If having a few of my poems bludgeoned in class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was my only grief, my journals would simply be a record of hurt feelings, pissed-off-ness, insecurity, and a stubborn resolve to keep writing. When you’ve got four kids under the age of six at home, with an exhausted wife looking at you with I need a stiff drink in her eyes, you put things like a beat-up little poem in perspective. And when you meet a man like Donald Trump, as my seven year old daughter did in the spring of 1997, in Iowa, you know that there are far greater injustices to deal with.
We met Mr. Trump on West Benton Street, just a mile south of the university, where we rented a small house. Everything seemed fine at first, the neighbors were friendly, our landlady, Beth, was a peach. The street was working class; the folks who lived on both sides of us were university employees, one as cook, the other a groundskeeper. It was quiet; there were kids in the neighborhood; it was a good place to raise a family.
Before moving to Iowa, Michelle and I had worked in the Mexican migrant farm community in northern Alabama. They picked tomatoes. They also wanted to organize, and we played a small part in that. We’d hired a young woman named Pati to help raise the kids while Michelle and I worked. She lived with us. We became as close as kin.
That spring, in Iowa, we had invited Pati to come up and visit for a couple of weeks. When she arrived the place got all Mexican! She brought her norteño music on cassettes and a heaping supply of Selena. We talked only in Spanish, inside the house and when we took the children to the small neighborhood park. While the kids played with others, Michelle and Pati would spend the afternoon catching up.
We had a piñata for Emily’s birthday (she’d just turned five) in the front yard. All the neighborhood kids showed up, with their parents, who looked at this strange cultural phenomenon and how it roused such excitement in their children.
A couple of weeks later, our landlady Beth did not knock on the door; she opened it with her own key. Pati was on the couch with Ben (our one-year-old). The other kids were playing with toys on the floor. Michelle came out of the kitchen. Beth was looming over Pati. She turned to Michelle and said, “I want you out of here.”
She accused us of harboring illegal aliens. Pati, who’d suffered polio, used metal braces to walk. Beth said, “And her all crippled, what if she fell down the stairs? I’d have to pay medical expenses for her?”
Several neighbors had called her to report on the supposedly illegal goings-on in her house. Beth mentioned the cops and Immigration. She said, “You need to be gone before the end of the month,” which was a week and a half away.
It crushed Pati. She sat there, listening to this white woman who had gotten phone calls from white neighbors who had felt threatened by Pati’s presence. She blamed herself for us getting kicked out.
Pati went home to Alabama. We had nowhere to go. I was still in school. This house had been the cheapest rent we could find. Michelle is from Iowa, her family lived an hour away. They took us in for several weeks until we found another place to live, in a farmhouse far from the outskirts of Iowa City.
After we settled, our daughter Raquel, Guatemalan (we’d adopted her when we lived there) asked me, “Daddy, did we get kicked out of the house because Pati’s brown?” I said yes. “I’m brown,” she said.
It was horrifying, to see our daughter slip into a depression. The local school didn’t have one drop of Raza in it. Completely white. People looked at her—stared, teachers and students both. She walked the halls and sat in class, with the full knowledge that there was something wrong with her skin.
I didn’t know that, twenty years later, the rage in that white, high-school educated, working class neighborhood was just a taste of what was to come: a racist, misogynous, Nazi-tolerant president. But Trump was there; he was in the very air that the
neighborhood breathed. The white rage that sledgehammered the country on November, 2016, was rustling in 1997, in Midwest America. It took care of the dangerous anomaly that had come into their neighborhood, a young Mexican woman on crutches, and tore us out of their street like we were cancer.
My daughter was lost, all that year. I had gotten a teaching job in Los Angeles. I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Iowa–which, as I write that, feels awful. I met Michelle in Davenport, her home town. She and I grew up in social justice classes together at the local university. I have family and friends all over the state. When this happened, they were horrified. They took care of us, got us settled. Yet another way racism wrecks our American lives.
In Los Angeles, most people were brown and Raquel got really happy. So did her siblings, they’d been raised in a colony of Mexicans in Alabama. In L.A., her classmates looked like her. They felt like her. And if they didn’t—that is, if they were white—they didn’t stare
You might blame Trump for all our woes. That is so myopic. He’s been with us all along; he is the Imago of this new White Redemption, born out of a locust shell of hate and rage and fear. He tried to crush my daughter, twenty years ago. But she’s strong now; she’s lived in L.A. most of her life. She’s an actor who’s played on a number of television shows. Check her out on IMDB. She knows who she is—a pissed-off Guatemalan-American who goes to protests downtown with hundred of thousands of other pissed-off Angelinos. They march against La migra, ICE, and the women-hating white male billionaires who run the country. Don’t say “Trump” in front of her. Don’t play devil’s advocate, pretending to argue for, say, the white Americans who voted for that man. if you do, Raquel will eat you for supper.
We all need to eat supper.