“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.”
As it started to dawn on me that the Corona Virus was going to be ‘a thing’ I did something mundane and human. I checked on my people. This included telling my 89 year-old dad who I live with that he was under no circumstances to go anywhere. He loved that; I called my brother who lives in the California foothills of the Tahoe National Forest. He was on board with staying home; I got back in touch with my best friend from High School (let go of that grudge) and I began to text and FB message another old friend who works at an in-patient Drug and Alcohol rehab center at the V.A. in Lowell, where he also lives. Lowell is one of the centers of the outbreak in Massachusetts. Steve told me he was afraid to go to work and was sure he’d already been exposed. As futile as it felt, I sent him a couple of homemade masks because his job didn’t give him adequate PPE—just last week I saw news reports that the V.A. continues to allot only 1 mask a week per staff member. Now, by this week he is feeling that being an essential worker is his purpose. Rebecca Solnit says that disasters give people an almost utopian sense of meaning, but I am still afraid for him. I am fortunate to be able to shelter with my elderly father & stepmom, we’re safe and secure, though it has taken a few head-to-head conversations to convince my dad that those few small excursions in his week are no longer an option. I’m very grateful that our last visitors were my cousins from Argentina because when my dad is sad that is where his mind goes, to his original home, language and culture. I’m glad he gets to have that memory. For some of us, a year of life has more meaning than for others, yet I am determined that this year remain somewhat ordinary for my dad.
I live in the ‘greater Boston area’, out in the burbs, but my social life is firmly grounded in Cambridge, MA., around abouts Harvard University. I am also a displaced Californian and the last few years I have been visiting El Paso working on some art projects. I’ve come to love El Paso’s very cool, very smart border community and as a result have involved myself in immigration support in Massachusetts. Another one of those ‘last moments before the virus’ to which I return in my head is when Dr. Yolanda Leyva’s from UTEP gave a presentation at Harvard. She spoke about her extraordinary work interviewing contemporary migrants in Juarez and El Paso, informed by her deep knowledge of the history of migrants and migration. I have been making comics based on interviews in El Paso, so her work is particularly inspiring to me. After her presentation, we went out for one of those magical dinners where you have just the right amount of good food and wine and talk with a few people you admire; Dr. Leyva and some of my also amazing Boston pals involved in immigration support—-Meera Venkatraman and Sarah Kianovsky—spoke about the trauma of immigration support. We all ended the evening pausing to say goodbye. In typical El Paso style, Dr. Leyva said, “I’m a hugger” and the group of five new friends exchanged warm, companionable embraces on the chilly streets of Cambridge. Aside from the fact that ‘I am a hugger’ was such a familiar phrase from the folks I met in El Paso and one of the clear differentiations from Boston’s reserved socializing—I look back on this moment as the last time for a long time that I was able to embrace a new friend.
Amidst my family’s small concerns, the world of bickering over trips to the local recycling center (what is the acceptable amount of trash to store in the garage?) and how much I should raise my voice to compensate for my dad’s hearing loss before it constitutes ‘shouting,’ we each have a bigger world we yearn for but can’t get to just now. Argentina and El Paso remain pictures in our heads–imagined worlds sustaining us for a future which will look different but must continue to build communities across borders and cultures. My dad yearns for a country where he doesn’t feel like a stranger—a condition made worse by our president. I hope to return to a community in the U.S. that embodies the particularly El Pasoan ethic that ‘welcomes the stranger’—For the time being we are both grateful to stay at home together.
Postscript: Today the country counted more than fifty-thousand dead—most affected so far are NY, NJ and Massachusetts. In Mass., our most highly impacted towns all have high immigrant and POC populations. ICE continues their criminal raids. At the same time the president suspended all green-card approvals, once again hoping that racist dog whistles could distract his base from the unmitigated failures of the federal government dealing with the Pandemic. People in my liberal—but honestly not so tolerant—community (yes, folks around here don’t suffer fools) are so freaked out by the lack of assistance and the crazy talk from the Feds—that more than one of my friends has suggested that our wealthy northeast region no longer needs the rest of our country. This breaks my heart, and sets my danger receptors to high alert. I can only insist that we must fight for each other despite and because of our national differences. In this regard, I think we could learn a lot from El Paso. I make these arguments, mostly on FB, to distract myself from filling out Excel sheets documenting requests for support from folks in detention. This tedious task assists lawyers doing critical work advocating for the release of ICE detainees from now doubly deadly detention centers.
Note: Many thanks to Miguel Juarez for his invitation to write for El Paso News.