Being in public gatherings after the shooting in El Paso gives me pause as I attend the UnidosUS 2019 conference that wraps up today in San Diego, especially where I’m in such a concentration of our Latinx brothers and sisters. Following the deadliest shooting in modern history to impact the Latinx community — twenty people lost their lives in Saturday’s attack — it’s clear that the tragedy weighs heavily on the hearts of all in attendance, including the leaders, thinkers, and advocates who are the lifeblood of the UnidosUS conference; many have dropped out of their scheduled appearances, called away to El Paso to take care of urgent matters.
As a white-passing woman, I realize I have considerable privilege: As soon as I leave the San Diego Convention Center, I am no longer a target of anti-immigrant hatred even though I, too, am the daughter of an immigrant; I become a neutral bystander. I have the luxury of deciding whether to engage in advocacy, in the elevation of immigrant narratives. I attend the UnidosUS conference simply to learn from the convergence of inspiring figures, to immerse myself in programming that covers everything from immigration reform to LGBTQ youth leadership to Latinas in tech. I can’t help but feel safe, carried along by a group of people who are tied together through the necessity of progress, to opening doors for those who follow, to flipping the narrative of hate that has dictated so much of the public dialogue in the Trump era.
But throughout my day, going from one life-changing session to the next, I admit I find myself looking to see where the exits are, where I can take cover, am hyper-attuned to abrupt noises that might signal a life-ending tragedy for some of us in the room. I’m not sure how to feel about indulging in this fear and vigilance, so I don’t share my anxieties out loud with anyone. After all, it’s not about me.
At the Latinas Brunch yesterday morning, I find that I am swayed by the conviction of the speakers to let all of that inner dialogue go. They make clear that directly engaging with these tragedies is not a matter of choice. It’s a necessity for all of us, and fear is an effective distraction. Nicole Taylor, the CEO and President of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — an entity that advances community-building initiatives with its substantial resources — emphasized the existential threat that domestic terrorism has on Americans. “National defense experts say that domestic terrorism is now more dangerous than ISIS,” she said, citing the determinations of FBI director Christopher Wray. “White supremacy terrorism is more dangerous than ISIS. We cannot let them take our power. We cannot let them take our humanity. We cannot let them take our communities.”
Taylor spoke about her own experiences with imposter syndrome, insecurity that haunts her to this day despite her vast experience, her depth of qualification. “But let me tell you, I’ve got to get out of my own head and my own way,” she implored. “The urgency of the problems we face is far more important than any imposter syndrome I can let myself feel. There’s a reason I’m in this role.” Her strength, she explained, is in leadership; there, she strives to represent the needs of hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have a voice, or who are preoccupied with their own work on the front lines. She challenged the members of the audience to consider their unique strengths in an effort to reclaim their communities and country. It’s something I personally have to consider.
I’m even more stirred by the Colombian filmmaker Paola Mendoza, a co-founder of The Women’s March and an activist who spent time traveling with the Central American caravan last fall. Mendoza spoke of the need to mobilize all of the Latino community in order to overcome racist, anti-immigrant acts of violence. “A large percentage of our Latino community voted for Trump. Trump won 29 percent of the Latino vote,” she stressed. “Those are our cousins, our tías, our abuelos, our primos, our parents, and we have to understand that when they vote for Trump, they are voting against us — especially when we have white supremacists going to our communities and killing us because we are immigrants. If I seem made right now it’s because I am. I am enraged.”
Mendoza choked up as she shared the story of Jordan Anchondo, the mother who gave her life in order to save the life of her two-month-old child. I looked around to see members of the audience dabbing their eyes, shaking their heads. “Our community is under attack and it is being instigated… these attacks are being instigated by the President of the United States and it is our responsibility to make sure that our community does not vote for him because we, we are the only ones I truly believe will protect us in the future. So I’m pleading with you to go do that hard work,” she said. “We have to push back, fight back, and protect one another. That is how we help.” Mendoza received a standing ovation.
I am sitting alone at the press table, crying freely, left thinking of my mother who to this day won’t reveal to me who she voted for in the last presidential election; I can only conclude that this nightmare scenario of immigrants voting against their own interests, against the interests of basic humanity, is part of my family’s legacy lest I take the small action that is required of me today. A significant part of me fears this confrontation and what it may reveal about those closest to me, but after a single day listening to the voices that make up UnidosUS, I now recognize that I cannot afford to be afraid.