrace my masculinity was because I saw that it came at the expense of others. Again, let me return to my father for a moment. Without exception or question, the Latino machismo I saw growing up always came at the expense of other people: women and gays. I saw how it lead to the mental abuse of my mother and siblings. I saw what I now realize was my father's total paranoia and insecurity and it all boiled down to one thing: power. The chauvinism I witnessed, the misogyny I heard, the sexism I learned, the male supremacy I fell victim to all came from this obsession with power: over one's life, one's security, one's identity, etc. When people feel powerless they will grab at any power they can in order to gain or maintain some kind of self-respect. This may sound more political than personal, but the political was always personal in our family. It still is. All of this made me insecure in my own character because I knew what I didn't want to be, but had no idea of who I should become. But what I learned along the way is that a man, a cis-gender man, a Latino cis-gender man can be secure and comfortable in his own masculinity without the need to exploit others' fears or vulnerabilities. He can embrace his own sense of power without having to hate or intimidate others. I would like to think I am this kind of person.
My intention here is not to equate masculinity with power. Power can come from anywhere, but please never obtain self-empowerment at the expense of another person or people.
I'm writing this letter to you in February of 2016. The political landscape in our country brinks on complete lunacy. The social circumstances of the world do not help this matter. Hatred for us, our people, is no longer being hidden. But, to be candid, it was never well masked to begin with. The bigotry that spews from the mouths of politicians seems unimaginable only to those who don't really understand what it means to be a minority in America. In your Grandmother's lifetime, students were physically hit by teachers in classrooms for speaking Spanish. When I was a child my classes were divided along race and economic class lines. As I write these words, a billionaire tycoon who is running for the highest political office in the land is proposing to deport over 11 million undocumented dreamers back to their countries of origins. And his unapologetic bigotry for us and others has made him a frontrunner in his political party. Will this policy of deporting 11 million people (most who look like you and me) be carried out? I doubt it. But our current President (one that you will certainly read about in your history textbook) has deported more people in his presidency than all of the other U.S. Presidents combined. Had her life been different, your mother very easily could have been one of these people. You are not so far from these immigrants. You are the son of an immigrant. And so am I.
If there is a genocide occurring in this country against black people, then there is a war being waged on the Latina/o community. We too are the victims of racial profiling, police brutality, and state terrorism. We too are deceived into believing that there is such a thing as the 'American Dream.' We too know that the judicial system in this country is nothing more than a racist farce. We too know that mass incarceration (the highest per capita in the world and the most of any society in the history of civilization) is just a new term for Jim Crow and slavery. We too know what it's like to have these injustices dismissed by our enemies and 'allies.' And we too know what it's like to sell our brothers and sisters out for personal gain. We too know what it means to kill one another and become the enemy of ourselves. This is not a criticism of blacks or Latina/os. These are the results of a racist socio-political and socio-economic system that currently prevails. Sociology eventually turns into psychology. You can't ever believe that what happens to the masses of your people has nothing to do with you personally.
I offer you this: You are the son of Cuauhtémoc. You are the power that grew out of Pancho Villa's gun. You are the Maya prince. You are the blood of Oscar Romero. You are the workers in Diego Rivera's murals. You are the Zoot Suiter. You are the student who cried Chicano power. You are the one underneath the masks of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. You are Farabundo Marti. Your name is Joaquin.
Black people in America were kidnapped from their continent, put into chains, and enslaved. This is often referred to as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which is a specially coded term for holocaust. Our people were already here. Our people were beaten, murdered, and raped by Spanish conquistadores and, like it or not, their blood runs through our veins too. We are both the indigenous and the imperialist. Both the tyrant and slave. The brutalized and the brutalizer. We are the oppressed and the oppressor. The King, the peasant, the hero, the foe. We are all of this and more. So much more.
Who you are and who you choose to identify with is and is not up to you. On a personal level, the choice is yours. On a societal level, it's more complicated. People will impose what it means to be brown in America upon you whether you like it or not.
Brown liberation will not come through numbers alone. Latina/os in America have failed to organize themselves in a way that brings about true political power. It is here where my generation has failed you the most. Our people pick the fruit from an American garden only to hand it over to rich men who wish to enslave our minds and exploit our labor. Never think that you are different from those men and women in the fields. Never think you are better than the migrants who stand outside stores looking for work. Never think that they don't have their own merits and flaws. Never think they are without ambition or dreams. Never think you are more deserving than any person who was born in a different part of the world than you. You are them and they are you. Never be deceived that an artificial border is more important than your humanity. The earth belongs to all who occupy it.
But all of this knowledge will not keep you safe. Even with all the dignity you may obtain from this search I encourage you to undertake will not save you from a bullet of a police officer's gun. You can live in the suburbs of bigotry, you can attend the best university, you can wear the most non-threatening clothes, you can always take the safe way home, you can speak English better than the people who taught you how to speak it, you can forget Spanish and abandon our people's struggle all together, you can be the token, you can be whatever you want, but none of that will save you from one racist moment that can occur at anytime. It is something I cannot save you from. It is a something you must learn to live with and always remember. To forget it could cost you everything. And I do mean everything.
You matter. Your life matters. Any policy or system or government that makes you feel otherwise is something you must fight against. That is your real enemy. This enemy will appear to you in many different ways. It may appear to you with a smile and friendly face. It may perceive itself as a cure to any burden you may be carrying. However it reveals itself to you, do not be deceived by it. If you love yourself in a way the white supremacist power structure does not want you to love yourself, you are committing a revolutionary act. In a nation that desperately tries to rewrite history in order to convince people of the secular religion of American Exceptionalism, it is essential you reach a consciousness that goes beyond what I have achieved or what W.E.B. Du Bois proposed. Our people have suffered political oppression, economic exploitation, social degradation, cultural humiliation, military occupation, economic imperialism, and the destruction of the spirit. If American Exceptionalism exists it is because it was built on the backs of Africans and migrant workers: Latina/o migrant workers. You owe them both the utmost respect for surviving in a country that did all it could to break them. Never forget that.
I may not be alive by the time you are old enough to read this letter. My hope is to hand it to you myself someday. If I'm dead by the time you read this, my hope is that your mother and father will have given you this letter when they have deemed it appropriate. As I write this, we have not yet met. I have only seen pictures of you. And that is why I fear for you. The world is a beautiful and awful place, Alexander, and, as Ta-Nehisi Coates said, you have to find a way to live in it. For all its benefits, for all its tragedies, for all its blatant lies, I write this letter knowing that my generation is leaving you this country, this earth worse off then when we inherited it. And it is for this reason that you must do better.
I end this letter with quote from my favorite writer:
"Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free -- he has set himself free -- for higher dreams, for greater privileges."