I’m going to start this feature with some words we’ve all heard before, but words we forget too often.
“Returning violence for violence, multiplies violence,
adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only love can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King
In 2007 , a single mother and her son left the most dangerous country in the world to move to a safer place. They moved from Honduras – A country with the highest murder rate in the world, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people every year, to New Orleans – A city in Louisiana with a murder rate of 57.6 per 100,000. Welcome to the story of Maria Tommy Garcia and Oscar Garcia.
My conversation with them helped me see that murder rates and crime statistics are not enough to decide if a place is safe or unsafe. In a world where everything is stereotyped and everyone is labelled, here’s a family telling me about their struggles and successes in making a safe home for themselves.
What are some of your early memories from Honduras? Why did you decide to move to the U.S?
Oscar : When I was a kid, I lived in a very small, but beautiful city in Honduras called Trujillo. I remember beach houses and playing with my grandparents. My mother was in another city studying Nursing, but she never completed her education. There was a lot of trouble in my family.
My grandmother was shot when I was just a baby. It was for a piece of land my great grandmother had left her.
She was shot eight times, which left her paraplegic ( Paraplegic is a medical word for being paralysed from the waist down. If you’re paraplegic, you can’t move your legs or anything below the waist, and you have no feeling in those areas either.) for twenty years, and she passed away two years ago. This was most of my childhood. My mother was still in school, my grandma was bed ridden, and the government wasn’t paying the teachers, so there was a period of over seven months when I just stayed home. This was when I was around ten years old.
No matter how hard my mother tried to protect me, I always came home with stories of riots, drugs or murder.
I can’t point to one incident, but I think finally one day my mom decided to get us the hell out of there.
And how was life different once you moved to New Orleans? What can you remember from that transitional phase of your life?
Oscar : Once we finally got our papers and documents together, we moved. When I arrived, it was the middle of the term and no schools were accepting students. To top that, I couldn’t speak English. In Honduras, I had stopped attending school and I never really learnt much. But in the U.S, everything was different. It was a culture shock for me to see Asians, Africans, South Americans – almost every person was different in some way from the next one. And everybody wanted to survive. Everybody hustled. It took me six months to get into a school and things only got worse. I was too much of an outsider, not smart enough to get the grades, too awkward to make friends, I felt like I was stuck in this hole. Some teachers even told my mom to just take me back to Honduras. But with time, everybody became more accepting of me. I repeated seventh grade twice before I started high school and things slowly started to look good.
You are currently studying in Dillard University and I take it when you joined, you were the only Latin male student in an all Black school. What kind of experiences did you have at Dillard?
Oscar : My decision to go to Dillard was highly influenced by two of my mentors from this tutoring program I was part of, called ‘College Track’ . I joined them when I was in freshman year in high school and even today, they pay for my education. They told me why Dillard was the right place for me and all the opportunities it provided in terms of Intercultural experiences. In my senior year at high school I got accepted into the Qatar Foundation, and I went to Qatar for a while.
I felt like I was twelve again. That boy from Honduras who didn’t care about his grades, but rather about what was happening around him. The outsider who couldn’t speak English and was paranoid of meeting someone different from himself, was getting to explore a completely different part of the world.
And after these experiences, when my mentors suggested Dillard, I went for it without thinking twice. The whole thing about D.U being a part of H.B.C.U ( Historically Black Colleges and Universities ) didn’t bother me at all because I was a mixed kid and was used to it already. But some of the kids at Dillard were different to me initially. When I said Latin, they thought Mexico. They didn’t seem to know Honduras at all, and that’s understandable, but there was a little bit of ‘Dude you aren’t Black what’re you doing here!’. Things changed when BLM ( the Black Lives Matter movement ) started. A lot of the students were very actively part of the movement, and I didn’t say much simply because they didn’t see me as a Black kid. There was a phase when everyone was afraid, and times when they thought of every White person as racist.
That’s what fear does to you. When you don’t see a solution, fear manifests into anger, and slowly into hate. But I was right there in the middle of all this and I could sense that this defensive attitude was justified. These students felt as though they were being profiled based on how they looked and that scared them. Once again, with time and more knowledge, we began to get some clarity. Reason took over anger. I went on to do my ‘Act of Global Citizenship’ called ‘Stop Labelling’ and that helped too.
What are some of your most important take-aways from all these years?
Oscar : I was one of the people that said ‘All lives matter’. But mostly because I didn’t understand the whole situation. But I get it now.Right now, may be it’s time to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ first. The one thing I’ve learnt is, labels do no good. Everybody is fighting their own battles, and we are often too quick to judge. I am just happy that I was given a chance, one opportunity to change my life. There are many, many people that are denied of even that much.
If you have had that chance, be grateful. If you haven’t, fight for it as though your life depends on it.
Quote from Maria Tommy Garcia ( Oscar’s mom ) :
“My main reason for moving to the United States with my son was for his education. I felt that here he was going to get more opportunities than he would have been able to receive in Honduras. Violence in Honduras was personal to us because my mom was a victim of gun violence. The best thing I could see for my child was to move with him to the United States and it is a decision that I know was the best one I ever made. He has been exposed to a whole different world than he would have been had I not made the decision to come ‘home’.”
“A word or phrase preceded by a hash sign (#), used on social media sites to identify messages on a specific topic.” That is the Wikipedia definition of a hashtag. But I think you and I both know it’s come to be more than that. We see so many cases of how a hashtag turns into a label which turns into a stereotype. Stereotypes are easy to interpret and box. A label confines. See someone wearing glasses, #smart. See someone showing cleavage, #slutty. See an African, #BLM. And God forbid , see a Muslim on the street. There are people who do this. People who like to limit things just so they become easy to analyse, and sometimes judge. But giving a phenomenon a label does not explain it. Oscar’s story taught me how he went from being ‘#outsider’ to a traveller, a friend, a survivor, a good son, and many other things this story does not tell us about. Let’s use a hashtag for what it’s meant. Not to label, not to confine, but to simply describe and connect. Labels lead to generalisations, generalisations lead to assumptions, assumptions lead back to stereotypes.
Here’s a story of a boy who went and gave the world a try, when most of us were growing up trying to pass the same exams and vying for the same jobs, no matter how different from each other.
Labels are for commodities, not for people.
In a world constantly trying to make us into one thing, let’s take our chances and try to be undefinable.
Reach out to me at https://www.facebook.com/AskAshiBlog/ for any queries/suggestions/feedback. See you soon 🙂