One Saturday, two Americas…

The joy of a late summer visit by CIW staff and family members to Washington, DC, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where the CIW’s re-interpretation of the Statue of Liberty (above, rear) resides on permanent display, was shattered this past Saturday by the news of the mass shooting in El Paso, TX, by a gunman sickened by hate and moved to action by the growing wave of voices demonizing and dehumanizing immigrants.

Harsh reality of hatred and division shatters celebration of unity and justice as two starkly opposed visions of the future clash on one Saturday afternoon…

Today we had planned to post a photo report from the CIW’s visit to DC over this past weekend, a celebration of the CIW’s decades-long fight for dignity and justice for the workers who put food on America’s tables, centered around a visit to the CIW’s Statue of Liberty at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.  

But Saturday’s events in El Paso, Texas, derailed those plans.

The post was going to begin with photos and reflections from stops at monuments dedicated to those who led our nation through difficult times toward a more perfect union:

From there, we were going to take you inside the Smithsonian’s newest exhibit, where two of the museum’s curators – Barbara Clark Smith and Steve Velasquez, pictured here below, with the CIW statue in the background – kindly took the CIW contingent on a personalized tour… 

… ending in front of our own Lady Liberty, where we reflected on the statue’s significance in today’s divided America:

We were going to write that post, and it was going to be a brief but timely reminder in an age of deepening discord of the remarkable things we can achieve when we – farmworkers and consumers, immigrants and allies – come together across cultural, social, and economic divides to demand justice.  It was going to be a reminder that, as often as not, history is made not only by the powerful, but by everyday people who, just like those powerful leaders whose names ring out through history, also believe deeply in the dream of an ever-more perfect union. 

And then a very sick young man from Plano, Texas, traveled west to El Paso at the Mexican border, gathered his semi-automatic assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and set off for a local Walmart to kill 22 innocent people and injure dozens more in an effort to fight back against what he – and President Trump – termed an “invasion” of Latino immigrants. 

After El Paso, this became a post on the question of what “America” even means anymore. 

“Out of Many Voices, Stories, and Lives, We Become U.S.”…

As it happens, one highly-esteemed, national institution with access to an unimaginably wide range of primary source materials, scholarly analyses, and diverse historical perspectives – the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History – spent the past several years putting together an answer that very question.  Its answer: The new permanent exhibition, “One Nation, Many Voices,” with the CIW’s Lady Liberty at its very heart.  

And that exhibition is exactly where fate put us on the Saturday of El Paso’s tribulation.

In his introduction to the book that accompanies the exhibition, John Gray, Director of the Museum of American History, captures the view of America that informs the unique collection of artifacts from across four centuries:

The Great Seal of the United States contains the 13-letter Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum, which translates to “Out of Many, One”.  And when we think of the “One,” we think of the one nation that has been forged from the “Many.”

Many Voices, One Nation is a historic and dynamic look at the peopling of our country.  The National Museum of American History is dedicated to using our unparalleled collection of national treasures to help us understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The role of the National Museum is to tell the story of how our people have come together to participate in the growth and development of an ever-evolving national narrative….

… We invite you to explore the many stories within our shared history and discover the commonalities that bring us together as a people. 

And so, on that Saturday, we accepted that invitation and lived fully, happily – for a moment – in that America.  An America of diverse peoples and beliefs, an America made stronger, made richer, by its multiplicity of cultures, its cacophony of languages, its infinite challenges and infinite struggles to overcome those challenges.  

Indeed, until the horrific news from El Paso broke, we were that America, our small crew from Immokalee made strong by uncountable bonds forged across cultures and nationalities over years of struggle together.  Those years of struggle have included many victories, and many more days of frustration; and they produced a unique piece of art that stands today at the heart of that beautiful vision of America, a statue that represents a collective cry from a community of mainly immigrant farmworkers, calling on the rest of America to see the injustice and abuse they faced every day in the fields.  The rest of the country heard that call, and together we changed those fields forever.  

It was fitting then that, there in that exhibition we found, just twenty feet from where the CIW’s statue stands, the highlighted words (below, right) that so perfectly summarize the Smithsonian’s vision of America: “Out of many… voices… stories… lives, we become U.S.”

We celebrated that America on that Saturday in DC, and we celebrated our small part in perfecting its union.

Until the news broke. 

“The Inconvenient Truth”… 

That is the title the killer in El Paso gave to his hate-filled, online “manifesto.”  According to the Washington Post, the manifesto “railed against a ‘Hispanic invasion’ and laid out plans to divide the United States into territories based on race.”  Again according to the Post, the document goes on to explain the motive for the killings: “arguing that ‘the Hispanic population is willing to return to their home countries if given the right incentive.  An incentive that myself and many other patriotic Americans will provide.’  The author writes that such terrorist attacks will ‘remove the threat of the Hispanic voting bloc.'”

The vision of America laid out in the “manifesto” is demented, ahistorical, paranoid, and juvenile.  But, sadly, the only “inconvenient truth” contained in its 2,300 words is the fact that the author is not alone.  There is a growing number of Americans consumed by hate, sealed inside the four walls of an imaginary world constructed by right-wing social media and Fox News, and tickled by the endless stream of conspiratorial winks and nods coming their way from the highest office in the land. 

On Saturday, the hateful vision of America that informed the manifesto sprung violently from the mind of its author into a Walmart in El Paso, leaving dozens of dead and wounded in its real world wake.  We know how many lives he ended and how many more he forever diminished.  What we don’t know, but truly hesitate to contemplate, is how many others cheered him on as he did.  And perhaps even more frightening still is the far greater number of those who, while condemning his actions, immediately apologized for those who actively egged him on in the months and years before Saturday’s horrific events, demonizing and dehumanizing immigrants on a daily basis with their words, if not their actions.

“A house divided against itself…”

We began this post with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and we will end it with one of the Great Emancipator’s better known quotes, from a time of even deeper division than today:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Like the United States in Lincoln’s time, the country today has become dangerously divided, two Americas living side by side.  The very real danger of that division was painfully underscored by Saturday’s slaughter of innocents in El Paso.  Setting all the political rhetoric aside, that is simply not a situation that can be sustained.  One of the two Americas will prevail, today as it did 150 years ago.  

Despite the darkness that fell over our country Saturday afternoon – and that will not lift for some time to come – if history is any guide, our America, the America of the CIW’s Lady Liberty and of the beautiful vision of the Smithsonian’s
One Nation, Many Voices exhibition where she stands, will prevail.  The America of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, of Upton Sinclair and Dorothy Day, of Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dolores Huerta, and of so many, many more heroes, renowned and unknown, down through the years who have fought to realize the soaring promise of this imperfect country, is simply too strong to give way to the predations of a handful of conmen and the violent fringe taken in — and unleashed — by them.  

Hatred and ignorance will always be with us – they have been present in America since the beginning, and have resisted every single American revolution aimed at ending them since.  But this country’s better angels have always proven stronger than their evil brethren, and this time – our time – will not be the exception.