I remember the moment I became interested in politics and world events. When I grew up in Mexico, I heard from someone that the United States had gone to war. To me, the United States was a magical land where people could find jobs, where you could be anything you wanted to be, where I could go to McDonald’s. That was my youthful, limited view of this country. I’d lived here when I was much, much younger, but before the age of ten, the United States was still a mysterious place where anything could happen. I mean, come on. It had Disneyland.
Eleven years ago, I was in my room while practicing for an upcoming choir competition. I had just popped in a tape (wow, I’m dating this) with the instrumentals to the songs we needed to learn. I was halfway through “Danny Boy.” I was just past the line about all the flowers dying when my mom called me to her room and said something had happened in New York City.
I looked at the television and saw that a plane had struck one of the towers in the World Trade Center. I imagined every possible cause of this catastrophe. The announcers were concerned, of course. They were in New York City themselves.
“This wasn’t an accident,” I said.
I watched for several minutes but knew I had to go practice. I couldn’t focus, however. I kept seeing the fire and the gutted skyscraper. By the time I went to school, I heard from others that a second plane had hit. I knew then it wasn’t an accident. The school administration wouldn’t let us turn the televisions on and said we had to focus on studying, but everyone was talking about what had just happened.
When the televisions were finally allowed back on hours later, we saw a dust cloud over Lower Manhattan. Someone started muttering, “Where are the towers? Where are the towers?”
It might have been me.
The rest of the day just disappeared. When we left school, my sister and I went to put gas in the car. The line stretched around the block as people rushed to get the soon-precious commodity. It was the last time I’ve filled up my tank for less than twenty-five dollars. It was also the last time I’d felt truly safe.
I was angry. This was my home, my country. I wasn’t born here, but I certainly worked to prove myself as a good American citizen, so for someone to do this to us, to me, was infuriating in a way I’ve never experienced since. The school year sort of faded away. The invasion of Afghanistan came and victory loomed over the horizon, or so I thought. As summer finally arrived, I questioned my earlier anger. I was angry at an entire group of people, a whole country. I wanted to see them pay for supporting the slaughter of thousands…
Then, I went to college. It’s become a cliché that education makes you liberal, but it’s true. Being exposed to new ideas, new concepts, new people, all have a profound effect on us. I know it did to me. By the time I left ten years ago, I had lived and worked with people who were Jewish, Christian, Wiccan, atheists, gay, straight, bisexual, conservative, liberal, communists, libertarians, and everything in between.
I learned to not just live with, but accept other points of view. The Second Iraq War came and I felt disgusted with myself. The nation I’d admired so much was now a bully, a scared child that had been hit hard, had suffered, and was now lashing at anyone and anything it felt was a threat. I’d never been part of the minority before. In South Texas, Hispanics are the majority, but in Indiana, I was very much a minority. I’d been bullied when I was much younger, but it wasn’t until I went to college that I felt like an outsider.
After graduation, I worked odd jobs, eventually working as a Congressional speechwriter in the fall of 2008. While on the Hill, I saw apathy. I saw people calling in, sometimes screaming, over imagined slights. I saw the uneducated behind doors and banging on said doors to get attention. There was a fear in the air. It was the same fear of the other, of something alien coming in and taking away that which was ours. It’s the same kind of fear the GOP is relying on this time around. It’s the same fear and botched education that fueled the Tea Party. It’s the reason Fox News can claim to be news. It says what the subconscious wants to hear.
When I was a child, the United States was a magical land. It was a goal, but once I got here, it took years for me to realize it was something that needed to be tended. It grew. It breathed. It could not survive the ignorance and fear of that day, and yet it’s still used as subtly as using a lead pipe to perform brain surgery.
Whenever someone asks why I write about politics, education, and art, and why I spend time trying to make sure my students develop critical thinking skills, I remember that younger me. I remember the things I said and wished.
I’m grateful that version of me never had the power to make good on those threats.