Immigrants & Compassion
by Guillermo Ávila
I have often felt that growing up as a child of immigrants in the United States is a powerful experience that is difficult for others to understand. While we certainly do our best to assimilate, in actuality, our lives unfold as two. For Latinos, we eat traditional food like pupusas and sopa de res with our families and pizza and sandwiches with our friends. Peers throughout our childhood were listening to popular pop songs while our homes were filled with the sounds of Selena and Jose Jose. To be constantly in between two languages, two cultures, two ways of life is both a challenge and a blessing, although one that, admittedly, I have not always embraced. Shamefully, I cannot begin to count the number of times I silently wished I had a simpler, American name that was easier to pronounce. Why not John? Or James? Several times I considered reintroducing myself as William, my own name’s English translation. Each new school year a teacher would trip over my name, not knowing that the double L’s in Spanish make a “Y” sound and on cue the class would laugh. My face would turn red and I’d have to fight off tears. If possible, even more shamefully I remember the experience of applying to college. Yes! Finally the feelings of separation and not belonging were to pay off! The race card will get you into a good college, I was told. You’ll go far because you’re Latino, they said. I reveled in it; finally it was worth something!
Shamefully, I cannot begin to count the number of times I silently wished I had a simpler, American name that was easier to pronounce. Why not John? Or James? Several times I considered reintroducing myself as William, my own name’s English translation.
As I near my quarter life crisis, as many people do, I’ve come to see the error of my past thinking. I’ve spent time lamenting and apologizing for it, but as with all foolish decisions it is best to admit that it happened and resolve to not make the same mistakes twice. My time away from home and family, at university and now in my career, have shown me that being the child of immigrants, perhaps even more specifically immigrants of color, has put me in a strong position to employ very powerful – perhaps the most powerful – tools. Indeed, they are the most potent weapon against all that would do the world true harm: hatred, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance. Whether directly or indirectly we are raised to be empathetic and compassionate, and the reasoning why is not difficult to grasp. We grow up in a world where our families struggle with retaining culture and are torn between adapting or not, all while attending schools and living in towns that surround us with people who are screaming at us to change. I have found that even in diverse places like my native Montclair, NJ, the cries can be heard loudly even when others are generally accepting. It is not always active screaming, nor is it meant disrespectfully. An invitation to a friend’s home for a meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes is a call to abandon our own cultural background. Conversely, sometimes it’s more malicious and direct, like watching a family member be made fun of because they can’t speak English or someone verbally judge us for the things we can’t afford.
My time away from home and family, at university and now in my career, have shown me that being the child of immigrants, perhaps even more specifically immigrants of color, has put me in a strong position to employ very powerful – perhaps the most powerful – tools.
I am firm in my belief that, for most of us, plagued with common self-interest and suspicion, true empathy is bred by perspective. One of my favorite authors, Chris MacDougall, explains in his book Natural Born Heroes that heroism, in truth, is one’s ability to see themselves in their fellow man. It’s not about strength, nor speed, nor intelligence – it’s about compassion. This implies that if someone is in trouble we have not just the ability, but the genuine interest and desire, to take action. Due to our perspective, in my fellow Latinos I find the most compassionate people in the world. Many of us have grown up leading two lives, not quite belonging in either and our environment, whether harshly or not, directly or indirectly, quietly reminds us. Through others’ amused commentary on our tendency to roll our “R’s” or, conversely, crazed politician’s screaming that walls need to be built, people deported, and families broken up, we’re kept aware of it on a daily basis. I’d like to make it clear that I understand this experience is not singular to Latino immigrants – all across the world we see pushes to keep people across borders out of fear and disdain for those from some other land, different in size, color, language or creed. Although I will almost certainly never be Muslim, a political refugee, or speak Arabic I see myself in the Syrian refugees treated cruelly across Europe. Why? They are nothing to me, surely? My family’s immigrant experience has given me the perspective I need to express at least some empathy, and as long as I am blessed with this tool I will continue to see myself in their shoes.
My family’s immigrant experience has given me the perspective I need to express at least some empathy, and as long as I am blessed with this tool I will continue to see myself in their shoes.
Politics has been my secular religion since I was ten years old. I follow it obsessively throughout the day, look forward to Sunday mornings when I can watch political news shows, and rank Election Day in my top 5 favorite holidays. Keeping this in mind, our nation’s political culture is currently the most toxic I’ve ever seen it. Bipartisanship and gridlock in Congress are nothing new – it’s almost inherent in a two party system and has no quick fix. What chafes me day in and day out is the openness with which vulgarity pours onto our news broadcasts and print publications. No longer is the hatred and suspicion cloaked, even in some modest way. It’s permeating and directed, in some cases, right at us. Gone are the days where Latinos are just accused of stealing other people’s jobs. Now we are rapists, thieves, drug dealers and worse. We’re an infection to society. How do we combat this? I’m not an accomplished historian, but I do believe that knowledge is power. Never has it been more important that Latinos, armed with perspective, compassion, and empathy become involved in the political process. Pay attention, register to vote, and before you get angry with someone polluting the air with cruel words about another group of humans – whether it be because of their language, creed or appearance – speak up by sharing your perspective. Educate, don’t hate. Show your compassion. You’re among the few who can do it.