Perceived Freedoms

How I unwillingly saw my country as it truly is

Cameo Contreras
Sep 11 · 10 min read
Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

From the day he announced his candidacy Donald Trump has clearly seen himself the necessary savior of “an America in trouble.” He began early on with his dog-whistle-politics that called for a bygone era. His “Make America Great Again,” slogan was clearly referencing a time when Caucasian males dominated government at all levels and minorities were oppressed.

In his candidacy announcement, Trump went straight to the insults and racially motivated rhetoric. Gone was the polite reference to opponents by name or official title; instead, he chose to liken them to dogs. No longer would Americans hear of the opportunities endowed to us through the bravery of men and women who fought for change, or mention of the great country that we are. Instead, candidate Trump painted a picture of an America in peril. “Our country is in serious trouble,” he said resolutely.

Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for president. Youtube,

According to him rapists and drug dealers were flooding our borders from Mexico, Latin and South America were likewise inundating us with criminals, Japan and ‘CHI-NAH’ were making fools of us, our leaders were “idiots” and “terrorists” were coming in through the middle east. In his version of the world, chaos was rampant in the streets and the then-candidate clearly viewed himself as America’s only hope.

Wow, all that at only twenty-two seconds into the press conference.

Truthfully when I saw this I could do little more than shake my head. There was just no way. No way would someone like that ever stand a chance. It’s a moment etched in my mind. The way you remember even the smallest details about anything prolific in your life. Remember exactly where you were on 9/11 or when Senator Obama was declared President for the first time? I do, and I was certain someone like Trump would never make it onto the White House mailing list, let alone occupy it. Huey choppers in the Central Highlands, 1966

It was 1965 and the war in Vietnam was escalating. My mother was a braided- hair Mexican American, catholic school girl. The political unrest of the times invaded every aspect of her existence. She recalls the class being told to quickly get on their knees and pray when President Kennedy was shot. She recalls the fear she felt as the mother superior nun sobbed through the prayers. Late-night television was dedicated to the day’s protests and arrests. Beatings by police officers of unarmed parishioners and school children were shown regularly — the television showing footage of unarmed men and women sprayed with hoses and mace.

My mom watched my grandfather commit himself to a company that allowed him to work double shifts, sometimes more, with very little incentive. He worked to support his ten children and my grandmother because that’s what men did. After decades with the same company, he eventually retired. But before he did, he invented a tool that made his job easier. It streamlined the production process and cut down on time. As a token of their gratitude, management gave him a framed picture of the company’s owner (a white man) shaking his hand and presenting him with a silver pin for his necktie. Afterward, that white man took my grandfather’s invention and patented it for himself, making sure to reserve all the rights.

My grandparents were first and second-generation Mexican-Americans — emphasis on Americans. They took a great deal of pride in our country and the freedoms afforded them. Yes, under our constitution they’d technically always had the same rights as any other free American, but for them and countless other minorities, the reality was starkly different.

It wasn’t until 1957 that a civil rights division was added to the Justice Department. Until that time racist individuals and groups utilized whatever tools were at their disposal to keep minorities from exercising their rights. The act of voting is and was, so important because it gives a voice to segments of society that typically don’t feel they have one — the poor and minorities. Voting allows them to be certain that at least on this one day, they were heard.

In the 1940s many Mexicans immigrated into the United States as part of the Bracero Program. Others came as Allied reinforcements in World War II after U.S. officials offered citizenship to anyone enlisting or working in the war effort. By the early twentieth century, both of my grandparents’ lives were closely entwined with the interests of the United States military.

Jose G. Salazar U.S. Army courtesy of the Salazar/Borrego family
Main Photo: John Borrego Lower bottom left to right 'Ronald Ronnie’ Borrego USMC, Frank Borrego Jr.
Chon Salazar courtesy of the Borrego/Salazar family

My grandfather had served in the U.S. Army and the Merchant Marines. My grandmother had nine brothers — seven of them fought for the United States military during World War II. One was taken as a prisoner of war and another was killed in action. Their pride in our country was bought and paid in full by the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors and countless others just like me.

The fervor they felt for the country was never more evident than when they exercised their right to vote — and they always did so. They understood the sacrifices that made this very act possible. Each election day my mom watched as they readied themselves with a marked sense of pride. Once dressed, he in his bowler hat, her in her good jacket, they excitedly left. She watched them set off to cast their votes — a tribute those who’d paved the way. She was angered to see her parents seem excited about something that should have been theirs all along — and it stayed with her.

It was 1988 and the Space Shuttle Discovery was back in orbit. I was a fifth-grader and my life was good. President Reagan was promising a better economy for all with his special version of economics. Mrs. Reagan was encouraging all of us kids to Just Say No, and every school day began with taking the pledge of allegiance. We pledged both to our flag, and the United States of America — and I was proud to do it. Any personal knowledge of social unrest came primarily from history books and listening to my mom recall her own experiences growing up.

My world consisted of sports, school, and Saturday-morning cartoons. My sports teams on the weekends were filled with kids from all nationalities and we never gave it a second thought. When school officials told us how police officers were here to protect and serve we believed it. Likewise, the courts upheld the rule of law, and educators — well, they educated because they cared. The Constitution may as well have been branded in armor, so ironclad and impenetrable did I consider our sacred document to be.

Everything I had learned in school assured me that as a country we had been on a steady path towards progress. We had learned from the mistakes of our recent past; landmark Supreme Court decisions like Brown Vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exemplified our nation’s dedication to equality. At least that’s what I believed to be true.

Back in time

That day when Trump provided his sneak-peek into the ensuing four years of chaos my mother remembered. I can distinctly recall the expression on her face as she looked over at me. It was one of satisfaction — disgust, and satisfaction. An implied accusation and a blatant “I told you so.” What I hadn’t fully recognized then was that it was our experiences as young girls, that had shaped our perceptions of the world and of entire aspects of society.

As I was growing up, my mom and I would often talk about the social injustice and racism prevalent during her childhood. It always struck me how angry she would become. She’d adamantly deny she was racist, as she “had a lot of white friends.” However, at eight years old, I recognized the underlying hostility she held towards whites whenever we discussed issues involving race.

Whenever the issue of race or injustice would arise, I invariably would argue against the notion that there was still an epidemic of racially motivated injustice. My only experience with Law enforcement and others in authority, was for the most part, positive. But then again, I was a young girl and didn’t always see things for what they really were. If a rare news report aired accusing an officer of excessive force I found ways to defend the officer. The “victim” had no business being where they were or wearing what they were wearing. They were probably up to no good.

My mom would scoff, and with a disappointed look in her eye she would matter-of-factly explain to me that the pervasive element of racism in our country was still present, it was just “asleep.” She believed that the status quo of the fifties and sixties that had allowed blatantly oppressive and abusive tactics to occur was still around, it had just been forced to hide.

She’d tell me, “We didn’t really get rid of racism. Do you think everybody that was racist just immediately stopped thinking that way because the laws changed? No, It’s just not acceptable anymore. They can’t be as open about it. But one day they’re going to wake up — and then you’ll wake up — and I just hope I’m here to see it.”

And I would look at her, disappointment in my own eyes, and shake my head as I walked away. I wanted, needed her to see America as I did. We were a great country with so many opportunities and I needed her to see that. Instead, I saw her as unwilling to let go of the hurt that was caused to her during a time in America when it was both allowed and perpetuated by our government.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Harsh Realities

I’ve been forced to acknowledge some difficult truths lately — both to myself and my own children. Our country is not everything it professes to be. Americans are not completely free and in the words of my mother, “they were asleep.” When our government officials decide to do something, whether constitutional or not they’ve shown they will. I believed Japanese American Internment camps were among the darkest parts of our history. Instead, I see that at will, they’ve re-instated them. This time the targets are brown-skinned immigrants. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and anything is possible when evil sets its sights on something, constitutional or not.

With words that both shocked and cut me deeply the 45th president of our country was able to teach me in just months, what the public school system and a college degree — what my own mother, could not. We are not all we profess to be. We are flawed deeply and this administration has its part to play in that. The constitution, which I believed to be impenetrable, has shown itself to be filled with tiny crevices and cracks, just wide enough to allow insects and other vermin to contaminate.

A free press? Not when we’ve been repeatedly discredited, mocked and assaulted. A system of checks and balances? Not when the Supreme Court’s integrity is called out and a Justice is pettily accused of playing to his race. And lastly, but most heartwrenching of it all,

I’m supposed to still believe we’re free?

I’ve become a helpless spectator as children are ripped from the arms of their parents and put into cages the same camps that once held Japanese Americans, kidnapped by our government under the guise of ‘care.’ Because according to this Administration, when you love your child so much that you risk their lives to save it, you’re an unfit parent. The administration has fought to deny basic hygiene necessities, while “losing” 1,500 immigrant children in their care.

I can’t and I won’t tell my own children that we are — because if there’s anything this president has proven to me it’s that for a while, many were asleep. They were sleeping, and they’ve been awoken to the shrill cries of “a former greatness,” a greatness that most of us never really knew.

My mom eventually channeled her experiences into action. She became active in both the Chicano Movement and the ‘Brown Berets,.’ Two organizations created to empower and educate Mexican Americans. Her passion for advocacy and education eventually became a driving force in my life — my motivation to do more. Eventually she made a career in law enforcement and retired honorably. Mi mamá siempre fue un poco militante: My mom, she always was a little militant. As for our talks?

We still have them. Only now the disappointed looks come from both of us.

Cameo Contreras

Written by

Content Writer. Proud “minority” and antagonist to the nonsense. Freelance AP Journalist, I write on Politics, Mental Health, and Social Issues.

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