As an immigrant from Colombia, naturalized citizen of the United States, long-time New Yorker, and educator, I find president Trump’s authoritarian nationalism, anti-immigrant stance, and crude conception of what it means to be an American deeply disturbing.
The history of U.S. immigration is filled with searing tensions that sway between tolerance and intolerance. It’s the American paradox of simultaneously welcoming and rejecting the proverbial “stranger.” It’s the saga of the outsider struggling to become an insider. And it’s the lived narrative of diverse immigrant pathways in building new identities in a nation conflicted by imposed whiteness and racial and ethnic differences.
Keeping with the notion of difference, I provide a counternarrative to the Trumpian storyline by invoking my personal journey as an immigrant New Yorker. And by outlining the contours of my personal pathway, I underscore how – during times of societal and individual adversity – the personal is political.
During the 1950s my parents migrated to Queens, New York, with five children in tow. We arrived in New York City during the “Golden Age” of American capitalism. Yet, all that glitters is not gold. By custom and design, neighborhoods and workplaces were racially and ethnically segregated. In this charged environment, economic survival and learning the cultural ropes was not for the faint of heart.
My father was well educated. He spoke and wrote impeccable English. Nonetheless, his only option was to work as a factory laborer. Because of my family’s dire economic circumstances, I began to work part-time at the age of twelve. As an adolescent, I shined shoes, delivered newspapers, worked as a caddy, and did grunt factory labor. These work experiences mirror the working-class reality of today’s immigrant youth. Contributing to the family’s economic survival is the quintessential immigrant experience.
My Americanization emerged while growing up in New York City public housing. As a “Spanish project kid” I experienced the “hidden injuries” of poverty, marginalization, and institutional discrimination. Yet growing up in a community of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, I learned important life lessons from what Dr. Martin Luther King insightfully termed “The Beloved Community.” I absorbed from neighbors and friends that – in the face of persistent adversity – racial and ethnic differences are a bountiful source of fortitude and resiliency. During my formative project years, the sense of social and economic justice that informs my notion of self, my identity as a New Yorker, and the core values defining my professional and activist work began to take root.
Paraphrasing the insight: “Folks make history, but not of their own making,” provides an entry point for explaining my evolving political consciousness as a Latino New Yorker. I am, as all us are, influenced by the sweeping arc of historical forces. The War in Viet Nam, the Black Civil Rights Movement, the Woman’s Movement, and working-class Latino social struggles indelibly marked my development as a politically engaged New Yorker and new American.
It was through my involvement in contentious bottom-up mass political mobilizations that I unraveled the deeper meaning of the American civic motif: E Pluribus Unum (Out of the Many, One). I learned that meaningful political engagement requires the deliberative building of community, social justice, and solidarity among racially, ethnically, and economically diverse folks. A socially just society is not an endpoint, it is a continuous and contentious journey of “becoming.”
Throughout my immigrant journey, as I struggled to become a useful member of my adopted country, I was fortunate enough to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University. As the adage states: “The past is prologue.” In this respect, my graduate training, as an urban and regional planner was profoundly influenced by my experiences as a working-class immigrant and as a politically aware first-generation New Yorker. And as an activist urban planner and critical academic my professional practices focus on the ravages of neo-liberal economic restructuring, gentrification, income inequality and immigrant socio-economic marginalization. This is my agenda and my commitment as a Latino academic and as a New Yorker.
From my perch, life is a multi-layered process. It is enriched by critically reflecting on one’s experiences and engaging in the humane struggle for the general good. This is my pathway. This is how I contribute in “Making America Great” for all. This is my immigrant story.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and a member of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities