I arrived in the United States of America in 2008, two months before President Obama was elected. I still remember that Tuesday in November. More than anything, I remember the noise in the streets that night, the groups of people cheering and honking in their cars, running down Guadalupe Street and around the university campus. I remember witnessing in awe the country I had chosen as a second home. Everything was new, everything was different. It was the America of the movies. I was excited to be here, even though that night I sat alone.
Tuesday began with homemade hummus, red wine, and laughter as we pinned our Nasty Women and Bad Hombres buttons on our shirts. My friends and I kept an eye on the TV while we talked about food, new movies, and Thanksgiving plans. The living room filled with sounds of friendship and comfort. It was a different night, a different November; everything was a little more familiar and lived in. Even though I couldn't vote, I no longer felt like a lonesome spectator.
A couple of hours went by until the laughter and chatter dissipated—we took our corners and scrolled through our social media feeds in disbelief. The living room fell silent. Only the raindrops reminded us that we were not frozen in that space, that there was still an outside. It is almost impossible to describe the mood shifts that took place on November 8. I am sure you witnessed them yourselves. You felt the tension, the excitement, read the jokes, saw the memes—suddenly came the anxiety, and later, an overwhelming sense of loss. If you voted for Trump, I have no idea what your night was like. Maybe you celebrated. Maybe you experienced some loss as well. For me, surrounded by people I love and trust, there was only silence. All I could think of was the noise, the remarkable noise, that filled the streets of Austin in November eight years ago. I wondered for the first time in this election if this was how millions of people felt when President Obama was chosen twice. If they felt as disappointed, betrayed, angry, hopeless, and unsafe as millions of us did Tuesday night. As we felt yesterday, as we feel today. It is hard for me to believe. I am trying to understand, trying to put myself in their place. I admit I am failing.
I grew up in a country that distrusts its government. A country that openly mocks and makes fun of our leaders, one after the other. I grew up hearing, “por eso México no progresa” and thinking that our neighbors to the north were better, richer, safer, smarter. In a country with a stark divide between the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated. A country filled with classism, homophobia and misogyny I believed I was moving away from. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me, talked like me, had the same privileges that I did. Where it was easy to overlook those who did not and pretend we weren’t racist, because it wasn’t the racism we read about from Toni Morrison. I grew up in a bubble I desperately wanted to leave, to find people who did not look like me and had the same story. I wanted friends from different cultures, religions, with different struggles and different dreams. I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted it for selfish reasons, because I was convinced that it would make me and my life better.
I got out, something I know not everyone wants to do or can do. I moved to Texas of all places. It was not everything I was looking for; it didn’t have the diversity and bustle of New York City or San Francisco, but it was a beautiful and complicated choice that changed my life. I told my husband recently that living in Texas sometimes feels very similar to living in México, two places you constantly have to defend against the stereotypes and generalizations— two places you hope are moving forward until they disappoint you, once again.
Tuesday was the first time during this election when I thought back to 2008 and imagined what the streets sounded like in other parts of the country. Not in Austin, not New York, but all the parts of this country I never consider visiting. The parts I am completely, undeniably ignorant about. In the past few days I have thought about all the questions I didn’t ask, the articles I didn’t read, and the people I forget exist in this country. I knew they were there—but I underestimated the numbers. I realized that in my search for finding something different, I ended up guarded by a different sameness.
It has been impossible not to take this election personally. The nation has elected a man who catapulted his candidacy with hate speech about my people, specifically. Some folks, family and friends included, will say (have said), "he only talked about illegal immigrants, this has nothing to do with you" in an attempt to convince themselves they did the right thing. These are also the people who like to say they are “colorblind” and that “all lives matter”, but proved to us Tuesday that in fact, they do not.
Yes, I know not all Trump voters are racist, misogynistic, ignorant assholes. To say so would be as equally lazy and harmful a generalization as the ones we complain they make about us. Yes, I know some Trump voters who are kind, hard working, intelligent individuals. I understand the part of the story behind this election that focused on economic anxiety and the desire for well-paying jobs that would grant these voters their American dream. But by electing Donald Trump, a man who has not only insulted Mexicans and women, but also all people of color, immigrants, Muslims, survivors of sexual assault, members of the LGBT community, and people with disabilities— a man who was endorsed by the Klan, the quintessential embodiment of hatred— you are endorsing that hatred. You are giving a voice to those who DID vote for Trump because they are racist, misogynistic, ignorant assholes. You are allowing a bully to thrive. To rule. To represent your country. At the root of it, this goes against every single thing we are taught growing up and every single lesson we hope to teach our kids: Do what is right, not what is convenient. Stand up to bullies. Don't be a bystander.
There is nothing I can say that hasn't already been said by better writers. By now you have probably read 100 essays and Facebook posts that sound exactly like mine. But this whole year my writing has focused on this election and some of the issues that hit close to home because it was impossible to write about anything else. I am a Mexican woman married to a white Texas man; I will continue to write about issues like immigration, language, and prejudice. I have friends in every community insulted by Trump and many of his followers. And even if I didn't— I look forward to the day we can stop saying, "What if it was your daughter? What if it was your wife/sister/mother/grandmother/friend/son?" to get any kind of empathy. When we can one day place ourselves in complete strangers' shoes before we vote against their fundamental human rights. Yes, I know this sounds naive and idealistic, two things that probably led me straight to that sleepless Tuesday night.
After Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, Roxane Gay wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times in which she said, "I don't know how to allow myself to feel grief and outrage while also thinking about change. I don't know how to believe change is possible when there is so much evidence to the contrary. I don't know how to feel that my life matters when there is so much evidence to the contrary." I thought about Roxane's words on election night, and how they ring true for millions of people in the US and around the world. I haven't been able to stop thinking about those words, not yet. Not today.
At this point, I know many believe it is time to stop grieving and start acting. I believe there is room for both. Everyone should be allowed to take our time to grieve and mourn, to be angry and heartbroken. Wallow. Cry. Scream.
This past weekend my sister, Estefanía Vela Barba, along with fellow Estereotipas Marcela Zendejas and Catalina Ruíz, received the Marie Claire Latinoamérica Leadhers Award for their work discussing important feminist issues through pop culture and humor. I watched a video they played at the award ceremony where my sister spoke about leadership. In Spanish she says, "To me, being a leader means many things: Humility. Responsibility. Strength. Bravery." I watched my sister, who has fought against all odds for equality and respect, get recognized for her hard work and I felt this immense pride. It was a much-needed reminder that we can find leaders, true, deserving leaders, in seemingly ordinary spaces. Gracias, Estefa. I am grateful. I am grateful for all of you who have already stood up and started fighting, for those who have transformed their anger into art, for those who have written and spoken out, for those who had to face their coworkers on Nov. 9. I am grateful for all the teachers and guidance counselors who have been strong and reassuring when talking to their fearful students. I am grateful for Barack and Michelle Obama, who have given me eight-plus years' worth of inspiring moments and exemplary leadership, who have come to define my first eight years living in a foreign country. I am grateful for everyone who called, texted, hugged me, and said, "I'm with you."
Friends, strangers, everyone who feels angry, disappointed and afraid, I am with you, too. I know there is not much else I can say to ease your pain today.
It has been a week, and these feelings will not go away any time soon. For now I remind myself, for my own damn sanity, that there is a lot to be thankful for. No, the world didn't end. We are still here, we will still laugh, we will continue to do great work. Eight years after moving to this country, on a very different November, I learned I never have to sit alone again.
Unas palabras para mis lectores en México:
En los últimos meses, he visto a mucha gente escribir sobre la candidatura de Donald Trump. El martes, 8 de noviembre, leí muchos comentarios de shock, a mucha gente mexicana impresionada con el racismo y la misoginia de Trump y sus seguidores. Les pido por favor que no se les olvide este sentimiento. Este coraje. Esta decepción. Es muy fácil sentarnos con los brazos cruzados y decir, "Pinches gringos, la cagaron." Es muy fácil defender a nuestro país cuando otro lo ataca, especialmente Estados Unidos, con cual tenemos una relación tan complicada. Pero no puedo pretender que la retórica de Trump y sus seguidores no se me hizo conocida. Les pido por favor: recuerden esto. Recuerden esta indignación cada vez que se sientan cómodos usando palabras como "negrito", "chacha", "naco". Recuerden este coraje cada vez que le llamen "chino" a cualquier persona con ojos rasgados sin importar si son de ese país. Recuérdenlo cada vez que ven a una mujer expresar su sexualidad y le llaman "zorra". Cada vez que una mujer lucha por igualdad y le llaman "feminazi". Cada vez que le llaman "nerdo" a alguien que disfruta leer, disfruta informarse. Cada vez que se aferran a su queridísimo "¡puuuutoooo!" en el fútbol porque es "parte de la cultura mexicana". Recuérdenlo cada vez que se burlan de alguien que comparte algún tema político en Facebook, porque no vaya a ser que les importe algo fuera de la peda, no vaya a ser que busquen el cambio.
Les digo todo esto como alguien que disfruta el sarcasmo, pero entiende el impacto de las palabras. Se los digo como alguien que la sigue cagando, sigue ofendiendo, haciendo bromas pesadas, que todavía juzga antes de conocer. Se los digo como alguien que se mudó a EUA en lugar de intentar crear sus propias oportunidades en México. Como alguien que sigue aprendiendo, a veces más lentamente que otros, y como alguien que, a pesar de todos sus errores, trata de cambiar.