scaling heights, finding home

“¿Cuáles son tus esperanzas y sueños por ti mismo? ¿Para tus niños?”

“Espero poder ir a la Universidad y que mis hijos seguirán aprendiendo e ir a la escuela por lo que hacen la mayoría de oportunidades aquí…”

Her eyes honed in on mine as she spoke of her hopes and dreams for herself and her children, unwavering gaze carrying the conviction of her words. The kids were running around the padded front area of the public school where my church had set up its first community health fair, and I was conducting interviews to start collecting some of the stories of residents in the Washington Heights area. I met the gaze of the person sitting before me, a middle-aged Ecuadorian woman whose persistent feet had crossed borders and whose round fingers had crafted this vision of a new future for her family. She talked about the high rents in the neighborhood, the difficulty of helping your children with their homework when you yourself never finished high school. Pulling through the haze of merengue blaring in the background, I leaned closer to her, and her story seeped in.

Listening to her story and those of others reminded me of when I feared the Heights. Not a paralyzing sort of fear, but a self-conscious discomfort that made my heart race as I stumbled through the crowds on a heady summer day. It was my first time traveling alone in the area, a black Latina preteen from the fenced suburbs outside of the city. My usual companion-my abuela-was on an errand, but she waved me onward to take on the bustling streets of Washington Heights, so with lips pressed tight in a tangle of nerves and determination…I did.

My steps studded with apologies as I bumped into mothers gripping chattering children with both hands and men with shades yelling Spanish into the phones pressed to their ear. I tried to tiptoe around the garbage strewn on the street and lowered my eyes, fixating on the feet on those who passed me rather than faces that might hold only danger. Vendors pressed towards me from both sides, shaking gold chains in my face and pointing to greasy pastelitos being drawn hot from the oil. I felt swarmed.

Heat leaving sweaty trails on my burning skin, I started to panic. Nothing was home, only vaguely familiar like a song you’ve heard once and could tolerably dance to if forced. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t spent time in a Dominican neighborhood before, but being stuck in the middle of one alone and without a tether to grip brought old worries to the surface. Weren’t these the kinds of places the news radio kept going on about being dangerous? The word of choice for my friends and I in the suburbs would have been “sketchy.” This was definitely sketchy, I thought as I saw a hand reaching towards my purse (was it real or imagined?). Suddenly the images of threatening brown men with leering faces seemed all too present, and I found my hand flapping for a taxi. I exhaled only when I stepped inside my abuela’s apartment, and the street sounds dissipated.

I cringe now when I think of the relief I once felt in leaving the Heights, concluding that I had been rescued from the risks it posed. Neighborhoods like that were places to stop by when visiting Abuela, not places to linger in without a native escort. I was no native, crippled with stilted Spanish and intimidated when unfamiliar brown bodies loomed over my own brown self. My rational self sensed these people would never hurt me; the self steeped in Rush Limbaugh and fearful gazes at the day laborers that stalked the sidewalks of my neighborhood feared them. I could count my Latino friends on one hand and was stalwartly convinced illegal immigrants were breaking the law and that was that.

Fear prickled my consciousness because these people were not Known to me. Despite being Dominican and brown and black, I saw them as the distant Other and penned them in my mind as such. Relying on the news and the conversations swirling around my peers, I decided who These People were and how close I could be to them. This was partly out of insecurity because I did not feel like an authentic Latina–I could not belong to them, no matter my family bloodlines. It was also a way for me to protect myself in a world where I was conscious of my skin color and the traits attached to others who shared it.

Criminals. Thugs. Leeches. Aliens.

The most terrifying part of this attitude is what results when it manifests in a group of people. When a group shares a collective fear of the Other and exchanges reasons to justify distancing themselves from it (yes, it), whether based on a handful of headlines or hearsay, the lines are dug, dividing communities, countries, churches. The Other no longer belongs to our common humanity; instead it is the invader to send back, the threat to barricade out.

Fear materializes out of the void where no relationships exist. It feeds on the theoretical, the disconnected statistics thrown into a debate, the single story extracted out of a neighborhood, a people, bloated with condemnations and anxieties. It makes us believe that our daily life exists in a blissful vacuum, detached from gang warfare and mothers on welfare and violent urban kids ruining our nation. We allow the exceptions to take shelter under our roofs, the ones who “make it out,” the articulate black friend in our church or the college-educated Mexican neighbor who worked her way up like a good American. We tether ourselves to the perceived singularities as our threads to the communities they represent fray.

It is much easier to judge a group of people when your ties to them are tenuous. The moment they become feet and hands that harm instead of faces that can smile and crumple in grief like yours do, that is the moment you can rationalize dismissing their protests and shouts and petitions. The reasons they are there, the motivations for their anger and weeping will no longer matter once we have decided they do not belong to us.

I needed to hear the story of the Ecuadorian mother who graciously took the time to sit with me. I was not entitled to the narrative of her life in all its details, but in seeking her out, it was a step towards knowing her, and knowing one small piece of Washington Heights. These stories puncture the bubble of privilege and ignorance that have shielded me from the things she has experienced, myths and truths meeting in the air between us and ready to sort through.

Es una bendición that God continues to humble me with the constant reminder that I do not get to decide whom I belong to. As a follower of Christ and someone aiming to reflect his radical hospitality and love, I don’t get to choose to exclude my fellow Latinos, my Muslim neighbors, from my home. It’s not even my home–it’s His. The nexus of friendships and life-ties that form my world must encompass not only all those He places in my proximity, but also those outside of it who necessitate my prayers and my presence as they struggle for equity and recognition and justice.

The fear that reflexively rejects others is not of God. Neither is the type of anxiety that compels us to draw the familiar close and reinforce walls to keep the Other away from us. We can stack political arguments and cite recent events to rationalize our distance, but when we can’t even acknowledge the humanity of those we reject, we disparage the Imago Dei imprinted on those very peoples we reduce to They and Them. Our statistics and arguments ring hollow when we are uninformed and unaquainted with the lived experiences of others. 

The dividing wall of hostility has already been broken. Intentional acts to move towards each other’s experiences, without defensiveness, without assumptions, startles us into the realization that our stories are already interconnected. The Other takes on a name, changes my conversations, alters my vote. I invite them to inform me, I educate myself about their experiences, and I bring them to my dinner table.

Far from the foreign streets I once walked, Washington Heights soon becomes another home because the people I now love live there.


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