This month focuses on the topic of silence and erasure both inside and outside the borders of the United States. Latino communities are mixed status, mixed region, and mixed country, filled with individuals whose parents have been living in California since the Gold Rush and individuals waiting patiently at every stage of the immigration process.
With the country’s increasingly restrictive immigration laws over the last 40 years, some immigrants have entered with counterfeit documentation or have overstayed their visas, but is this really such a big deal? Is this any reason to erase and silence vulnerable parts of our community?
Obviously not, but the Trump administration chooses to erase and silence us for to appease its base. This month GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”) will be coordinating its annual Day of Silence to raise awareness about the interpersonal and political ways that LGBTQIA expression is silenced, erase, and forced back into closets on campuses. The day was first organized in 1996 on the University of Virginia, and it has become a movement on campuses for students of all grade level.
Many LGBTQIA people know the feeling of experiencing your sexuality as an open secret for strangers and intimates to inquire about, and this feeling multiplies when one includes other marginal identities, like documentation status. Fear is experienced, especially when public officials invigorate racists and homophobes with hate speech. Progressives might try to include immigrants and other marginal identities into the nation, but these ideas are based on a problematic notion that one should assimilate others into the dominant culture. This impulse to assimilate is even more problematic because it is often used to neutralize differences and power struggles.
Assimilation is also a desire to whiten people of color. Many populations around the world forget that people of color live in the United States, sometimes because they were believed to have been largely exterminated by white colonizers. This global perception of the absence of people of color in the United States is the effect of white privilege, and the institutions that uphold it. This is because Presidential scandals dominate the media, and the accomplishments of people of color are often excluded, or reported in minority media outlets.
What effect does this have on the immigrants and tourists with whom we interact? I recently had a conversation with a Brazilian woman at a bar. I include fragments of Spanish into my mostly English sentences. This is the way I speak to everyone I meet. I assume that she would be able to decipher my Spanish without much trouble, a bad faux pas. She looked puzzled. Why was a white person speaking to her in Spanish? Does this white person not realize that Brazil’s official language is Portuguese, she must have thought. So with narrowing eyes, she asked why I spoke to her in Spanish. It’s just a habit I’ve developed, I replied. Her brows furrowed further until I volunteered the information that I was Mexican American, that Los Angeles was “super Mexican,” and that the reason Los Angeles was so Mexican had less to do with proximity than the seizure of land by greedy white men.
These are historical facts I neither learned nor appreciated in my high school classrooms. With the restructuring of our high school curriculums, the only racial conflicts we glossed over were the Civil War and the Civil Rights struggle. This exchange of information with the Brazilian and this lack of relevant classroom instruction in my public schools makes me realize that we are not simply being silenced and erased in the United States, but that foreign countries inadequately realize that many non-white, non-European immigrants call the United States their home.
I speculate that the reason for this silencing and erasure are twofold. On one hand, mainstream media in any country ignore coverage of people of color and their accomplishments. But how can this be possible after the election of the country’s first black President? I cannot generalize about the kinds of media people consume, but I can say that the desire for whiteness constitutes not only how the nation understands itself, but also how it is understood abroad. But then there is transnationalism, affiliation, remittances and other forms of connection between countries and peoples.
When we pay attention to the language of activists, we often hear the words “silence” and “erasure.” These words are both related to the exclusion of LGBTQIA communities from the mainstream. However, erasure is specifically linked to visibility, i.e. being seen in person or having your writing read. As you know, the LGBTQIA community has made significant gains during the Obama administration in its civil liberties. However, we should expect that rights will continue to be eroded under the Trump administration.