The title of this article is not a punchline. I repeat, this is not a joke. I, a graduate student and immigration activist, really had dinner with a border patrol agent and a policeman. A two-for-one deal of sorts.
Before I share my bizarre story with you, let me back up and provide some context. I am a former undocumented migrant pursuing a graduate degree at Yale University. Like other migrants, women of color and those deemed society's "outsiders," my young adulthood has been a healing process -- I have worked tirelessly to recover from the damaging effects of racism and xenophobia, which suck the lifeblood from our bodies, our souls. My graduate program is part of this healing process, a coming home to myself, turning trauma into constructive theory. Immigration isn't just part of my personal narrative. It's my academic focus and subject of study. So you'll understand why, when my host for the summer invited me to dinner with her daughters and their husbands (a border patrol agent and army veteran-turned-policeman), I was panic-stricken, disturbed and triggered, all at once.
The first words I hear from border patrol agent are gloating and proud. He tells his son of the "illegals" he'd caught that day on duty, his expensive binoculars, and high-tech monitoring capabilities. My gut tells me to brace myself for an uncomfortable night. My host introduces me and explains why I am in her home and thus begins a series of questions: "What is your graduate program? Where are you from? Why do you care so much about immigration?" By now, I have perfected my elevator speech and know exactly what to say when put on the spot in this way. As soon as I explain my conviction in people's right to movement, that migration is natural to the human condition, I can sense the hostility and a complete 180 in body language. I am officially in the lion's den.
In a patronizing tone, the BP agent asks me, "What do you think of the situation in Europe? With all those Muslim immigrants coming in and practicing Sharia law instead of the law of the land?" I smile, very aware (as I have been my whole life) of the power dynamics in the room and careful not to upset my hostess, and ask a follow-up question, "Could you clarify the specific instance you're referring to?" The agent answers, "You know, in France and England." I subtly and amicably point out the Islamophobia veiled in his question and we move on. I can see him staring me down out of the corner of my eye, very aware that I'm being watched by a man trained to detain and shackle people just like me. I shudder and my host asks if I'm cold. She can turn the air conditioning down, she says.
After about an hour of discomforting conversation, including a discussion on law enforcement's need for more funding, it is time to eat dessert and open presents for the policeman's 3-year-old son. The gifts include a child-size army uniform and weapons of all sorts. His mother instructs that the knife is for cutting meat and the child screams out: "No, it's for cutting people!" Hearing those violent words come out of a child's mouth, I tell my hostess it's getting late and excuse myself, a last ditch effort at self-care. I retreat to my bedroom, shaking, crying, trying to process what I have just witnessed: a deep hatred of the foreigner, the generational passing down of brutality, a cultural imagination that labels migrants enemy combatants. And I break down, like I have so many times before, like I did as a child when I saw my parents, invincible and heroic in my eyes, tremble and cower down at the sight of a policeman. Like I did when I heard the testimony of my church sister recount her rape at the hands of border patrol agents. Like I do in graduate school, when many professors and peers refuse to see the racial, class-based and gendered blindspots in dominant discourse.
Gloria Anzaldúa writes that to become less vulnerable to the oppressor, we women of color have had to "change" faces. She says, "some of us are forced to acquire the ability like a chameleon, to change color when the dangers are many and the options are few." At this dinner table, I had to change faces, hide behind a disguise, and perform the role of the good little brown girl for two men with power over me. And the reason I'm writing this and sharing is because I know I am not alone in wearing masks when showing my true face would put me in danger. This isn't so much a story about my unfortunate dinner with two agents of the state as much as it is a note of solidarity.
The way I survive, the only way we can all thrive, is if we, as Anzaldúa notes, "rip out the stitches and expose our multi-layered inner faces." Not in situations like this dinner (we must protect ourselves), but it is crucial that we find people who recognize our true selves and help us in the process of self-excavation; that we craft spaces where we are protected, free, cared for and loved. Where we can breathe. Dance, laugh, and sing. And heal. Make our own faces.