Our cultures have been speaking to each other for eons.
As the summer of 2016 drags on and violence pervades cities across America, anger and confusion continue to mount. What we have witnessed as a nation are unprecedented acts of barbarity, which are, by all accounts, far too reminiscent of the social dissent of the '50s and '60s.
In the span of just a few days, we watched the murders of two innocent black men—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—at the hands of state agents. In turn, five police officers, all whom were at the site of what began as peaceful protests in Dallas, were killed in the twisted name of revenge. The bloodshed has been emotionally crippling for millions as the hashtags pile, and certain presidential hopefuls go on fueling the fires of hatred and intolerance.
In a new poem titled @ the Crossroads—A Sudden American Poem, U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, the first-ever Latino Poet Laureate, calls us to reflect on the urgency of the moment.
Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,
Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke
Herrera’s poem makes me ponder the question: In light of the work being done by the Black Lives Matter movement and others seeking to further the national conversation on racial injustice, where do Latinos fit into the picture? In the thick of it, of course.
The fact that blacks and Latinos, on so many levels, face many of the same prejudices—beginning with the stark reality that some would rather we just disappear entirely—has allowed us to view one another as kindred for generations. Still, our experiences have some of their own singular complexities. There is no question that black and brown people today are being targeted at disproportionately higher rates than any other demographic. In fact, as The Washington Post found in their analysis, although whites make up a majority of the population, blacks are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be shot and killed by the police.
Since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, we have seen blacks, Latinos, and other minority groups pouring into the streets and calling for stronger police accountability. But, as we know now more than ever, there is a lot still to be done. Our voices—and I'm speaking directly to Latinos everywhere—must be raised even louder until bridges are built between law enforcement and all those they are charged to protect and value. If there was ever a time for Latinos to speak up and condemn the heinous misdeeds aimed at black lives, it is now. And no, simply speaking up isn’t going to fully turn the tides, either. There has to be a complete dismantling of the machine that believes, in its heart, that white bodies are the only bodies worthy of existence—of driving down the street or walking down the block or playing with a toy gun or working a side hustle.
It is vital that Latinos channel their anger and hurt into meaningful work, be it in writing, art, policy-making, or anything that boldly calls for a restructuring of a fractured system, from the inside out.
If we’ve ever been demonized as Latinos and made to feel in any way inferior—as have countless men and women from immigrant communities especially—our burden should be to align ourselves with those facing the most despicable conditions. There are many out there who consider minorities to be expendable. New data published by the Pew Research Center, in fact, reveals that a number of Trump supporters believe it’s bad for the country that blacks, Latinos, and Asians will in time make up a majority of the population.
There is no denying that the communities of blacks and Latinos are inextricably linked. As Latino Rebels points out, our cultures have been speaking to each other for eons. For decades, we have lived in many of the same neighborhoods, taken our kids to the same schools, and have even seen our populations fall victim to everything from public lynchings to discrimination of all kinds.
But what has been happening over the last few years, with an overwhelming amount of unjustifiable killings being broadcast right before our social media eyes, is truly something else.
In a previous conversation with Democracy Now!, Juan Felipe Herrera reads from "Almost Livin’, Almost Dyin.’" It is a poem dedicated to the memories of slain black men Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and also the two police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were gunned down in New York. It ends:
…kiss the candles by the last four trees still soaked
in Michael Brown red and Officer Liu red and
Officer Ramos Red and Eric Garner whose
last words were not words they were just breath
askin’ for breath they were just burnin’ like me like
we are all still burnin’ can you hear me
can you feel me swaggin’ tall & driving low &
shootin’ fine & hollarin’ from my corner crime & fryin’
against the wall
almost livin’ almost dyin’
almost livin’ almost dyin’”
Herrera using the “we” voice broadens the conversation, shining a light on the fact that when some suffer, we all suffer… "we are all still burnin."
It’s 2016, and black lives are still in a constant battle for their breath, the most basic of human needs. We Latinos can’t afford to remain silent, nor let the cries of our black brothers and sisters go overlooked or unattended. We are not powerless, none of us are. If we have each other, we have almost all that we need.