Leave Behind Everything You Know

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Hamilton; the first time I heard it I couldn’t get enough. I loved how cleverly the story of our nation’s founding was woven into lyrics that were both relevant to current events and accessible to just about anyone who desired to listen—a modern lingua franca and Lin-Manuel Miranda its inimitable architect. Because of this, In The Heights, Miranda’s first broadway hit, has been on my list of things to listen to for a long time. I would have liked to have gotten to it sooner, but every time I wanted to listen to it I never had enough time to sit down and truly appreciate the lyrics or to read the script along with it, as I like to do with new (to me) musicals.

Yesterday I had hoped to join one of the many rallies of people gathered in solidarity to demand the end of the policy of separating families at the southern border of the US, and to demand the reunification of those families who have already been separated; my anxiety kept me home. (I have tried many times to join different actions of this kind in the past and it’s not something I’ve been able to do yet.) So I had a little bit of time and I sat down to finally listen to In The Heights and, quite by accident, it turned out to be exactly the thing that I needed to be doing yesterday. The music and lyrics were captivating, but the story transported me into the hearts and the minds of the very people I had hoped to stand and march for.

It’s the story of immigrants: why they fled here, how they built their lives from the ground up, together with others in the same situation; how they hoped for better lives for their children and the sacrifices they made to make that future possible. The thing is, it’s not just a story. It’s the reality of so many people who already live here, and so many people who wish to come here to make that dream come true; though many generations removed, it’s my story, and it’s yours as well.

One song in particular, Everything I Know, speaks of the experience of Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of this story, including what it must have been like for her to flee her home in her youth. I’d love for you to listen to the whole thing because it’s amazing (the whole show, really), but the part that hung onto my heart and wouldn’t let go begins 1:05 into the song (I’m including the lyrics from that section).

In this album there’s a picture
Of Abuela in Havana
She is holding a rag doll
Unsmiling, black and white
I wonder what she’s thinking
Does she know that she’ll be leaving
For the city on a cold, dark night?
And on the day they ran
Did she dream of endless summer?
Did her mother have a plan?
Or did they just go?
Did somebody sit her down and say
“Claudia, get ready, to leave
Behind everything you know”?

I can’t get the thought of those babies separated from their parents or their desperate voices out of my head. They are little Claudias, all of them, leaving behind everything they know for the hope of a better life. And their families, the one thing allowing them to maintain some semblance of continuity and normalcy from the life they left behind, are being brutally dismantled upon arrival. The reality of what’s being done haunts me. And to add insult to injury, hearing so many people defend it because this is what people who break the law deserve has me questioning so much of our humanity.

These immigrants are people who have lived through horrors most of those judging them have never even come close to having nightmares about, let alone experiencing in reality. And yet so many think they know what another person deserves. Let’s put this into perspective with an example that only comes so far in approaching the gravity of this situation: imagine losing your job because of company-wide layoffs beyond your control; imagine the hiring manager at a new company looking to hire you asked for feedback from their employees about your qualifications, but this feedback was that you deserved to be let go from your former job because of course you would never have lost that job if you’d only tried harder, if you’d been a better asset to your company, and that you shouldn’t be hired at the new company. How would you feel if no one ended up hiring you because of the way others interpreted a situation entirely beyond your control? Would you feel powerless, erased and invisible in your own lived experience?

Now, for those of you whose ancestors immigrated to this country on their own (not brought here as slaves against their will, because that obviously complicates their history in ways that are beyond the scope of this post), imagine if the immigration standards people are calling for today were the same standards your own family—whichever generation back they came—was held to when they arrived. Weave Abuela Claudia’s story into your own, because her story is your story. Why did your family come here? What kind of life did they hope for you, a descendant they could only imagine, generations down the line? What opportunities have you had that you didn’t have to fight for because someone else fought for them for you? Would you hope the people deciding whether your ancestors got to stay or be deported would be less concerned about how they got here and more concerned about why they came in the first place? And if you’re still holding your own immigrant ancestors to a different standard, please ask yourself why that is.

And here’s the thing: people who have had to figure out how to get by on little to nothing tend to value hard work, with a willingness to do whatever it takes to help their family survive. They work long hours because they have to—often in jobs requiring strenuous, physical labor—and they innovate in order to stretch their resources. This willingness and ability to innovate is an asset we as a nation should welcome, not turn away.

Does this mean that immigration reform isn’t necessary? No, it does not. But it does mean a change in the narrative of how we treat immigrants is necessary. Like those who have sacrificed so much to make a better life for themselves and their posterity, it’s time for all of us to leave behind everything we know when it comes to the preconceived notions about who immigrants are and why they are here. We could start by holding our leaders—and ourselves—accountable for the policies and actions that have destabilized the homelands of people who are leaving them in droves. We could start by raising our voices to make sure our representatives know we expect them to make true immigration reform happen in order to keep their jobs. We could start by backing candidates focused on making possible a true path to citizenship that upholds the humanity of those seeking it.

Oh, and Alexander Hamilton? He was an immigrant, too. How many of the children arriving at our borders will change this nation and the world in major ways like he did? And how many of them will change the world one person at a time like Abuela Claudia—like your own immigrant ancestors did for you?

The featured image for this post is Family First by Jerilyn Hassell Pool.

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