Life interrupted

By Areli Zarate

Suspended animation. How else can you describe how life feels for me, for my family, and for too many of my students and neighbors here in my home town of Austin, Texas, now that Donald Trump has made good on his campaign threats against immigrant communities?

One day, I was working with students and their families at my high school, helping to lead workshops for children and families dealing with paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Obama put in place in 2012. Almost overnight, I was thrown into a post-election world where my job, my home and my future were big, open, unanswered questions. What should have been commonplace — things like spending money to replace a car about to break down — became huge investments in a future where nothing was certain and no one was safe.

Issues resurfaced, ones I had battled since I was a child: feelings of shame, of not belonging, of never belonging — weights that arrived with me when my father brought the family to Austin to escape Mexico’s grinding poverty. I was 8 years old at the time. From then until my junior year in college, I never told anyone — not my teachers, not even my best friends — about my undocumented status. It was a rule. My parents repeated it often: Tell no one, no exceptions.

I was thrown into a post-election world where my job, my home and my future were big, open, unanswered questions

Those years of silence and secrecy were hard, made harder by the challenges of learning a new language and the customs of my adopted country. But I persevered and overcame, eventually going on to the University of Texas, preparing for a career as a high school teacher. It was at the university that my great moment came — the chance to open up, the chance to participate in the University Leadership Initiative and the struggle for immigrant rights and a decent society.

Surrounded by others who shared my beliefs and had stories not much different from mine, I saw the world open up. The fear and shame lifted. I had a voice and I had value! Later, after graduation, I had a bright future — as an educator in Austin public schools, DACAmented and helping others achieve the same status, so they would not feel that shadows and silence were the only answer to the fear and shame that many immigrant children and their families must bear.

Then came the election.

Suddenly, the raids began in Austin and communities around the country. Suddenly, there were stories out of Seattle, of immigration sweeps, of a young man arrested only for his DACA status — stories that would make family and neighbors shelter in their homes for days until things settled down. Suddenly, I could see the fear and shame return, this time to the faces of students — my students — and I can feel how hollow my reassurances must sound when I tell them everything should be fine.

Issues resurfaced, ones I had battled since I was a child: feelings of shame, of not belonging, of never belonging

Truth is, I don’t know that. Nobody knows. Nobody can say whether some or all of my family will one day be torn from Austin, the community where they’ve made a home for almost two decades. No one can say definitively if I’ll be able to teach here come August, or if my students will be able to pursue their own dreams of college and fine careers.

Try imagining yourself in my place, in this life interrupted, where the future is measured not in years, months or even weeks but in days, sometimes hours. Try imagining a life in suspended animation, and then ask yourself a simple question: When you see what is happening in places like Austin and simply stand to the side, believing that these are problems that will never touch you, can you really say that you’ve done everything you can to make this a just and decent society?


Areli Zarate teaches Spanish and facilitates AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) in Austin, Texas, and is a member of Education Austin.