Today, we sat with students in tears. Already some of our students have been harassed, told to “go back to Mexico” even if they were born right here. I’m afraid that I’m afraid. Politically, or legally, nothing has happened yet. In schools kids are emboldened to say things they might not fully understand or believe. For some reason, hispanics have become the scapegoat of economic insecurities. The African-American, the Muslim, and the LGBTQ communities are not without fear, and for many it is a fear they have known their whole lives. Obama emboldened some to come out of the shadows, DACA encouraged them they too could go to school. Some now fear the very act that got them to give up addresses and information will now be used to break their families apart and send them back to a land they never knew.
I keep thinking about how we all come from immigrants. My mother is really involved with ancestry and tracing roots back. Some of my ancestors crossed on the Mayflower to come to an unknown land to escape the oppression of elite landowners. They risked everything in a journey few survived. But even more amazing, I used to dream about the very first migrants that came to the Americas. I have written about it, about an ocean that was 30-50 feet lower because more water was locked up in the falling ice age, about the theory that the first Americans came across by boat following kelp beds and chasing fish and food. And another wave, many more, that walked across an ice bridge between what is now Alaska and Russia. I have thought a lot about how difficult it is to migrate north to south when you must rely on your foraging and hunting skills and as you move north to south drastic changes come to the landscape. Humans followed the migration routes of animals, birds, and even trees. There is evidence to suggest that early mesoamericans, before grinding maize in metates, they were grinding acorns and that human migration followed oak migrations. Fremont, when he first landed in California, would see elevated silos of acorns drying along the Sierra Foothills.
When I was in the fifth grade, my grandmother and grandfather took me to Washington D.C. My grandfather worked for the Schilling Mccormick spice company and had a conference in Baltimore. My grandmother and I saw the monuments and museums. I fell in love Abraham Lincoln on this trip. We went to Gettysburg and the sound of the Battle Hymn of the Republic still gives me chills. We looked across the blood consecrated field and imagined the battles, imagined the lives and dreams that fell in that battle, thought of all the loss of life, and it become incomprehensible to me that so many people would fight and die to keep other people in slavery. It is a bit more complicated than that, but in the end, many people were fighting to free people. We went to Ford’s theater and saw the balcony and imagined John Wilkes Boothe leaping from where on the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead. We went across the street to see where he gave his last breath and imagined his wife there. The blood stained pillow preserved in a glass case. What dedication to a proposition of equality.
When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers in 2001, there was no amount of war, no amount of death or killing, not one single person, no Bin Laden, no Hussein, not even the systematic killing of every single person of a religion would bring back what was lost...not just lives, but security. Fear is an idea that gets into you. I have seen the way it has now permeated into my young and brave students of color, students of immigrants, students of various gender and sexuality. We sit and wrestle together with how do you move forward. I try to tell them that those people who hate just don’t know you. I tell them you have to meet them, you have to tell your story, but you also have to listen. You can’t meet people thinking you will change them. You have to enter into that moment accepting they will change you. To love is to accept change. That is the only space you can hold inside of yourself. The other is hope. But we don’t hope for change, we work towards creating it.
All semester, we have worked in my course to understand identity and where it comes from, how it changes, and how some parts are very deep-rooted and hard to change. Religion, culture, politics, these things don’t change easily, and new research, logic, statistics, facts, doesn’t change these things. Instead, your brain works to remove the cognitive dissonance and find excuses, find justifications. Threshold concepts are hard, paradigm shifts don’t happen easily, they are bred out of society over time, not the individual. Some have awakenings; however many people know, logically what they should do, but still don’t. Some say humans are lazy, but I disagree. I think we resist change vehemently. I argue that it is a biological response. We are not meant to change quickly because it leaves a species vulnerable. Nostalgia is part of this mechanism; we long for the past, we hold on to what once was to remember. And yet, somewhere deep inside our bird brain we migrate.
I have lived my life around migrations in some way. In my youth, we used to go count Monarch butterflies at their wintering grounds. Clusters of hundreds to thousands of butterflies cascade down Cypress and Eucalyptus trees along the foggy shores in Pismo every winter. Their migration is one internally from caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly and externally as they move thousands of miles each year. Some say they follow milkweed blooms, but that isn’t known. The generation that begins the migration isn’t the same that returns. They are not alone in this unique characteristic. When I moved to Alaska to work with my Aunt, my life followed the migration of salmon. Their sole purpose in life is a migration; spawn until you die, used to read a favorite shirt my Aunt would wear. Tonight, while I sing songs out into the dark night, songs that I wrote at other hard times in my life, the snow geese are returning and they cacophony the night as bad as my own singing. They say that change is the only real constant and maybe everything migrates just at time scales we can’t fully understand. Trees migrate. Redwoods were once found in Yellowstone and now only in a pocket on the Pacific Coast. When I was younger the mountain chains going from Bishop Peak out to Morro Rock was explained to me as volcanic hot spots, places where magma vented through the tectonic plate as the plate migrated north along the San Andreas Fault. Perhaps they are in fact volcanic plugs, a place where the crust bubbled out and cooled to igneous rock, and the land around it eroded as the the last glaciers migrated back north 20 million years ago. And our own earth, it too is in a constant migration towards some unknown destination, spiraling out, an entire galaxy corkscrewing out into abyss.
A few weeks ago, I sat down and listened to the stories of dreamer students, undocumented students who came to the US when they were children, or babies, when their own parents fled across the border in hopes to find a better land and better future. They told their stories in tears, about the pressure to do better and provide for their family. They talked about just wanting to make life easier for their parents who mostly worked in fields, long hours under the sun, and with Obama they got to follow that dream towards education and a better life. One of my students told me the other day that he has been picking bell peppers alongside his parent since he can remember. Now he is bigger and stronger and can earn more than anyone else in his family. All the money goes to the family too. He invited me to come and see the work and try it out. This summer he also picked oranges for a while he told me when he returned from summer break. He comes into my office each day and shakes my hand and acts with more respect than I think I deserve. Many of them want to get an education only to go back and get a job back home and help the family. They make me feel so selfish about my life. I try to hold a space for them, something my boss first did and now I follow. We try to create a space for them to be their best. Yesterday, they sat in the office with fears and tears. I wanted to lash out at this world. I want to tell everyone to buy guns and train to use them. I want to use the very laws the Republicans fear being taken away against them. I want violent revolution. I want battles on the fields and to say that this isn’t acceptable anymore. I want succession for California and blockades on the ports, and taxes on agriculture, taxes on technology, taxes on movies and music and television. We will take Washington and Oregon, and their only West Coast port can be Lewiston, Idaho.
But I don’t say that. I tell them that they must learn to love. I tell them they must tell their story. I tell them they must use this education to bring more people together, to educate more people, to find things to advocate for, and communities to advocate with. We grieve for a while and then get back to work doing the same work they have been doing. I am thinking about butterflies, not the cliched metamorphosis, but that inside the chrysalis the caterpillar completely melts into some goopy mass of DNA and then begins to rebuild inside of it into something entirely different. It isn’t just wings coming out from the caterpillar, it is a new being emerging from a soup of what once was. Migration changes us all. In migration, new DNA is mixed, new food is eaten, new relationships are formed. I am consoled by the youth. They say the millennials are the most tolerant and accepting generation of Americans. I can’t keep them from fear, or anger, or frustration, or even love. I can only say I want them to be bold, to be creative, to be critical, to be articulate, to be present. Yes, I want them to be here, right now. Migration is a dangerous affair. Many die in the process. But the risk of staying put, ignoring the seasons around you, the senesce, and the first flakes of winter, must be worse. And when you migrate, it is the strong, and persistent that prevail, but it mostly hinges on all going together. As my poetry/dog mentor tells me, “with you.” That is to say, I am with you.