He looks at us from the end of the long table and says, “When they start rounding us up, what are you going to do?” He’s talking to me, one of the only white people in the room. He’s talking to you maybe. He’s talking to all of us who aren’t living in fear of deportation right now in the fast-approaching Trump’s America. When they round up your neighbor, your friend, your nanny, your gardener, your nurse, your clients, your students, what are you going to do?!
This is the talk before the talk here at Berkeley City College by this journalist who is likely to be deported. You know the one. He won the Pulitzer and then came out as undocumented. It’s Jose Antonio Vargas.
Before the talk before the talk, I arrive with my English student, M-, and we grab a slice of pizza and sit at the long table in a conference room up a few floors here in downtown Berkeley. I got invited to this gig not as the token white guy but because I am the co-advisor for the Puente Program at my college and we were invited to bring a couple students. I am sitting next to one of them, an older student from Michoacán who has come to me during office hours to tell me, voice trembling, that she is doing her best with the assignments but that her grandmother is dying back in México and she is trying to get her green card so she can go visit her before Abuela passes on. That was before the election.
We are sitting across from two young students who are talking about how hard it is to focus on anything right now. “All I know is the world is broken,” says the young African American. “That’s all. The world is broken.”
“Just keeping says that,” says her Latina friend.
Jose Antonio Vargas speaks to us and his staff (he points out the irony that as an undocumented person himself, he cannot be hired, but he can start a business and hire others) film him and and the students who choose to speak. A young Latino male takes the mic and says bitterly, “We played their game and half the country said we don’t want you.”
Another student, also young, Latino, male, says, “This election, if anything, has taken away any uncertainty.” He says it’s a good thing we see America for what it is.
Another student speaks of trying to work hard, succeed and transfer to a four-year university but admits her biggest struggle is believing in herself, that she is good enough. She asks him what he tells himself in the morning to keep going.
Vargas speaks of his mom putting him on the plane alone at age 12 and sending him off for a better life. He admits that has taken its toll, that he is still that 12 year old with fear of abandonment, that it has deeply shaped his adult relationships. He implores all of us, “At a time like this, loving yourself is a radical act.”
I listen to these brave students talk and observe this warrior for the undocumented and I scribble on the yellow pad they have provided us, “Who am I? What is my role?
- Connect the undocumented with resources and information
- Provide safe spaces for learning, sharing, organizing
- Serve the moment: translate, edit, drive the truck, house (the verb).”
Later, we ride the elevator down to the auditorium for the big talk. Jose Antonio Vargas, who was all over the map at the long table, is articulate, funny, and wise in the big talk in the big room. (He is reading what he has written, now, rather than speaking off the cuff. He is a writer.) He recites a poem by Baldwin, including the line:
The falling mortal is our brother
He urges us to find “radical empathy,” to try to figure out how people got to where they are in their thinking. He tell us, “A changing country requires a changing language” and urges us to use the language of the other side but turn it around, turn it upside down.
He asks this question of those of us who are already citizens:
“What are you doing to do to earn your citizenship?”
I get in the car and drive through Berkeley back to Oakland. I turn on the radio and Patty Griffin is singing “Rain,” one of my favorites. With pensive guitar strings, she sings, “It’s hard to listen to a hard hard heart…” I roll past good people standing at the corner or driving in the lane next to me, trying to get home too. It’s late but my kids will still be up. In fact, when I walk through the door Amy will be playing guitar in the corner, something she’s been meaning to do for weeks, maybe months.
Rolling towards the goodness that is my safe home, Patty sings,
“Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
When I’m still alive underneath this shroud
Rain Rain Rain”