Dear Karla Ortiz,
I first saw you in a video the Hillary Clinton campaign put out during the primaries. At age 11, you spoke publicly about your undocumented parents, many years before I mustered up the courage to tell anyone about mine. In Clinton’s ad, she sits you on her lap and reassures you: “I'm going to do everything I can so you don't have to be scared and you don't have to worry too much about your mom or your dad or somebody else in your family,” she says. When a reporter interviewed you, you said you hoped Clinton would win so “she'll be more powerful than Donald Trump.”
I write you today because the election did not turn out the way either of us wanted it to, and I know you are scared of him. Millions of Americans feel the same way. You and I share a name, and we also share a little bit of a backstory. But what he knows, and I know, and you should know, is that the most fearsome creature here is you.
The first thing you need to do, now that he has been inaugurated, is to begin to run, but not in the direction you might have been told. People like us, who have experience with nighttime knocks on doors, are raised with the imperative to run away from the time we take our first steps. Soon this becomes instinctual, but it is an animal impulse you must begin to suppress because starting today you will run in the opposite direction.
I mean it literally. Go outside and run for longer and farther than you think you are capable of. Do it every day. Test the limits of your strength and willpower. Audre Lorde, a black lesbian poet you should know, once wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Before anything else, this will be your first step.
Well-meaning politicians often say they want undocumented families to come out of the shadows. But when I see you, I do not see a child huddled in darkness. You have spoken on stages greater than most of us will ever see. The night of your DNC speech, you wore a silken two-toned dress and a necklace of layered jewels. Millions of people went quiet when they heard your voice. You went on stage with your mother and, ever the modest alchemist, you turned her nervous Spanish into an impassioned plea in English in your own voice. You rubbed her back and mouthed the words she was saying.
I know the feeling. The truth is you will never feel peace when your parents go off to work. The sacrifices they have made for you will haunt you well into adulthood. But I urge you to look outside your family and immediate community to find the strength in these coming four years. I can introduce you to people, both long gone and alive, who know firsthand the daily negotiations that that you and I make, and they are a community that is larger and older than might be apparent. As a child of immigrants, you are heir to the radical tradition of this nation’s movements of resistance, where character crystallized in times of national duress.
Central American immigrants and their allies were responsible for the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, one of the most influential acts of civil disobedience of the 20th century. Millions of immigrants feel that legacy across today’s sanctuary cities nationwide. In the 1940s, a Mexican American man named Manuel Gonzalez, whose name I would have never known had I not happened upon him in a history book, worked at a coal smelter in Texas. And every night after work, he changed into crisp, clean clothing before he went home because he wanted his children to see him the way he viewed himself.
During the 1960s, people realized that many of the unassuming cotton pickers in southwestern fields had fought in the Mexican Revolution back home, some in leadership positions, and soon the farmworkers began organizing. During the Vietnam War, Mexican American soldiers lost their lives in disproportionate numbers in comparison to other soldiers. Their brothers and sisters marched in protest.
During the forced deportations and repatriations of the 1930s, Los Angeles lost a full third of its Mexicans, but their children who remained joined unions and started civil rights groups. Unspeakable hardships have done little to quell our sense of humor. Since then, we have seen the creation and growth of the Border Patrol, originally a group of working-class men who just needed the job, but later became for some, as one historian put it, an opportunity for men with complexes about race and class to “literally shoot their way to whiteness.”
After almost 100 years, our people brought them to court. Last year, despite efforts on behalf of the Obama administration to dismiss the case, a federal judge in Arizona granted class-action status to a lawsuit against the Border Patrol for mistreatment of Central American immigrants.
In the 1990s, immigrant women in McAllen, Texas gave birth in a hospital they chose despite the fact that private security guards were stationed at the door, wearing green uniforms meant to scare the women into thinking they were Border Patrol officers. In 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor, the daughter of a Puerto Rican single mother who grew up in the Bronx projects, became the country’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice, she wore red lipstick and hoop earrings to her meeting with the president. When Obama joked about having been briefed on the earrings, she said, “Mr. President, you have no idea what you’ve unleashed.”
The black poet James Baldwin once wrote a letter to his young nephew wherein he reminded him that this was his country, too, that it would not be easy to drive him off. “Great men have done great things here, and will again,” he wrote. The stock from which you come is not defined by blood, nationality, or religion but by the ability to survive and thrive in a land that is not indigenous to our ancestors, a downright stubborn group of ultimate survivalists who “in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
Every day you build on the history of the nation as a homestead for adventurers and defenders of home and hearth, civil rights activists, suffragettes, marchers and strikers and chanters of protest song. These people are kindred, they are your north star.
The man you fear has reason to tremble in your presence. You swim against brutal currents every moment of every day yet his muscles would atrophy with a toe in the water. Focus on school. Find what you love and work hard towards it. Be kind to your parents, but do not worry about saving them. I do not doubt Secretary Clinton still remembers you, and she has introduced you to the world.
In Donald Trump's inaugural speech Friday, he said something that reminded me of you. ”I will fight for you with every breath in my body,” he said, “and I will never, ever let you down.” There are tens of millions of people in this country who will take those words, rid them of his bile, and deliver them to your feet. Turn on the TV today, and look out your window. The streets cannot contain your keepers.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a writer based in New Haven.