From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
There Is No Such Place
by Ilan Stavans
I commit to take action because I am an immigrant.
I came to America in my mid-twenties, looking for a place where I could think freely, where I could put my ideas to the test, where I could polish my language. Mexico, my native country, was allergic to the open market of viewpoints.
I wanted to imagine myself an active participant in a nationwide dialogue. I dreamed of being inserted into a conversation that wasn’t exclusively with my contemporaries, but also with those who had preceded me and those who one day would come after me.
I came because for me America was synonymous with utopia, which in Greek means “there is no such place.” I wanted to be part of an experiment: I wanted to explore the measure of my talent, to see how far I could go.
I didn’t understand then the extent to which immigration is a reinvention of the self. Upon arrival, I felt lost, disoriented, speechless; I was nostalgic for what I had left behind. I had doubts about the decision I had made. From one day to the next, I had ceased to be the person who had crossed the border. I had become an alien.
I had stopped dreaming…
But people were kind to me. They opened their minds and hearts. They showed me that the immigrant is not only the person who comes from elsewhere at one particular moment. The immigrant is everyone at every point.
I commit to take action because America must continue to be the land of immigrants, just as the Mother of Exiles describes them: not the wealthy and the well-connected but the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Donald Trump is betraying America as an imperfect place striving for perfection. What makes this nation rich, what makes it entrepreneurial, is its endless inventiveness. That inventiveness is a magnet. Trump’s decision to close doors and build walls is antithetical to the principles that make this nation a magnet to others. His intention to expel millions of people who came in search of a fresh beginning is reminiscent of fascist countries in which diverse segments of the population are unwelcome. Cleansing society of those groups will be detrimental not only to them, but to the rest of us as well.
If I were twenty-five years old today, I wouldn’t want to come to America.
I commit to take action because I don’t want to stop dreaming. I want America to still be the place where I can pass on the lessons I learned from others: be open-hearted and be open-minded.
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Ilan Stavans is the author of multiple essays, short stories, works of translation, cultural criticism, and lexicography. His latest book, Quixote: The Novel and the World, came out in 2015.