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Takeaway: Who speaks for the children?


Thursday, April 25, 2019

By ILAN STAVANS

For the Bulletin

Have we forgotten what affliction is? Are we altogether immune to the atrocities being committed on a regular basis along the U.S.-Mexican border by patrol officers whose last names are just like ours? Do we believe that because these tragedies happen thousands of miles away we aren’t complicit? Is this not a moment of reckoning?

More than anything else, who speaks for the children? Do we treat them like cattle because they have no voice? Who gave us permission to separate them from their guardians, to quarantine them in overcrowded camps, to put them in cages?

Are the lamentations that precede us unworthy of our attention? Have we not learned the lessons from the past, when the children of slaves were sold like merchandise at auctions in front of their own parents, when indigenous families were moved from one reservation to another to make room for land purchases, when Japanese-Americans were interned in camps during the Second World War because of their origin?

How about the Holocaust? Wasn’t it ignominious enough? Don’t we teach these episodes in our classrooms? Have we been doing it mechanically, without insight, simply to satisfy a curricular requirement?

Will we have the courage to recognize that “millions of asylum seekers” is an abstraction behind which are real people, all with their own sense of self?

Didn’t Robert Frost suggest that “this land was ours before we were the land’s”? What did he mean by “ours”? And which land? Is hell part of that land? In what circle of hell is President Trump destined to live in eternity? Will it be one reserved for bullies? For egoists and self-aggrandizing maniacs? Will his own descendants respond to the suffering he inflicted?

How will we answer when as grown-ups these children, trapped in solitude, come back with questions, an endless chain of them, rightfully demanding an explanation? What will we tell them? That we were not paying attention? That we were sold a bill of goods that sounded like a suitable solution, “a final solution” — a wall, a sophisticated army with howling dogs and machine guns — to an immigration problem run amok? That we had voted a racist into office and couldn’t do anything about it because … Because?

Will we again be required to talk of reparations, as if that were the right response to an epidemic of trauma that could have been easily avoided? Will we sound like cowards? And will we tell them we didn’t quite understand how dark a period we were living in?

Will they believe us? Will we be brave in our responses? Or embarrassed by the array of excuses coming out of our mouths? Will we blame amnesia, e.g., sorry, but we don’t quite remember? Will we accuse the media of not being more pointed, resorting to explanations like “fake news,” forgetting that in the end, every nation has the media it deserves?

Have we lost our moral compass? And have we forgotten what Martin Luther King Jr. said, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere? Is justice not what the United States strives for, justice for all? Are those wanting to join us beyond its purview? Isn’t justice worth dying for?

Isn’t poetry what’s left when extremist ideologies make people hide behind slogans? Didn’t Pablo Neruda say, in “I Explain a Few Things,” his illustrious poem about the Spanish Civil War, which he witnessed in Madrid next to friends like Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado, that the blood of children isn’t a metaphor and that to witness it spilled onto the street means witnessing the death of the future?

Is the plight of one immigrant less worthy than the plight of another? Do we see immigrants as capital only if they arrive with a fat wallet, a doctorate degree, and a Rolodex? What happened to the myth of starting at the bottom? Don’t these children whose life is beginning now and their parents who wonder why they brought them into this cruel world want to cross the border not because they want to become an annoyance to us but because the countries they come from were ravaged by tyrannical regimes sponsored by our own government?

Or have we become masters at washing our hands from past sins? How many times must these people in need state that, were peace and prosperity available where they come from, there would be no reason to move? In such circumstances, wouldn’t we seek asylum as well?

Who gave Trump permission to say that “our country is already full”? Full of what? Aren’t his pronouncements a betrayal of the core values this nation was built on, eloquently in display in Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus,” inscribed in the plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Isn’t freedom as important as justice? Don’t they go hand in hand? And is one person’s freedom worth less than another’s?

Are we sheer bystanders?

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.