The Domestic Side of Imperialism:
An Argentine Mother Raising Black Kids during the Presidential Transition in the US
By Mariana Graciano[i]
The night before the election my 3 –almost 4– year old son, Camilo, woke up with nightmares at 3 am. “Tengo miedo de ghost,” he told me as I was snuggling him back in his bed. His sister, Nia (2), was still –luckily– sound asleep in her crib. I hugged him, kissed him, combed his curls with my fingers and whispered in his ear: “los fantasmas no existen.” I then remembered we had just watched The Nightmare Before Christmas over the weekend. I went back to my room. My husband –I could tell by the noise of his deep breaths– was also profoundly asleep. I tossed and turned in bed for a while, first regretting the selected movie to celebrate Halloween but then feeling his anxiety as a mirror of mine, our fears about the coming election.
The day went by quickly; no ghost was reported at school or during naptime. On Tuesday afternoon we all (my husband, my daughter, and I) went to pick up Camilo and head to the store to buy some food. In March 2020, with the breakout of Covid in New York, we left our tiny apartment in Brooklyn and moved to the house we had just bought a couple of months before in Upstate NY. The house is located near the Catskill Mountains, surrounded by woods, lakes and farms. My husband and I were able to buy it after a long and exhausting back and forth with banks, real estate agents, accountants, and lenders. It was a stressful process throughout which I learned what “systemic racism” is. We did everything electronically or over the phone. It wasn’t until the final signing that we all met in person, but my husband’s name is Jamil Hoskins and any person in the States can tell his race just by reading his name on a file and/or hearing his voice over the phone. The same is true about me, my name and the way I speak.
Here in Germantown –as in most of the country– you have to drive everywhere. That was probably the major thing that caught my attention when I first visited my husband’s hometown, Davenport, Iowa, ten years ago. We had to drive to go anywhere. No sidewalks, no subway, nothing. One afternoon, as we were driving to the movie theater with his mom, she started telling us what she remembered of her teenage years, how certain movie theaters in Iowa were for white people only. Same with public transportation, schools and so on. I knew those things had happened in this country but I didn’t realize how recent, how deep and how fresh the experience of segregation was and is.
Now we are driving to the store with our two little Black and Latino kids. As we pass by some farms with Trump 2020 signs, we start talking about family separation and what’s happening at the border at this very moment. Five hundred and forty five children, who were separated from their families at the border under the “zero tolerance” policy, have not yet been reunited with their families. The Trump administration even dared to argue that those parents “don’t want” their children. “I heard that more than 60 kids are under 5 years old,” my husband adds to the equation. My stomach flips. What kind of person would vote to re-elect this president after hearing that? That simple piece of information. 545 CHILDREN still separated from their families.
Our kids start singing “Baby Shark” in the back and we need to change the subject. I don’t say anything else for a while but when we are parking at Walmart another piece of information comes to my mind: Walmart announced Friday that they would be reversing their decision to remove guns and ammunition from their sales floors in anticipation of civil unrest in the lead-up to Election Day. There is just so much to process in that single sentence. Since when does Walmart sell guns and ammunition? Are there guns available in this store that we regularly come to with our kids, where we get their toys for Christmas? What made them decide to remove the guns? Why have they reversed that decision?
We get some groceries to cook dinner and drive back listening to the news on the radio. We watch a beautiful sunset over the mountains, blues and oranges in the skyline; yellow, brown and crispy foliage, a deep ocher landscape on the side of the road but our anxiety is rising. “I’m absolutely not prepared for the worst,” I say to Jamil. “At least this time I feel like I did something,” he replies calmly. And he did. He registered to vote in Iowa –a swing state, I have learned over the years– and decided to fly there –in the middle of the pandemic– to vote in person. Not only that, he convinced his cousin Mike to go vote with him too. “What’s the point of voting?” was Mike’s argument. “What’s the difference between two privileged old white men? There’s no real choice.” And even though in a way he was right, my husband just asked him to remember that one or two generations ago their families didn’t even have the right to vote. Some of them were picking cotton in Mississippi; others were chased by the Ku Klux Klan; many of them are still in jail.
We arrive home. We decide to prepare lasagna, our favorite comfort food and hoping to lift our spirits we play Aretha Franklin loudly while cooking. Camilo and Nia start jumping and dancing in the living room. After dinner, we set the kids up with cartoons on the iPad at the kitchen table, then my husband and I take over the couch and the TV in the living room. The map on the screen is not looking good: 11 Electoral College votes for Trump vs. 8 for Biden. A heavy grey rock of anguish arises within me and settles on my diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe. I try to breathe more consciously, deeper.
I’m currently finishing a book that I’ve been writing for the last three years about my family history and their/our relationship with breathing. My great grandmother died of asthma, my grandma of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), my father of lung cancer and I was diagnosed with allergic rhinitis when I was five. With the pandemic my need to understand respiratory diseases has, of course, increased. Breathing is what makes us alive –it’s how prana travels though the body, our life energy– and yet breathing is also what makes us vulnerable, what connects us with everything and everyone at all times, uncontrollably. Our bodies are always open and in need of air. That which is outside of us –the context– enters, comes inside, touches all our internal organs, transforms our chemistry, and then exits us to move on to the next one.
During the lockdowns of major cities across the country, George Floyd was killed. On June 7th we took our children to their first march to demand justice. With masks and social distance we wrote together with chalk on the street: “We want to breathe.” I realized just then that Black history also has to do with lack of air, suppressed human rights, and suffocation. Asphyxia could be inherited, imposed or learned. The experience of shortness of breath is reaching my children from both sides of the family. How can I teach my kids to breathe better? Something neither Jamil nor I learned how to do, nobody taught us. Perhaps that is the question I am trying to answer with the book I’m writing. Seeing the mostly red map of the US on TV on election night makes me wonder if that’s even possible here.
Nia climbs on the couch and snuggles into my abdomen like a baby. Flashback to four years ago, election night on November 2016: I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first son. I saw Rachel Maddow’s face decomposed on camera, mirroring my face, watching the map turning red and red and red. How many people had voted for the most misogynistic, racist, egotistical, incompetent candidate in history? Before even taking office, he had already insulted every aspect of my identity as a woman, an immigrant, dark skin, working class human being. What hurt the most then (and still does) is realizing how many millions of people agree with him, how many millions of people felt and feel represented by him.
That night four years ago, we –like many others– decided to stop watching and listening to the news. We felt betrayed by all these news anchors and commenters in whom we trusted daily to inform us. Looking at the media on election night 2020 the same feeling comes back. NBC, NPR, ABC News, they are all showing different numbers, different projections, different explanations of what is supposed to be happening. We go to bed sad and disappointed. We wake up on Wednesday also angry. On both sides of the spectrum neither FOX nor CNN have a clue of what’s going on. There’s such a deep fracture, a deep disconnection from reality, an inability to see and understand what is happening on the other side of your window.
On Wednesday morning even though Biden has the lead, the map still looks so red. I drop off Camilo at school and come back home. Nia is drawing with crayons in the living room. I start talking and crying with my husband in the laundry room. “It’s so fucking close,” I say. I just can’t believe the support that Trump and what he stands for have. “The American culture is deeply racist,” I say. “Yes, it always has been and still is. The only difference is that they are not hiding it anymore,” he says. I know he is right but I just don’t want our kids to grow up in this context, surrounded by people who look at them as second-class citizens. Scanning the news on my phone, I see an interview in the New York Times with Carey Georgas, an outnumbered Democrat in Republican-dominated Texas: “I was hoping that this would be a chance for some healing, if there would be somewhat of a repudiation of Trump,” he says. “But I don’t see where the healing is going to come from now.” Neither do I. I realized then that that was my only hope. People would come together, exercise their right to vote like no other time in history and send Oogie Boogie home to his tower.
My husband seems calm and centered. I tell him I don’t understand, I feel so sad, worried, fearful. I think he is at peace because he voted. I didn’t, I couldn’t. I moved to New York from Buenos Aires in 2010. I barely got my green card last year, after many years of waiting and paperwork. Now I have to wait another year to start the process for citizenship. Hopefully I will be able to vote in the next presidential election but what if that is too late? My vote also falls through the cracks of this gnawed system. I’ve been living here for ten years, I have two children born in the US, I work and pay my taxes here. My kids, my home, my world, is here. I, like any other mother in the world, should have the right to choose what I think is best for their future. I am seeing the country turning red, I see police brutality targeting individuals that look just like they will look in ten more years and I can’t protect them. I feel invisible, useless, impotent.
I was born during the democratic transition in Argentina, the early eighties. My parents and grandparents’ generations grew up experiencing the rise and the fall of many dictatorships. Mi papá –a salesman most of his life– y mi abuelo –a shoemaker, milkman and tram guard– were fervent Peronists. Growing up, the memories of the desaparecidos haunted not only every rally, demonstration or protest that I ever attended but also every high school event, every 24 de marzo. In high school we had to learn how to march safely, how to look after each other, how to make a list of attendees, safe places to meet, emergency contacts and to always have our IDs at hand. We grew up knowing that on September 16th 1976 a group of high school students –looking just like us, all under 18 years old– had been kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered by the military only because they took over the street demanding lower bus fares. Disagreeing with the dictatorial status quo was a crime, gathering in the streets was a crime, expressing an altruistic opinion was punished with torture and death. Silencing their voices was not enough; their bodies also had to be vanished, disappeared.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation about symbolic forms of reparations after the dictatorship in Argentina. I do believe that healing is possible both collectively and individually through symbolic reparations. When I tell my husband that I want to leave, that we should take the kids to Argentina, and start a new life on the other side of the Equator, he tells me that it’s naive to think that we won’t experience racism there. “Here is too extreme,” I say. “There you had one dictatorship after another one,” he says. “Yes, all sponsored by the US with CIA training included.”
There’s a quote –more like half a sentence– that usually comes to my mind in times of unrest since I moved to the US: “el gran enemigo del género humano: los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica.” I read it many years ago, it belongs to el Che Guevara, I believe that’s how he closed one of his speeches. He calls the United States “the great enemy of the human race.” I really need to see the American people prove him wrong.
I then start taking notes in my notebook. I have the need to write about how I’m feeling. I need to express my voice somehow and I make the conscious decision to start writing this text in English. To voice my opinion and be heard, I have to speak the language of the Empire.
Aquí y ahora
I drink my coffee quietly in the kitchen, the kids are still asleep. Through the window I see my husband in the woods. He has a small fire going, burning some dry branches and leaves. The sun is rising behind the mountains. I know he’s mentally processing something. He goes into a meditative state when burning old stuff. It’s his cleansing process. All dead matter is given to the fire. I read the news on my phone. It’s Thursday morning and the numbers are still the same since last time I checked before I went to bed: Biden 253, Trump 214. “This is a dark and dangerous moment for American democracy,” says the New York Times. Trump supporters are staging protests in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. They want to stop the counting. The dark, heavy rock of misery shows up again in my stomach. I wish I could throw it in the fire too. I put my phone away and go get the kids ready.
Camilo goes to preK from 8am to 3pm. Nia’s daycare is closed so she is at home with us. I have to use the time when my husband is taking care of Nia to work, but I can’t. I tell them I need to go for a walk or a run or something in between. I’m trying to shake off this sadness, to detox. I warm up walking up the hills for a few minutes and then start running just when Gustavo Cerati comes up in my playlist: “todo está pasando aquí y ahora,” he sings in my ears.
We leave the house a little later on Friday to pick up Camilo at 4.30pm. He’s trying out the afterschool program. Nia and Jamil wait in the car and I walk to the gym entrance to ring the bell. One of the teachers sees me and gets Camilo ready. He walks towards the door with his jacket, mask and backpack on. He’s usually pretty happy when I pick him up. He immediately starts talking in Spanish, telling me all the fun things they did in the school, showing me his drawings, etc. But this time is different. He is serious, chin down. He puts one foot out the door and stops. “No!” He says and starts walking back inside. I call him calmly at first. He walks back again. Two more teachers show up trying to encourage him to walk to the door. I promise snacks and TV time when we get home. Nothing. He is not interested. Because of COVID, parents are not allowed inside the school so I’m kneeling in the foyer holding the door open. Finally one teacher gives me permission to walk in. Camilo starts running down the hall. I reach him in a corner and try to pick him up. He’s tall and heavy. He fights back kicking and refusing to walk out with me. Now I’m mad too and uncomfortable. Not only because of his tantrum but also because there are three other adults watching it, like passive witnesses. I feel self-conscious because I’m raising my voice in Spanish and that’s always tough, especially in public places. I feel observed, judged. Jamil comes to the rescue. Without even trying to come closer to him, from the sidewalk he says: “Camilo, stop it. Now” with a very firm, calm and heavy tone that I can’t seem to find within me.
When we get home, we talk to him, explain that that was very bad and leave him in his “time-out chair.” No TV, no books, no snacks. I look into his backpack and find a note from the teacher informing us that they are learning some kind of behavioral code. “Pre-K is learning about green and red choices,” reads the flyer. “Take everything” is red. “Share” is green. Mean words, yelling and talking over people are obviously red choices… The message that we should re-enforce at home is clear: use your words, calm your body. Use your words. But what if his words are in Spanish? What if the people around him don’t understand what he wants or needs? Use your words, son. I’m trying too.
I wake up at 6am on Saturday to practice yoga before the kids wake up. I see Jamil outside. I can tell he has been up for a while because he now has four different fires going. He is standing in front of the tallest, rising taller than him, like a deity. For a moment I also stare at them, looking through my bedroom window. I’m trying to guess what he is processing. I go to the kitchen and make some breakfast. I check my phone. The numbers and the map still look the same.
At 11.29AM I get a whatsApp from my dear friend Federica: “Biden, Biden, presidente!” She is an Italian journalist living in Israel with her husband. This time she is 38 weeks pregnant with her first baby. I rush to turn the TV on and call Jamil back in the house. “47 years in Washington and he is the candidate of change,” says the anchor on ABC news. That is the sad truth. I feel relieved, excited about Kamala Harris but still hurt. I think about Jamil’s family, I think of Fede’s baby, and I think of mine, of us. The plague still exists. We are not celebrating. We are just quietly watching the news, making something to eat. We sit at the table to have lunch with the kids. I ask Jamil how is he feeling, what is he thinking? “I’m thinking of equanimity, you know… what I learned in those meditations. Don’t go too high or too low,” he says and draws a line in the air with the palm of his hand steady like a horizon.
After lunch I put the kids down for a nap. Jamil goes outside to check on those fires. When I grab my phone again, I watch the two minutes video of Van Jones on CNN. So honest, so moving. I cry with him, my heart, my body in complete empathy.
The Domestic Side of Imperialism
We have been quarantining since January 1st after one of the two friends we spent New Years Eve tested positive for Covid. The isolation is unbearable at this point. It’s been almost ten months since the lockdown in New York. Camilo’s school has been closed since December 2nd. Freezing temperatures, short and gray days, and the travel ban to fly home –where we usually spend this time of the year– has taken a toll on all of us. I feel homesick at a new level: I’m sick of being home and I’m longing for the summer we are missing in Argentina.
I force myself to stay outside during the day, even if that means walking in circles around the backyard for an hour. The ground is frozen and my steps make a crunchy enjoyable noise. “Golpe en Washigton,” my friend Tory texts me from California at 3.12pm on January 6th 2021 and I rush to come back in the house. Jamil is in the living room listening to news on the radio and trying to turn the TV on at the same time. We are speechless. The kids hear the TV is on at an unusual time and they also want to sit in front of the screen. Nia jumps to my lap and Camilo asks confused “¿qué está pasando, mamá?,” a few times. He doesn’t understand what is happening and I don’t know what to say. Around the silhouette of my daughter’s back, I see Confederate flags, Trump 2020 signs and a violent mob breaching the US Capitol.
In 2014 –PreKids times, as we call it– Jamil and I visited Washington DC for the spring break. We have pictures together in some of the places they are showing on TV now and those memories come hastily to my mind. I remember a picnic under a cherry tree and walking up and down the National Mall on a very hot day. I was struck by the architecture and I remember feeling, every step of the way, completely intimidated by those buildings and monuments. I remember vividly the sensation of being insignificant climbing the stairs to see the Lincoln Memorial. The message was crystal clear: you are at the heart of The Empire and WE are unbreakable.
On the news they keep repeating, “This is not what this country stands for, this is not us, they are not patriots”. But this, to my Argentinean eyes, is extremely American: a mob of armed violent racist white men chanting USA, USA; disregarding the popular democratic vote, ready to kill whomever disagrees with them.
“Los fascistas del Capitolio sí representan a Estados Unidos y América Latina lo sabe”, wrote Ernesto Semán a few hours after the attack for the Washington Post. I had a similar thought while watching the events in DC. For decades the United States orchestrated right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. My generation and the ones before me have an imprinted memory of the attack on La Moneda in 1973, the coup d’état in Chile that deposed the democratic socialist government of President Salvador Allende.
Luke Mogelson from The New Yorker reports hearing one of the insurrectionist shouting: “Donald Trump is the emperor of the United State”, inside the Capitol. He is not completely wrong. Underneath this republic, underneath this democracy, lays a cruel right-wing Empire that has been ruling the world according to the most basic individualistic principle: defend private property by all means. Plus an emperor is never democratically elected.
It’s Wednesday again, two weeks after the coup attempt. Nia and I are sitting in front of the TV, this time watching a solemn and pristine Capitol ready for the Inauguration.
Last night Biden paid tribute to the 400,000 people who died during this pandemic. “It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.” I agree with him on that but at the same time I know there is no possible reparation or healing without justice. That is the main lesson we learned in Latin America and what people across the country have been chanting in the streets like a mantra: no justice, no peace.
Bodies remember. Engraved in the DNA of my children are the stories of our families. In the collective body of this society memories of past atrocities are also engraved. In my dissertation I argue that ghosts in literature always come to demand justice. The image of George Floyd or the name of Breonna Taylor said out loud, evoking her, invoking her in each march, in each mural, in each text, in each photo are also claims for restoration.
We are watching Sonia Sotomayor, Kamala Harris, JLo, Amanda Gorman, so many firsts in this very emotionally charged Inauguration. Maybe it is the beginning of the healing process but deep down nothing has changed yet and transitions are slow, too slow sometimes. Nevertheless of some things I am sure: In a few years my children will be able to vote and choose who and how they want to be represented. I am also sure that more than 400,000 ghosts will haunt Trump’s nights in the darkness of his despotic life.
[i] Mariana Graciano (Argentina, 1982) studied Literature and Linguistics at Universidad de Buenos Aires, completed an MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University and a doctorate at The Graduate Center (CUNY) in New York City, where she has been living since 2010 teaching literature and writing workshops. Her first book of short stories La visita (Demipage, 2013) earned her the recognition of Talento Fnac in Spain. Her nouvelle Pasajes has two editions in Spanish and one in English (Passages). In 2018 she received the Artist-in-Residence Award from the Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC). She is currently a participating author in the PEN / Faulkner Writers in Schools program and a professor at Pace University.