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To Mi Ciela, My Lion’s Laugh-Love, My Little Panpipe

Dear niece. Dear eight-year-old asker of pointed questions and WHY and WHY again.

I wish I had answers for you today. I wish you lived closer or that I could come visit you more often. I wish you really knew just how our talks fill me with a particular kind of happiness I only have with you.

And that when you are unhappy, I am flooded with unhappiness.

I wish I had answers for you, in light of the events surrounding Charlottesville and our president’s awful response. I know your father, my brother, tries to be very honest with you while also wanting you to enjoy a childhood easier than the one we had. Because we attended public high school with those like Richard Spencer who believed in white supremacy but framed it differently then, behind the backdrop of a particular type of Christianity. At our large, overcrowded public high school in San Antonio, Texas, Christian Whiteness presented itself as a domineering voice in ways that made your father and I—as Jews—uncomfortable and unwelcomed. We both knew students who belonged to mega churches that went after Catholics, Muslims, and us too, and these students would openly pray on school grounds before classes started. Their number was strong. Each morning, in the school itself, we had a Moment of Silence, a vague term meant to pacify those few who believed in a separation of church and state, in which both students and teachers alike would whisper loudly their prayers and cross themselves, all the while eyeing those who did not.

The Moment of Silence was never silent, and it was never not a veiled form of Christian whiteness. It made itself known.

Sometimes these students would try to “save” your father and me. These students might’ve listened to Top 40 hits and shopped at the mall, but they also had an unending feverish need to bring their religion into school. Sometimes they told us we were “unsaveable”; other times, certain pastors told them to embrace Jewish people, for when all Jewish people returned to Israel, the Messiah would come. Of course, in this way Jewish people were merely an accessory to their larger agenda.

These are all very heavy things, but I want you to know there are good people out there who are fighting for the good of others. Recently, W. Kamau Bell asked Richard Spencer why he says he wants to “bathe” in White Privilege, and Spencer replied:

“It looks great, you know, I mean like the people are good- looking, and you know, nice suits, great literature, like yeah…”

I am not exaggerating, my love; this is an actual quote from an argument an adult is making, one that would fail a freshman undergraduate composition course. He doesn’t hold a candle to you. And yet the problem is that while many adults write off Spencer as a small-time, unintelligent bigot—I know your father has had to explain this word before, bigot—who’s merely seeking fame and attention, Spencer nonetheless has created a huge platform for himself. And this interview is so painful to watch because Bell is so eloquent, graceful, and candid as he asks pointed questions, pushing against out of a genuine need to understand why a man in the twenty first century would build this platform on hate and intolerance.

Apparently, as your father told me, you have seen some videos in which Spencer rails against people like us. And you asked me some rather pointed questions about your own Mexican heritage, about being Jewish, and then quite suddenly, you ask: What do you do if friends tell you that they like him and they agree with things he says, but then they say it’s not YOU-you but you know it is you, even when they don’t? What if one day you know you’ll have a fight about it? What do you do?

I was still thinking about how to answer when you said: I asked Grandma Esperanza.

For unlike me, my mama, your grandma, is always ready with her answers: Sometimes you will have to punch back.

And just when I was about to address what she said, you asked if I’d ever gotten in a fight.

I needed a minute. Just a minute.

Longer.

*

 

There are many reasons why my brother was upset that Grandma Esperanza said this to you. He doesn’t want you to get in trouble. He believes violence is rarely the answer. It’s not my place to share your father’s history if he did or did not get into fights. I can tell you my own. I wish I could tell you this gently. There is no way to do that.

I was bullied by people like Spencer. I didn’t back down. I was beaten up. I don’t want anyone I love to go through it. I do not want you to go through it. I hope you never have to. I do want you to fight back. I don’t want anyone to think they can walk all over you. I don’t want you to get in trouble. I just want people to leave you alone and let you live your life. (Yeah, that worked out well for so many others, Grandma Esperanza would add here.) I’m torn, my heart. We have a special bond. I don’t want to lose that. I wish I could find a way for you to better survive in a world that largely does not want you to. That’s not being cynical. I write this as a would-be optimist, as someone who still believes in human possibility reaching for that greater song, in part, because of you.

I also write this as someone who lost every physical fight she’s been in.

I write this as someone who didn’t back down because I didn’t want to lose my mother’s respect, but I don’t ever want you to feel that way.

I write this knowing my brother probably won’t let you see this letter for a while.

Because he loves you. Because you are always so hungry for candor, and candor in these situations is not kind. Because we grew up with it. Because you are the light of his eyes.

*

Why can’t we get past this?

Your pediatrician predicts that you will be as tall as me when you are eleven, and your father’s height by age fifteen. You are already stronger than both of us, excelling at soccer and basketball. You love learning. You love science, art, poetry. You have a very open heart. A plucky, lion heart that knows when adults condescend to you or try to say you’re too young to understand. You tend to understand whether anyone likes it or not. I’d rather spend this time discussing the discovery of the 2.7-million-year-old ice core that can tell us about the ice ages or this incredible video that explores hummingbird’s flight and movements in slow motion. There is so much to love, to unearth, to better focus in this age, even given the white supremacists who no longer feel the need to hood their faces, more confident than ever in a country which has always protected them, now allowing them to spew hate speech openly.

Why can’t we get past this? Your last question and the most difficult.

My love, with you, I have to speak directly from the heart. Even if your father decides that you should not read this for some time, I will nonetheless try to answer your question, with a story. It involves horses, my husband—your Uncle Brian—and what really is we, who really constitutes this greater us.

I love horses and love to write about horses, but I am not a horse. I can study all the science behind the horse mind, but I cannot be a horse. And yet, it’s when I met your Uncle Brian that I really heard the music of horses, and not only that, but he’s actually made my connection stronger to the music I hear in the world itself—not its noise. Noise like Richard Spencer and white supremacy. Like friends who tell you they like Richard Spencer, but nothing against you, when it really is—that’s noise. It’s noise that constantly tries to derail me, your Uncle Brian and us as a couple walking down the street—any street when we are together—and there are days that I want to hide in his arms, and sometimes I do.

The thing is, when he holds me, the world opens up again, and I am thrown back into the music. It’s a way back in, but into a place that doesn’t necessarily accept him and me—accept us. Yet, mi ciela, I deeply want to love the world, the real world of horses and music and possibility.

It is such a beautiful world, and the noise wants to destroy it. Now, what does this mean for us, and who is us when there are people telling you that it’s better to stay with “their own”? My parents didn’t. Your father didn’t. I didn’t. So maybe that’s why I understand people like that less and less. That there are days I can study all the science behind the human mind, but I cannot for the life of me understand certain human behavior. As you can see from that clip with W. Kamau Bell, he really tried to talk to Richard Spencer whose answers made no logical sense. They were full of nothing. And yet in speaking to Spencer, Bell would not give up his language as he continued to try to understand a man who is nothing more than an empty shell.

In just a short video, hate revealed itself to be built on empty language.

The kind of language that has no human spirit.

*

One thing I know for absolute certain is that I will always be here for you and your pointed questions, even when I don’t have a specific, scientifically-proven answer. And know that Grandma Esperanza doesn’t think you should always go in swinging—she believes the best response is to do well for yourself and find happiness, a right she was never granted, one that your grandpa, my father, greatly tries to create for her every day. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, but know that you have many people in your life that will stand by you, help you when you need help with empty language, with the noise, with doublespeak. Know that even though your auntie lost every fistfight she was pushed into, she didn’t—in the end—lose. Love the world, my heart, love it as much as you can, despite the noise which does not come from it but from a false place beyond it, for, as Nazim Hikmet writes, “the world must be loved this much if you’re going to say ‘I lived. . .'”