“I don’t know. I wanted to distance myself completely, I suppose.” This was my father’s reply when as a child I asked why we did not know his family. In this photo, I am on my his shoulders and my mother is on his left holding a cat. My half-sister (his daughter) and her then fiancé are to his right and next to my mom are two of his cousins visiting from Germany. This is the last photograph for many years depicting a degree of familial normalcy, when “normalcy” is measured by the presence of direct relations.
I will start this series explaining that I am first-generation on my father's side: he emigrated from Germany in 1952 with a hostile ambivalence toward his post-war home. He grew up in Weimar and was, in fact, a child under the Nazis. This profoundly unsettling to him. He assimilated as “an American” aggressively and oriented wholly toward his career, his new country, new wife and children. I grew up in northern Michigan - white, secure, never having my sense of belonging to this to this country questioned. Recently, friends without this security challenged me to engage the impact of immigration in my own life as I am learning how to engage theirs.
In this series of clips, you see my mother's family, filmed (I think) in and around Akron, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan. These are her parents and siblings, my grandparents and aunts and uncles – teachers, civil engineers, auto-line workers, apparently my grandfather (he is holding me toward the end) was a welding engineer on the USS Akron and USS Nautilus. My parents are in there too, eating fruit. My dad was a burn specialist at that time and my mother was an office assistant. The story goes that she quit working for him and immediately asked him to dinner.
But I never knew these people either. My parents moved six hours north before I was one-year-old and by the time I was three my mother had severed all contact with her family. They were not spoken of and when I met them again as a teenager at her funeral, I was stunned that they were all so kind, and confused. My grandmother only wanted to spend time with me – the conduit to her lost daughter, but I was overwhelmed. I no longer trusted my mother's representation of where and who she came from but again the reply, “I don't know,” when I asked my father why this cleavage had happened.
While I grew up understanding this as something my mother “did,” I now recognize my father as complicit. I assume his willingness to fissure with his own past and people enabled my mother to do the same; minimally, he provided no barrier. With some maturity, I was gradually able to miss something I never had – this family.
This is my immigration story and it informs my empathy for families yearning for each other, coerced and fractured, dislocated and isolated.
José Obeth was twenty years old when he died on a Vermont dairy farm. His clothing accidentally caught in exposed machinery. Through José and filming the journey to return his body home to Chiapas, Mexico, the documentary “Silenced Voices” told the story of over 1500 undocumented individuals living and working on dairies throughout Vermont in 2010.
The producers toured the state, showing the film and holding community discussions. I lived in Vermont then and in one meeting, I listened to white farmers cautiously step forward and speak about the workers who had lived with them for years. Some workers lived in squalid and dangerous conditions never leaving the farm. Others lived in the rooms of the farmers' children who had grown and moved on to other careers; these workers had become family. Weekly, their “parents” would fearfully drive them to go shopping, scanning the parking lot first for black SUVs. These individuals remained undocumented and hidden – rarely if ever seeing family members as close as fifteen miles away working on a neighboring farm much less to visit Mexico – since year-round dairy work precluded them from applying for migrant worker visas. Since they had no recourse to the police, they were often targeted and robbed when they tried to send money home.
These conversations and the work of Justica Migrante was a reckoning for Vermont and race: those engaged realized how much the cultural heritage of Vermont – the second whitest state and bound to the image of the dairy farmer – now relied on to-date invisible Mexican labor to exist.
“Parents of young children in our after-school programs are asking, ‘what will happen to my children if I am taken away?’ They are very afraid.” Jenny Hansell is the Executive Director of the NorthEast Community Center (NECC) in Millerton, New York. The NECC – and rurally based organizations like it – provides a range of activities, programming, and needed social services such as Dial-a-Ride, free meals, and courses in both Spanish and English to complete one's High School Equivalency.
I now live in the Harlem Valley about two hours north of New York City. Most apparently white, this area is home to a large and largely segregated Latino population: agriculture workers, service and construction workers – many are undocumented, some are Dreamers who came as children with their parents. Since Donald Tump's election, initial uncertainty within this community has shifted toward panic. While numbers of deportations in the week after Trump's inauguration were not glaringly out-of-step with those under the Obama administration (see migrationpolicy.org), Trump's race-infused rhetoric and relentless intention to legally expand the definition of “criminal” is new – substantiated by the administration's recent memoranda shifting undocumented status from a second-order to a first-order offense, it's targeting of sanctuary cities, and that simply being charged with a crime without the litmus of conviction now merits deportation.