Tag Archives: immigrants

My Secondhand Lonely

(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

Zoë Gadegbeku | Slice | Spring/Summer 2017 | 15 minutes (4,081 words)

If it’s a Sunday, my mother is probably tucked into her bed, the stillness of the time between rest and the week’s unrelenting pace hanging heavy in the air, late afternoon light filtering through the half-drawn lavender curtains. She is probably reading, or maybe dozing and waking to the sounds of frantic sirens from the latest crime drama she has been engrossed in. The next morning, she will collect herself into the polished package she presents at work, just enough foundation to accentuate her cheekbones, dressed in a black suit with thin white pinstripes, her silver jewelry angular and slightly threatening like the point of her chin, eyes glaring above her glasses frames as if to say, “Don’t try me.” She has spent years building and defending her independence, interrupting a supposedly comfortable solitude only occasionally with relationships with men who eventually show themselves to be unworthy of her time. Still, her single motherhood never looks tragic to me, in spite of backhanded compliments that are supposed to affirm her strength: “Ah, in fact! You Mama Essie, you’re not a woman, ooh! You’re a man! Look at all the things you have done!” Working twelve-hour days, giving her family stern, frills-free advice, laughing with such unrestraint that it’s almost possible to see the fillings in her molars, she is single-minded in her mission to be excellent in every way. I can’t quite remember the exact moment she started to say, “Dzifa, I just want you to be happy. I don’t want you to end up like me.”

It may have been after I left home to go to college, after she began measuring my absence in the number of weekends she spends alone or how long it has been since I last called, but it is always distressing to hear, and I never let her continue long enough to give an explanation for this lament. I snap at her, “Why would you say that? Don’t talk like that!” Most of the time she sighs, or repeats in a resigned near-whisper, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” I’m only now growing to understand why being like her is supposedly an undesirable state in which to “end up.” She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

* * *

I’ve been engaged in the slow, careful process of constructing my own solitary fortress for the past five years — four in the unhealthily competitive atmosphere of an elite private college, one at a graduate program in the cold of Boston that feels unhealthy in a different way, as I’m constantly picking through my pain for the most exquisite parts to exploit for a story, or to bring the heavy black woman perspective, coded as “nuance,” to certain classroom discussions. I’ve learned how to carve bricks for the boundary around myself out of intricate excuses to explain away the obvious strain in my tight smiles: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.” “Yeah, I have so much shit to do, but it’s cool.” “You know, I’m a writer, so I’m always in my feelings.” Or my default reply, also inherited from my mother, “It’ll be fine. I just have to get on with it.”

I’ve developed great skill at stacking these platitudes between myself and anyone who may see me often enough to notice the cracks in my poor performance of strength. My aesthetic is always adapting to sustain the deceit. There are days when the hyper-feminine and form-fitting serve as the perfect costume: black skirt with slits on either side, paired with a black top making up for the modesty of its high neck and long sleeves with its slightly see-through material. On other occasions, I put on my tomboy disguise, still silhouetted in black but this time in the form of jeans and round-neck sweatshirts a few sizes too big, hiding a body that still feels uncomfortable at times with its dips and curves that I don’t always want to display. Each compliment is more than a validation of personal style; it is a warning to never let the mask slip: You always look so good. Always on point. Honestly, how do you do it?

Every word is a confirmation of what I’m convinced will happen if I choose to deviate from the customary gracious smile, responding instead with “Actually, I’m not okay. I’m scared and alone. Can you please talk to me?” As far as I’m concerned, the trick of “not looking how I feel,” another coping mechanism I’ve modeled after my mother’s never-ending capacity to keep going even on her most sorrowful of days, has succeeded to the point where no one will know how to react to my crumbling before them. There’s never an appropriate time to reveal the extreme isolation of harboring feelings you don’t quite understand, and every attempt lands clumsily in the space between myself and the other person, unashamed in its messiness but too frightening for either of us to touch any further beyond prodding the issue tentatively with a few ill-placed jokes.

She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

I tentatively crack open the door on a subject that I almost never speak out loud for fear it would swallow me with its terrifying reality. I drop vague references to how much I’m “going through it” at inappropriate times, like on the walk to the train station with a friend after class. I’m held back in my lonely place by the fear that I’ll expose the ugliness of my perfect farce. No formulation feels right or reasonable: I don’t know what this is. Every month since the spring of 2014, without fail, a smothering fog settles over me, before the premenstrual bloating and the pimples set in. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, every month with no exceptions. I think about ending myself for seven to ten days, every month, for two years. I flinch when my train rushes to a stop in front of me, only a short platform and a stripe of yellow paint between myself and its force. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, tears threaten to flood me in a too-hot shower, right before classes, in the middle of weekly check-in meetings at work.

It has taken this long to even allow these thoughts to whisper in my mind, because the training offered by my mother’s example has helped me to erase these grim blotches from the gleam of my effortless presentation, because for a part of those two years I dated someone I was always nervous would dismiss this horror as one of my “emotional excuses” for being a bad girlfriend, because if I don’t “get on with it,” there are friends who would find their calls unanswered at 4 a.m. when they have boy-related anxiety, or job-related anxiety, or what-am-I-doing-with-my-life anxiety. A heavy hand with the concealer hides the puffy eyes I get from going to sleep in tears I can’t explain, and I can get on with the lonely business of faking a life.

* * *

I recognize a similar show of flawlessness — albeit without the morbid subtext that stalks me — in Molly, the successful, gorgeous counterpart to Issa’s slightly inept persona on the HBO series Insecure. I can see traces of my mother’s charm in Molly’s relaxed laugh in front of a room full of colleagues as she makes a presentation, the ease with which she plays a game of dominoes with three men in the parking garage, spotless outfits in variations of ivory and cream standing out against her dark skin because she knows how striking that combination can be, and also that we, her admiring audience, won’t be able to ignore its stunning effect. It only takes the quick fade-out announcing a new scene for me to begin to see the unraveling of Molly’s perfection, so familiar and expected that I feel as though I’m the one pulling at its increasingly fraying edges.

In one scene, Molly gets a text, a simple “Hey” from Hassan the engineer, the latest man she’s seeing, or “the Arab guy,” as another character refers to him. Molly seems almost wistful as she reflects on how “different” he is, and the fact that she never imagined ending up with someone who wasn’t black — which seems a rather permanent statement to be making after only three dates. Of course, Hassan inevitably lets her down, and when Molly later recounts the story to Issa over dinner, she ends with a resigned “That’s my life” before lamenting the futility of navigating a dating scene which almost always seems to play out against her no matter whether she’s smothering, aloof, demure, or any combination of approaches to letting men know that she is interested in pursuing a relationship. The brilliance of the show lies in lifelike moments like these, when I see two black women using humor to avoid hitting too close to the heartbreaking center of the moment they’ve just shared: Issa offers a “broken pussy” as the explanation for Molly’s dating woes. “I think your pussy is sad,” she says. “It’s had enough. If your pussy could talk, it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan.”

I see myself in Molly’s wavering smile, in her attempts to keep herself together for colleagues and a larger anonymous public, in the possibility that this could be who I am becoming — this woman who thinks she has figured out how to measure herself in appropriate proportions, to always be more than enough for every situation, incredibly qualified for her job, head-turning from board meetings to restaurants, only to discover that her sole reward could be the yawning void where a life partner and peace of mind should reside.

For every shred of fear of a loveless, lonely future I feel, there seems to be an infinite number of reminders that I should be ashamed to crave romantic companionship to the same extent that I’m working toward academic and professional success. Gloria Naylor’s Ophelia seems to be pointing fingers at my weakness when she says, “I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” My favorite poet, Warsan Shire, appears to echo this accusation of low self-worth on my part, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Listening to the two black women hosts of the official podcast for the TV show, Insecuritea: The Insecure Aftershow, deepens the embarrassment that I think I should feel for empathizing with Molly, for seeing in her the reflection of the same act my mother and I, and many other black women, fictional and otherwise, have been putting on for our entire adult lives. The hosts laugh about how “pressed” Molly feels to find a man:

“I wasn’t expecting to see a woman in 2016 who’s willing to openly say, ‘I just want to be married,’ cuz I feel like I don’t see that a lot anymore.”

“Right, I think for us we tend to be either/or . . . like either you’re heavily career-based and you’re just going hard in that direction, or you’re more family oriented and you’re just focused on building that side.”

Even as the radio hosts slip in the disclaimer that they are speaking only from their own experiences and those of women they know personally, the archetype of the no-nonsense black boss lady stands in plain view, complete with shoulder pads à la Teri Joseph from Soul Food in the early 2000s, or immaculate white suit and precise side part like Molly. I feel as though I am hearing the retelling of a myth that predates my existence — the independent black woman who doesn’t need anybody. I am drinking in the idea that longing for a love connection was a trivial concern, and that personal ambition and the gleaming summit of career success should suffice until such time as a woman decides to shed her professional sheen in favor of the muted tones of motherhood, marriage, and all the accompanying trappings. Being anything less than enough — yearning for another person outside of oneself, for the chance to be seen without the masks, to be cared for in the way one cares for others — then becomes off-brand for an unstoppable black woman™.

* * *

As I try, and fail, to fully understand what it means to revel in being alone, Toni Morrison writes to me through Sula on her deathbed, Sula who has truly lived life rather than plodding through it at a gentle pace. Her estranged friend Nel challenges Sula’s last boast that she is “going down like one of those redwoods,” majestically, and not “dying like a stump” like everyone else. Nel’s skepticism demands a deeper explanation: what does Sula have to show for this supposedly grand life of hers?

“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”

“Lonely, ain’t it?” Nel’s question sticks out in my mind like the point of an index finger toward a shameful secret unfurled before a judgmental public. Lonely, ain’t it.

“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Sula gives me the language to describe my loneliness, to hold it away from myself and dissect it, tackling its complex mesh and dissecting it piece by piece in the hope of finding some fulfillment on the other side of its demise.

It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Loneliness may exist for me as a craving for romantic love, as a hope that a partner may be able to help me untangle the web of reasons why I feel alone with my emotional turmoil, but it also moves far beyond the presence and potential abandonment of a lover. It lives in the moments after a strenuous day, when my monthly distress threatens to destroy the titanium resolve I have bolted down firmly over any hints of softness that may betray me. It is in my trembling lips pressed tightly together, but not hard enough to stem the outburst of sorrowful isolation that eventually spills over the edges of heavily made-up eyes, streaking jet-black down my face. I’ve cried the full length of the ride on a red-line train and onto the bus. In public I crumple into myself and wallow in the awareness that no one will be waiting at home or on the phone to listen to me cry, no one will turn away from their own worries to listen to mine. I’ve cried staring directly into the faces of strangers shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that my tears may open a gateway to some erratic and potentially dangerous behavior that could affect them. All this lonely isn’t mine. Even after I get home, I imagine it still clinging tightly to my hair and clothes, smelling like the man in the faded navy hoodie sitting next to me on the train, who didn’t seem to care that I don’t want to chat.

Loneliness rests in the soft tap on my shoulder, clad in my favorite wax-print outfit, a wrinkled hand, a quiet smile leading to the question, “You’re from Nigeria? Or Ghana? I saw your dress and I knew.” Every African woman of a certain age on the train could be my great-aunt or grandmother, with the same manner of folding their arms in front of their chests, the same gold-framed glasses with perfectly round lenses. We are looking for relatives, long left behind and hardly spoken to, in each other’s faces.

Yet, I can’t afford to immerse myself in the sentimentality of being lonely, to make sweeping statements about the nostalgia that immigrants face, miles and temperature points too far from the Equator’s reassuring heat, to address it as a uniquely urban plague that defines the landscape as much as skyscrapers like glass cages and an anonymity that crushes those who are unable to fend for themselves and bolsters those who have come to escape a dull elsewhere they used to call home. This lonely I’ve been carting around every month for the past two years is sinister. My lonely is life-threatening, as it grows more and more difficult to convince myself that anyone would notice the space I left behind if I were to cease to exist. My lonely is my mother’s, but it’s also a secondhand acquisition that could be hormonal or psychological, one that scares me into concealing what could be a very serious mental health condition whose dimensions I haven’t been fully able to grasp. My lonely is also that of Ahine, my best friend, who moves from work to home and back again amidst London’s eternal dreariness, isolated in the exhaustion of striding forward in her career while helping her mother through illness, who sends me a tearful voice message after months of unusual silence to explain how her loneliness felt so insurmountable that it seemed easier to retreat further into herself than to reach out to anyone. It is also Bre’s, when we pass each other on the street, and at the exact same moment we are screaming private crises but somehow cannot topple the boundary of expectations and break down to each other. We make eye contact, and she smiles. “Where are you off to?” the single cowrie shell in her locs flashing back and forth as she shakes her head slightly to the rhythm of her waving hands. Later I’ll explain to her that I was marching as fast as I could to disappear onto a crowded train before someone caught me out of character, drinking back the lumps of sobs forming in my throat, and she’ll already know.

“Girl, I was going through it too!” So why didn’t we stop for each other?

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support. We take care of ourselves only to the extent that we can paste on a cheerful face and keep showing out and showing up for others to feel at ease, keeping our hurt and our fear tucked away in the desolate, uncharted territories of the hours in the early morning when sleep is replaced by a depression that appears impossible to chase away. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel visits her grave and mourns not only the loss of her friend, nor the betrayal of the affair between Nel’s husband and Sula, nor the secret the two women shared of the day a little boy drowned after slipping from Sula’s grasp and into the river. “Sula?” Nel calls into the emptiness, with only the leaves and the ground beneath her feet answering her call. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” Nel’s cries descend into an endless loop, “circles and circles of sorrow,” as she realizes that the source of her loneliness had roots deeper than the absence of her husband. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” The gaps between myself and the women in my life grow wider and more impassable the more we hide our difficulties from each other under the guise of being, or at least appearing, strong.

* * *

I finally speak my agony out loud one Wednesday in September of 2016, because my mother’s training has not prepared me adequately for a time when private suffering becomes unbearable and spills out into the open no matter how much I try to halt its flow. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, my reflection framed by its glossy black border. I’m about fifteen minutes away from the arrival of my bus but unable to keep putting on my face because I’m not confident that my wobbly hands won’t stab my eye with the mascara brush I’m holding. There is the familiar tightening in my chest and my throat, and I try to steady my shaky breath by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Panic is winning a silent war against me, and I whimper as quietly as possible so as not to alert my two roommates. It wouldn’t do to bother them while they’re also getting ready for school and work. Instead I call my mother in Accra, hoping she can hold some of this chaos for me.

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support.

“Baby, just try to calm down. Take deep breaths. Oh, baby, I’m so worried about you . . .”

I cry to her with my head tilted back so I don’t damage the mask I’ve just painted on. I’m not terrified because my morbid thoughts have intensified but because they are now beginning to overpower my desire and ability to just get on with it. I make it to the bus stop right as the bus pulls up, and I’m even twenty minutes early for work. I look good, always stylish, as my supervisor says, my hair at its hugest and fluffiest, the way I like it, because the humidity hasn’t started to shrink it yet. Later that day, the distance across the desk between myself and my favorite professor doesn’t seem quite as vast because I blurt out a summary of the monthly struggle I’ve been navigating, sharing with her my fear of conceding defeat to loneliness by even considering seeking the advice of a therapist.

“I don’t know, it’s just such a lonely feeling to know there’s no one who can listen the way I listen to them, so that I have to go and talk to a stranger.”

Her eyes widen behind the smudged lenses of her glasses with a concern that I know isn’t pity, but still makes me anxious.

“Zoë, it’s one thing if your friends are a safety net that you can fall back on, but if you don’t have that . . .”

* * *

There was a time when I controlled my lonely, when I would have been glad to claim ownership over it, to take it by the hand and along with me on adventures only I could see or appreciate. Being an only child meant that I was a self-contained source of my own joy. I climbed the twisted trunk of the same forget-me-not tree almost every day of the long vacation between July and late September, most of its velvety yellow flowers stuck in the red gravel at its base. Sometimes I was brave enough to jump back down from among the branches, following the path of descent back to solid ground that one of my slippers invariably took; other times I would have to wait for my mother to come back from work to help me down, my grandma’s arms unable, or more like unwilling, to get me out of my self-made predicament. I grew up always carrying a place for myself where the only other invited guest was my imagination, which allowed me to twist life’s mundaneness into whichever shape intrigued me the most. It seems fitting that the process of reclaiming my lonely as a place of satisfaction with myself, rather than a haunting jail that I’m too scared to escape, is a solitary one. I want to feel motivated to keep living for my own sake and not solely because giving up would alter the lives of people around me, to be “on point” for myself and not to be just a symbol of “black girl magic” for other people to cling to. I’m throwing away these secondhand burdens to avoid handing them to the daughter I may have in the future. I don’t want her to think it’s her duty to hold the fractured pieces of herself together long enough to fool others into thinking that her strength is unmatched. I’m prying open the vicious clamp of my lonely trap and pointing it out to other people in my effort to rid it of its power. No, I’m not okay. Can you please talk to me? 

* * *

This essay first was first published appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of SliceOur thanks to Zoë Gadegbeku and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint this essay.

An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jason De León

(Michael Wells)

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)

As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”

Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.

***

When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?

I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?

People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.

Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?

I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.

Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?

All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?

I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.

One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard to address.

Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?

It’s interesting too because history is subjective.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.

I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.

We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.

In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?

The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.

Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.

People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?

We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015.  We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.

I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.

Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.

Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?

It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.

I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?

I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.

What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?

For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.

Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.

The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.

You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!

On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

***

When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

Read more…

A Bakery Death Reveals the Vulnerable Lives of Temporary Workers

(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Twenty-three year old refugee Amina Diaby died in Fiera Foods’ Ontario factory while making croissant dough. She was a low-wage temp worker, one of thousands in Ontario, and her hijab got stuck in a machine. For The Toronto Star, reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked undercover on Fiera Foods’ production line in order to document the dangers of Canada’s growing temp economy works. Fiera’s system is stacked in businesses’ favor, with poorly trained temp workers risking their lives and health for low pay, no job stability, no benefits and few legal protections in return.

It’s a system that’s on the rise, and consumers should check their foods’ labels and research chain restaurants’ sources. The foods we buy from Costco and Dunkin’ Donuts might have been processed by newly arrived immigrants just trying to survive while they pursue the same dream of upward mobility that we do.

Temp agency employees are some of the most “vulnerable and precariously employed of all workers,” a 420-page report recently compiled by two independent experts for the Ontario government says.

Temps can be terminated at a moment’s notice, the report notes. Companies who use them are liable along with their temp agency for unpaid wages, including overtime and vacation pay, but not for most other workplace rights. Temps are often paid less than permanent counterparts doing the same job, and sometimes work for long periods of time in supposedly “temporary” positions. Agencies are not required to disclose the markups they charge on workers’ wages. New provincial legislation, which goes to second reading this month, seeks to tackle some of those issues.

Research conducted for the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health also suggests that companies contract out risky work to temps. When a temp gets hurt, the company is not fully responsible because the temp agency assumes liability at the worker’s compensation board — saving their clients money on insurance premiums. This is a crucial financial incentive to use them.

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Everyone’s Welcome, But Some People Are More Welcome Than Others

a road sign along the side of a highway reading "tennessee welcomes you"
Photo by famartin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Since the 2016 election, my non-scientific review estimates that the media has published seven zillion articles on Trump voters living in rural America, roughly seven zillion more than were necessary. Mother Jones’ Becca Andrews traveled back to the area where she grew up, Crockett County in West Tennessee, to talk instead to people of color living and working in rural, red states. The stories she hears aren’t as bad as a white person who hasn’t been paying much attention would think. They’re worse — a lot worse.

The day after the November presidential election, Turner went with her mother to the store, and they both kept their heads down. “We just feel like we don’t belong here anymore,” she says.

Turner’s mom, who cleans houses in town for a living, went to work a couple of days after that, and her employer, an older white woman, brought up the results of the recent election. The two had talked politics before—Turner’s mom is a Democrat, and her employer is a Republican. “Well, you might as well come and live with me now,” the employer said. “You gonna be mine eventually.”

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And How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

C Pam Zhang | The Missouri Review | Spring 2017 | 17 minutes (4,793 words)

This short story first appeared in The Missouri Review, the quarterly print journal produced at the University of Missouri since 1978. In a frontier Western mining town, the children of two Chinese miners struggle to survive on their own. It’s the first chapter of an in-progress novel. Our thanks to C Pam Zhang and the TMR staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.

* * *

Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.

Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning but Lucy, before they leave, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs hard on her, pushes till she gives way. Leaking apologies or Ha ha has.

“Sorry,” she says now to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and crusty room, every surface sticky with tobacco spit. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience tapping at the door in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba’s every word and now won’t even meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone.

She digs a toe into the dirt floor, rooting for better words. Words to make them listen. To spread benediction over years’ worth of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the air, no wind to stir it.

Something prods her spine.

“Pow,” Sam says. Ten to Lucy’s twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. “Too slow. You’re dead.” Sam cocks fingers back from pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imaginary gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Lee said these new guns didn’t clog and didn’t need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her. Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.

Lucy’s nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy’s face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.

There’s dirt on Sam’s face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Injun warpaint, but beneath it all, Sam’s face is unblemished.

Just this once, because Ba’s big muck-shovel hands are helpless and stiff under the blanket—and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some part of her that riling Ba might make him stand and swing at her jaw—Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam in the chin, at the join where Injun paint gives way to baby fat.

“Pow yourself,” Lucy says. She pushes Sam like an outlaw into the street. Read more…

An Unforgiving Legal System Welcomes Black Immigrants to America

Carl Lipscombe, the deputy director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, helps black migrants navigate legal and racial complexities in the U.S. ( Photo by John Michael Kilbane)

Hawa Allan | Longreads | July 2017 | 3500 words (14 minutes)

Words are said to have settled meanings, yet their formal definitions are often eclipsed by the images they give rise to in our minds. An “immigrant,” for example, is defined as a person who moves to live in a foreign country. Yet in the United States this word has often come to symbolize persons of Mexican, or Central or South American descent. The term “white immigrant” has a dissonant ring; those who move to the U.S. from parts of Europe or Australia are often casually referred to as “expats,” connoting a leisurely freedom of movement not typically conferred to an immigrant. A “black immigrant” is deprived of easy free associations. Black immigrants are unmarked, indivisible from African Americans whose lineage extends to the country’s inception.

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has been working since 2006 to identify the distinct legal issues black immigrants face, and the burden of racial discrimination they share with African Americans in the United States. Last year, BAJI published a report with NYU Law School that provides a detailed statistical analysis of the country’s estimated 3.7 million black immigrants. This population is often caught at the intersection of racial profiling and the unforgiving immigration laws that target those with criminal records for removal. Although black immigrants make up 5 percent of the unauthorized population in the U.S., they make up 20 percent of the population facing deportation on criminal grounds. Black immigrants, according to the report, have suffered disproportionately under Clinton-era immigration legislation aimed at sorting “good” immigrants from “bad” immigrants associated with crime or terror.

I recently spoke with BAJI’s Deputy Director Carl Lipscombe about the state of black immigration in America. This is the first in a series for Longreads about the challenges faced by lawyers working during the Trump administration.

***

Hawa Allan: What is the mission of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration?

Carl Lipscombe: BAJI tackles issues affecting black immigrants using a few different approaches. One way is organizing. We work with members of our community on issues that are important to them and we empower them to take action on their own behalf. We also do advocacy, working in partnership with other organizations towards policy change on local, state and federal levels. We have staff in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, and we also have a policy manager based in Washington D.C. who educates elected officials about broad topics affecting black immigrants. And we have two attorneys on staff that I supervise and who provide direct legal services to members of our community.

HA: So there are three aspects to BAJI’s work — public policy advocacy, organizing, and direct legal services. Was this three-pronged mission present at BAJI’s inception or did it develop organically over time?

CL: We were started in 2006 by civil rights and racial justice leaders, veterans who saw immigration as a continuation of the racial justice struggle. They soon realized that the immigrants’ rights movement was definitely not black-oriented. There were rarely black people at the center of immigrants’ rights cases, which were very Latino-focused, so they added the aspect of engaging black immigrants with the struggle for immigrants’ rights.

HA: At least anecdotally, I’m aware of tensions between black immigrant communities African American communities, although persons outside both groups tend to lump them together on a purely visual basis.

CL: I think the issues are still the same. There is obviously a distinct impact of harsh immigration policies on black immigrants, but both groups face criminalization, economic inequality, lack of access to adequate health care, and educational inequities.

HA: I suppose I was thinking about how competition over already meager resources can tend to pit groups that should otherwise be aligned against each other. How black immigrants, being newcomers who are uninitiated in America’s racial issues, think they can somehow “rise above” discrimination.

CL: Yes, I think those are historic tensions. But from our perspective, a lot of these tensions are manufactured by elected leaders, and by corporations in order to pit black people against one another. I think these tensions are fueled by outsiders and from the media. In reality, black immigrants and African Americans are similarly situated in certain contexts. When a black person is walking down the street and a cop stops them, they’re not going to be asked “Are you an immigrant or are you African American?”

HA: Of course.

CL: Last fall, we released a report on the State of Black Immigrants. Even though black immigrants have high educational attainment rates on par with Asian immigrants, they still have the highest unemployment rates and the highest poverty rates among all immigrants. They are over represented in the deportation system, we believe, largely because of their race. Black immigrants represent only about five percent of immigrants in the country but over twenty percent of those in deportation facilities.

Apart from refugee communities, black immigrants mostly live interspersed with African Americans in cities and face the same issues when it comes to criminalization: over-policing and the ramifications of broken windows policing.

HA: When you’re organizing, do you find you’re trying to convince black immigrants and African Americans that they have more in common than they think?

CL: We’re getting people to realize that we have a shared struggle. We have this amazing program at our national conference held every couple of years called the African Diaspora Dialogues, which gets people in small groups — black immigrants and African Americans — to share their migration story and how they experience race in the U.S. So we do a certain amount of work to break down those barriers.

HA: In terms of police brutality, some of the major figures who have symbolized the gravity of this issue include black immigrants, like Amadou Diallo, who was from Guinea, and Abner Louima from Haiti. And there was a more recent case on the West Coast…

CL: Yes, a Ugandan immigrant, Alfred Olango outside of San Diego. One thing that I find striking is that over the last couple of years, there have actually been quite a few black immigrants who have been killed by police. But their cases haven’t gotten as much publicity. Alfred Olango’s sister called the police because—he wasn’t necessarily violent, she just called them to calm him down.

HA: He had a mental health issue.

CL: And he wasn’t threatening her. She didn’t feel as though she was physically in danger but thought maybe the police could help her. Alfred was killed within moments of the police arriving. He was a black refugee, he was a chef, he was from Uganda, and the spin, the immediate spin, was “Oh he had a mental illnesses.”

HA: Right, the media narrative…

CL: It was also reported that he had been arrested before for traffic violations. Because he has been arrested before it means the police should show up and kill him?

HA: When organizing around police brutality do you find that you have to provide a different level of awareness to black immigrants as opposed to African Americans?

CL: I think because of the amazing work of Black Lives Matter over the last few years and the attention that police abuse has gotten, people get it. And that’s across the board. All black people get it. Any time I’m in a taxi or I’m on one of those ride-hailing services and I talk to the drivers, who are often black immigrants, and I tell them what I do, they talk about police brutality. What I find interesting is that they always talk about immigration along with policing. So I think people get it.

HA: I was wondering whether black immigrants who are very recent residents of the United States don’t have the same understanding of how their presence is threatening to the police.

CL: America has a very unique brand of racism. I think that a lot of black immigrants are just not used to it in their home countries where are ethnic tensions, xenophobia, even racism to a certain degree — but racism in the U.S. is very different.

HA: I’m thinking about bodily movements, gesticulation. People especially from the African continent…many have rather large presences, right?

CL: Yes, our communities talk with our bodies. Our voices are loud sometimes and those types of things can seem threatening — black people who are animated.

HA: There is a certain, I believe, experiential education you get from being a black person growing up in the United States. You learn to move your body in a certain way, how to move through the world.

CL: Yes, to make yourself smaller.

HA: Make yourself smaller and make yourself safer. But as a newcomer to this American situation you don’t have that kind of education, and that can put you in danger.

CL: I was born here and I grew up in the Bronx. I was taught how to deal with the police by my family. I was told to always carry my ID to the point that I thought I had to carry ID by law. I was taught to always speak respectfully to the police so that nothing happened to me, so I didn’t get arrested or worse. A lot of immigrants aren’t taught this. They aren’t taught to cower to the police or to be afraid of the police.

HA: I was just thinking about Amadou Diallo reaching for his wallet…a simple movement like that obviously doesn’t justify the violence that followed. But I imagine him thinking that all he had to do was to prove who he was and everything would be fine.

CL: Yes.

HA: From the report on the State of Black Immigrants, I was surprised to learn that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service doesn’t track immigration data by race, only by country of origin.

CL: I was at a conference recently where the history of immigration was being discussed. There were a number of court cases defining whiteness, and it’s surprising, given the history of our immigration laws, that we don’t track this data by race. It actually makes research on black immigrants very difficult because we have to use a combination of USCIS data and census data.

HA: Which makes the category of “black immigrant,” as defined in the report, both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.

CL: Specific communities were particularly difficult to track. For example, it is very hard to get an accurate number of Afro-Latinos in the country because some Afro-Latinos don’t self-identify as black. Latinos generally don’t self-identify as black in U.S. Census surveys.

Even among those who might self-identify as black, many of their home countries are only recently starting to recognize that some of their residents are black. It was only a year or two ago that Mexico acknowledged that there were black Mexicans.

HA: It’s fascinating that a country that was organized around race, both in the context of slavery and immigration, wouldn’t be tracking this data.

CL: Well, if they did track this data by race, it would make it a lot easier for attorneys to sue for discrimination.

HA: So BAJI was founded in 2006, and I understand that particularly damaging immigration laws discussed in the report came into effect in 1996 — crystallizing the link between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement. Would you mind discussing this legislation: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)?

CL: I think it’s important the two bills are taken together. The first one, IIRIRA, expanded the criminal grounds for deportation as well as mandatory detention. Originally, there were only less than a dozen offenses that could get one deported. And even in those cases, judges had discretion over whether or not to detain someone and to ultimately deport them.

After 1996 those grounds expanded to about two dozen. IIRIRA expanded the grounds for deportation and AEDPA was terrorism-related. It established a means of restitution for victims of “terrorist activity” and enabled the federal government to detain individuals believed to be involved in terrorist activities.

Up until the passing of these laws, the U.S. removed on average maybe a couple of thousand people a year. While Obama was in office, we removed on average 375,000 people a year. Obama removed more people in eight years than in the entire history of the U.S. going back to 1892.

HA: Obama used the rhetoric about wanting to keep “families” in the country and get “felons” out — the good immigrant versus bad immigrant.

CL: What a lot of people don’t realize is that the definition of “felon” under immigration law is expansive. A teenager who throws an orange at a teacher—if they are charged with assault — would be considered an aggravated felon.

HA: In your view, are these the laws that created this nexus of racial profiling and the over representation of black immigrants in deportation proceedings?

CL: Yes, they are. These laws were passed during the Clinton years, but the administrative infrastructure for their enforcement was really set up during the Bush years, after 9/11 when immigration was moved under the newly-established Department of Homeland Security.

HA: Immigration effectively became an issue of national security.

CL: Yes, and Obama further funded Bush’s administrative infrastructure.

HA: And now, of course, we have Trump.

CL: Yes — now we have Trump.

HA: His rhetoric might be bolder—

CL: But he’s using the same laws and infrastructure as Obama.

HA: After immigration was placed under this anti-terror rubric, we now have the so-called Muslim ban. With respect to the Supreme Court recently reinstating certain portions of the ban, does BAJI have any specific response?

CL: Yes—well, for a start, Trump wanted all citizens from those countries to be banned from entry, which he didn’t get and which is good. But I think the Supreme Court did create confusion by carving out an exception for individuals that have a “bona fide” relationship with a person or entity in the U.S. The definition of that term is very unclear. The administration last week issued guidance on what they considered a bona fide relationship to be. It’s limited to immediate family and fiancés and stepchildren, so grandparents will be unable to enter the U.S. As you know, a lot of this community, particularly the black community, don’t come from nuclear families. We come from cultures where the entire community is involved with child rearing and care-taking.

HA: There was a very interesting editorial in the Washington Post that used the recent Supreme Court decision as a basis for refuting the idea that lawyers alone could save us in the age of Trump.

CL: Oh yes, I saw that.

HA: When the travel ban was first instituted, there were a lot of lawyers who went to airports to represent affected persons. Then lower courts decided the travel ban was unconstitutional. There was this hope, especially with figures like Sally Yates, that maybe the law could curb the excesses of the Trump administration.

CL: I agree with that general sentiment — that the law is an important protection for immigrants and a strategic tool that can support those in crisis — but we definitely need more than the law. If we’re really going to change the system, we need to organize, we need to change the leadership, we need to change those who are creating the laws and those that are enforcing them in this harsh, egregious way.

HA: Two of the countries affected by the travel ban are in sub-Saharan Africa: Somalia and Sudan. When Trump was campaigning in Minneapolis, he called the Somalis who resettled there terrorists.

CL: Yes.

HA: Of course people have focused on Trump’s statement about Mexicans being rapists and the idea of criminalizing immigrants in general, but can you speak to his statements about not only Somalis but also Haitians with regard to TPS (Temporary Protected Status)?

CL: Historically, when we’ve talked about Latino immigration, the context has been the “valedictorian” and the “Dreamer,” the business owner and the immigrant worker—the person who is here to work. But the narrative about black immigrants has been similar black people in general: That Black immigrants are charity cases who are here to take advantage of whatever resources there are in the U.S.

HA: So when Donald Trump’s administration said they were going to review whether or not to extend temporary protected status for Haitians who fled here after the earthquake….

CL: Yes, one thing that they did, which was unprecedented, was Trump had his administration look into the criminal backgrounds of Haitians. That has never happened before.

HA: I wanted to ask you about your personal history. I see that you started off as a labor organizer and then you were a public defender, and then you moved onto doing communications for social justice organizations.

CL: I started off in labor organizing when I was in college. I was active at Brooklyn College with adjunct faculty that was organizing. I was in student government and they came to us for support. I started getting interested in the labor movement because I just saw the power of unions and that we could actually make changes in our workplace and shift power dynamics. After undergrad, I interned with an organization called Jobs With Justice, which is a coalition of unions, students, faith groups and community organizations.

What I liked at Jobs With Justice was that we worked at different intersections. It was broadly a worker’s rights and economic justice organization, but we worked on those issues as they impacted immigrants and black people and the environment and healthcare and so on. So I was exposed to these different issues. And I have always had an interest in fighting on behalf of black people and immigrants, that’s why I got into this work. When I got burnt out from organizing I decided to go to law school.

HA: Is that because you wanted to address these issues from a legal perspective?

CL: I think that legal advocacy and organizing compliment one another. When I was an organizer, we often had to work with lawyers on policy — experts and what not — and I found a lot of them just didn’t understand my community, and saw it as their jobs to tell us what we can’t do and what isn’t possible.

When I was an organizer, I felt as though the job of lawyers was to take our power away. They took power away from communities rather than adding to it. And I thought to myself that it would be great to have that skill set and to really be able to use it in a way that merged with organizing and complimented organizing. So I became a public defender after law school. And I’m from the Bronx, so I was fortunate enough to be able to work as a public defender in the Bronx.

I saw that there just weren’t attorneys who were experts in the issues affecting black immigrants. There weren’t many attorneys who were expert at litigating in immigration court, or representing immigrants with criminal backgrounds or with mental illness or histories of substance use.

When I was a public defender, I realized a lot of my clients were black immigrants and I didn’t know that there were legal organizations devoted to black immigrants. There were a lot of organizations focused on Latino immigrants and Asian immigrants but not black immigrants. I was the first person at BAJI with a legal background, so I was able to get our legal program off the ground.

HA: Progressive movements often have to be reactive because they respond to the immediate needs of people who have the least access to resources to defend themselves. Right-wing movements, to the extent that we can call them movements, tend to be more ideological: the purpose of taxes, or questions about “liberty.” They’re not immediately responding to the needs of particular groups of people.

Is there a sense that BAJI in particular, or progressive movements in general, are implementing a vision for moving society forward? Is this even possible when progressive movements are constantly on the defense?

CL: You’re right that progressives are responding to crises. We’re trying to protect the few decent laws that we have on the books, or at least prevent the worst from happening. But at the same time this work is tied to a broader vision of the world that we want see—a world where black people, immigrants, Muslims, woman, trans and queer communities are able to live with freedom and dignity.

I think that we need to keep our eye on the long-term goals. There are times when the people we work with are facing an emergency and we want be there for them, but we do it in the context of fighting for our dreams. Working with other organizations, and being a part of the Movement for Black Lives and other similar groups, I can say the same thing for them. We’re all working toward a broader vision.

Highway Robbery: How the Port Trucking Industry is Rigged Against Drivers

Joe Raedle / Getty

Did you know that your Ralph Lauren polo shirt was driven to the warehouse by an indentured servant? At USA Today, Brett Murphy reports on how port truckers — required to lease their trucks from their companies — are working for pennies (or less) each week as they struggle to drive enough hours to appease their bosses and the public’s insatiable demand for merchandise from big chains like Target, Ralph Lauren, and The Home Depot. If a driver fails to log enough hours, falls behind, gets sick, or collapses from exhaustion, the company seizes their truck and they forfeit everything they’ve paid toward its purchase.

Samuel Talavera Jr. did everything his bosses asked.

Most days, the trucker would drive more than 16 hours straight hauling LG dishwashers and Kumho tires to warehouses around Los Angeles, on their way to retail stores nationwide.

He rarely went home to his family. At night, he crawled into the back of his cab and slept in the company parking lot.

For all of that, he took home as little as 67 cents a week.

Then, in October 2013, the truck he leased from his employer, QTS, broke down.

When Talavera could not afford repairs, the company fired him and seized the truck — along with $78,000 he had paid towards owning it.

Talavera was a modern-day indentured servant. And there are hundreds, likely thousands more, still on the road, hauling containers for trucking companies that move goods for America’s most beloved retailers, from Costco to Target to Home Depot.

A yearlong investigation by the USA TODAY Network found that port trucking companies in southern California have spent the past decade forcing drivers to finance their own trucks by taking on debt they could not afford. Companies then used that debt as leverage to extract forced labor and trap drivers in jobs that left them destitute.

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Can You Return To a Place That Was Never Your Home?

Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)
Postcard from Vienna, 1906 (Public Domain)

Through marriage, I hold Austrian permanent residency. I’m in the coveted position of having a place to go should I decide my home country has become too apocalyptic. I can land in that Alpine nation with a clunky yet functional grasp of Austrian German, a string of in-laws to help me navigate, and full work credentials. Getting my residency status was, from a bureaucratic perspective, painless. I had been married for several years, my husband had a government job, and we went through our hearings — including updating an expired “green card” — in a small-town office with no lines.

Others don’t have it so easy. One winter I attended German classes with Bosnian war refugees and a few mail-order brides — one from Brazil, one from the Philippines, one from Cambodia. “My sister came first,” one of my classmates told me, “and her life was so much better here with her mailbox husband than it was doing laundry back in the Philippines, so I did the same.” (Not her exact words, we stumbled through with a mix of our classroom German and English.)

My refugee classmates were former engineers and social workers relegated to factory jobs because Austria didn’t recognize their education. I was a textbook picture of American exceptionalism. My education — an art degree — was irrelevant to employers because I was an American who’d worked for Microsoft. I got a job on a software team at Sony in Salzburg while my more qualified classmates stuck labels on yogurt containers at the dairy factory across the river. My classmates thought I was nuts. “Why are you even here,” they’d ask, incredulous, “when you can be in America?”

I did not like living in small-town Austria; I was ill-suited for its xenophobic (yet also very intrusive) society, and I pined for Vietnamese food and my weird friends. I wanted to want to live in Vienna, but the more visits I made to that city the more I could see how it would have worn me down — even while I knew I’d have lasted there longer than out in the little snow-globe where we lived. I went home. My travel credentials include “failed expat.”

All this is a long setup to say I have feelings about this piece at Catapult in which Grace Linden navigates the process of reclaiming her Austrian citizenship — something she has the right to do as the member of a family that was destroyed by the Nazis.

I don’t know if Leo ever found out what happened to his family; it took me weeks of online research. In the Yad Vashem database, I entered the information for Chaim (Karl) Izak Linadauer Zigellaub, my great-grandfather. He was deported on February 15, 1941 to Lublin, Poland, presumably to the Lublin Ghetto. If he didn’t die in the Ghetto, he would have most likely been transported to the Bełżec Concentration Camp where almost 500,000 Jews were murdered. There was just a single mention of his name on a deportation list; the space between the specifics and the unknowns is enormous. Brieche, his wife, and Ruth’s fates are unknown but almost certainly they were taken to Auschwitz. Improbably, Joseph made it to China where he died in the Shanghai Ghetto. It’s no wonder my grandfather forced time to carry him towards the future.

The compensation Linden seeks — the right to live in Austria — was one I did not work for and did not want. But part of me understand the desire for refuge, for options. And the irony of today’s Jewish Americans casting their eyes back on a nation that attempted to eliminate them — us — is not wasted on me.

Vienna is desperately longing for something it once was. As Alice Gregory wrote recently in T Magazine, “The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell a century ago next year, but the physical remains of its influence are perfectly preserved.” The pull of its history is inescapable. In my own family, I keep looking back for what was lost, only there is nothing left to grab a hold of.

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The Unlikely Friendship of Long Ma and Bac Duong

Long Ma sits inside his taxi during an interview following his escape. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

When 71-year-old taxi driver Long Ma answered the phone and agreed to drive Bac Duong and a few friends home, he had no idea he was about to be taken hostage by three escaped inmates. Although one of Ma’s captors was set on killing him, he developed a deep bond with Bac, a fellow Vietnamese immigrant. After almost a week in captivity and thanks to Bac, Ma got away alive and today, visits Bac regularly in prison — the two regard one another as father and son. Paul Kix tells their tale in GQ.

Money had always been tight, which exacerbated the arguments between Ma and his wife. He knew she was losing respect for him and knew that everyone in the family noticed it. Rather than suffer the indignity, Ma moved one day, without explanation, from their home in San Diego. He found a little room in the Garden Grove boarding house and began a solitary existence as a driver—a choice that seemed to have led to this: He was a hostage in a squalid motel room, debating whether an accused killer actually cared for him.

The escapees decided they needed to move north, and on Tuesday morning, they drove 350 tense miles to San Jose, where they found another motel. The journey exhausted Ma. And that night he began snoring so loudly that he woke Duong, lying beside him. But Duong didn’t elbow him awake. Instead, he slowly climbed out of bed, careful not to stir Ma, and curled up on the floor, so Uncle might rest more peacefully.

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