Over the past few years, the Latinx community at large has been presented to pose one of the greatest hypothetical threats to America’s borders and freedoms by the current White House administration and its supporters. Many are thoroughly convinced that we are all criminally undocumented and lack morals. Some believe we are purely here to use our weapons, rape, take jobs, and sell drugs to the masses. Our dark skin and accents are living proof of our uncommitted crimes, the unjust and overgeneralized persecution that we face. For those who witnessed September 11th, we also can recall a time when American fear mongering targeted another community for similar reasons. I would know. As a grade schooler, I was one of the accusers.
Seventeen years ago today, on Sept. 11, 2001, my parents drove me from Brooklyn, New York to Manhattan and dropped me off at school.
Together, we exited the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel as my dad cautiously wove in and out of the early morning city traffic and past the World Trade Center. At six years old I was fast asleep in the back seat. My mother, seven months pregnant with my younger sister, sat in the front beside my father. My father drove carefully but quickly as it was nearing 8:30 a.m. and as usual, I was running late for another day of first grade.
I barely got to school on time that day, but from what I can remember, my morning at a Manhattan elementary school went as it normally did. I hung my backpack in my cubby, said the Pledge of Allegiance, and sat down with my peers on the classroom rug to hear the morning announcements from our teacher. But soon after, my teacher interrupted our morning routine to tell us that our families were coming to pick us and bring us home for the rest of the day. We were all confused but excited to go home early.
My school was right across the street from my grandparents’ apartment building, so my Mama and Papa were usually the ones to pick me up. But on that day, it was just my mom. This morning she looked particularly unwell. I recall asking her why we were leaving school and why she was the one to pick me up, but I don’t remember what she said in response. I remember being pulled by my hand across the street and her locking the door to my grandparents’ apartment on the way in.
Nobody was talking, and every TV was tuned into the news. I watched the second tower go down on live TV, and remember my grandfather swearing it wasn’t a second plane, but a replay of the first strike. I did not know what was going on. That night, and for days after, we couldn’t take the tunnel to leave the borough and get home to Brooklyn. I didn’t go to school, and I didn’t leave my grandparents’ house. Things were quiet and dark; the city was empty. In the days following, my mother explained to me what hijackers were and these airplane hijackers intended to do. My mom explained how they had aimed to pose a threat to the foundation of our country. She explained to me, a first grader, that they were terrorists.
For most of that year the conversations that took place over my head amongst my teachers, my parents, and their friends urged me to believe the terrorists behind the attacks on September 11th were everywhere and that they were easy to spot out because they looked a certain way. I became afraid of any man who looked like the faces I saw in the news. Everyone did. We didn’t feel safe leaving home because of them. Once in 5th grade, I ran crying to my mom because an elderly man who appeared to be middle eastern passed by our house. My mind worked that way for almost a decade until I was in high school.
I had learned to fear and hate before I even understood what fear and hate was.
At the time, I barely understood what the September 11th attacks meant for the safety and security of our nation. But somehow, at the age of six, I had clearly learned to generalize and vilify others under the blanket of just causation. For some, it was World War II that taught them these ways. For others, it was The Cold War, Jim Crowe, or Vietnam. For me, it was September 11th. This is not to say, whatever you believe or think to be true of 9/11 and its aftermath, that it was not a work of hate and cruelty in and of itself. It truly was, and almost twenty years later anyone who comes into the City of New York can still see the vestiges of the loss and pain felt here. I was born here, I was raised here, and have watched the city as it goes through its continued and now almost two-decades-long processes of mourning myself.
To see a place I passed so regularly as a child transformed into a memorial, a museum, a mall, and then a rooftop view over the years, was harrowing. As I grew, the city matured along with me, sad, tired, hurt, but wanting to be a place where anything is possible once again. In part, because I was raised here as a child was I so quick to defend the loss of my busy, vibrant, exciting New York with fear, hate, and racism, just like the rest of the country did in the years that followed.
I was conditioned to resent the monsters that did this to my beautiful Big Apple, those that I felt had robbed me of my childhood. I didn’t get to know New York as my parents had in their youth, or even my grandparents when they arrived in the 1950s. Instead, I got to know what was left of New York post- 9/11, and the hated faces that were the causation of my loss. For years, I viewed the city as a place that was unsafe to wander, and anyone that could be closely associated with the terrorists involved in the attacks, whether by religion or nationality, unsafe to talk to.
Only when I found myself in experiences where I was the other, a Latina teen in an all-white high school, did I realize what I had done to so many strangers under the false pretense that my prejudice was for the sake of my safety. I could have lost my life, my parents, and my unborn sister that morning, and so, at six years old, I developed an opinion and outlook on a group that stemmed from fear, hate, and racism.
In 2018, we see these same sentiments take form in new but familiar ways: unarmed black boys and men being killed by police, mass shootings and mental health stigma, and undocumented immigrants in the wake of Mollie Tibbetts’ death. In the tragedies that have followed 2001, we have been presented with ill-informed opportunities to hate for the sake of hating. This September 11th, I challenge you not to step on the gas. I challenge you to not to let fear guide your morality, even when it seems justified.