“It has been a really hard week,” he said. I had met Giovanni “Phenomenon” Lopez, a multi-talented boxer and rapper, in Xela, on the fourth anniversary of his deportation. He had been brought to the United States at the age of two; then at the age of twenty four, after spending his whole life as an American, his “country” had thrown him out. And that is exactly how it had felt at first, like his family had dumped him out on the street and locked the door behind him. He had to say goodbye to California and to the only life he had ever known.
Deportation can feel like death at first. That is exactly what drives Willy and the people of DESGUA as they strive to help their countrymen see that deportation is not death, but rather, a whole new opportunity to live life free and without fear. Young men like Giovanni were exactly the type of people that Cafe R.E.D. and DESGUA had in mind when they had opened their doors. People who felt like their life had been taken from them – and therefore feeling like they were dead, or like they might as well be. Instead DESGUA wanted to offer them the message – welcome home; we need you here; we are glad you are back; there is so much we can do together.
Their work in Guatemala to welcome back deportees is the beautiful mirror of the work that Welcoming Congregations do in the States to welcome immigrants. A welcome sign hung on both sides of the border, to let people know that it is not where they are but who they are that is important. And who they are will always be a person worthy of respect and love.
Willy and Cafe R.E.D. had done a lot to give Giovanni a place of belonging, to teach him to be proud of his ancestry and to empower him to be an inspiration to others. But there are still hard weeks, and this was one of them. Realizing that it was now four years since his life in the States had been interrupted was bringing his spirits low. Missing a few days at the gym and a rap performance near the lake had been the casualties of the emotions weighing on him that week as he contemplated all he had lost. As much of a fighter as he was, it was hard not to think of all the ways that his deportation had changed his life and altered his opportunities. It was hard to see guys he had sparred with getting scheduled for big fights, and not to think “That could have been me.”
Looking at him, I knew it really could have been him; I couldn’t help but mourn all that he had lost and all that we had lost in losing him.
But it isn’t easy victories that form champions, it is struggle. And Giovanni is a champion.
“I just don’t feel like I am supposed to be one of those guys, standing on the corner, with his arms crossed. Giving up.” Giovanni knew that he had a mission and a calling to inspire others and to overcome. That is why he had named his latest album “Underestimated” and rapped songs with titles like “Heart of a Champion” and “Niños de la calle.”
If he was going to inspire others by overcoming, however, he had to live it out. And some days were harder than others.
“We all have hard weeks,” I said, “that does not mean that this is what your life is going to be like now. You missed some appointments, it was a hard week. You got to go easy on yourself and get back in the ring. It is just like in boxing, you have got to keep moving. The bell rings, you sit down and take a break, but then you have got to get back in there and keep moving.”
“Yes,” he laughed, “Otherwise I am going to get a big punch to the face.”
There was not a doubt in my mind that this young man had what it took to get back in the ring and win. There was not a doubt in my mind that he would inspire others and was capable of being a profoundly positive example. And there was also no doubt in my mind that he would be a benefit to any country that he called home. And, however painful the method of bringing him here had been, Guatemala needed him.
Sitting in Cafe R.E.D. I could not help but think of another conversation in another coffee shop in Guatemala. I had sat in a Cafe in San Pedro a couple weeks before with a young man named James from Great Britain. He updated me on the situation of the Anglican Church in England and I shared with him some of our struggles in the States.
“You can say, for better or for worse, that all Caucasians are immigrants,” he said in response to my comments about the overlap between racism and immigration in the United States. “And you can say Caucasians don’t have the right to call it their land,” he continued, “but they did create that world and the culture that they are trying to protect. It did not exist before they got there. They made it; therefore, it is theirs.” Listening to the young British man in the coffee shop in San Pedro, I had never heard the white supremacy argument stated so innocently. It was like a slow curve ball floating down towards home plate, and then twisting off at the last minute.
I was in no way convinced. Even more so, talking to Giovanni now at Cafe R.E.D., I knew that there is something very wrong with a system that prioritizes privilege and leaves young women and men feeling cast out and rejected.
There is a bigger issue here than how to diminish deportations. The bigger question, the one that Willy and Giovanni and Cesár are working to answer, is: how do we create a world that is more holistically just?
How do we create a world where neither immigration on the one hand, nor deportation on the other, seems like the only option to people on either side?
Here’s the way the world works now. Americans believe in equal pay for equal work and a living wage. American businesses, on the other hand, believe in profit. In order to pay our “Made In America” wages, businesses incur a higher cost of production and, thus, a lower level of profit. Therefore, in pursuit of profit, they leave America; they close down factories in Scranton or Detroit or Fort Smith (Arkansas). They outsource their customer service and they build new factories in countries where the wages are less. Meanwhile, those new countries see local industry and production impacted, as well as rapidly depleting mineral and human resources. Locals see that the best coffee, the best bananas, the best of everything does not stay in their country, but gets sent to America. They drink the inferior coffee and eat the smaller bananas, while producing superior versions of both for the magical land of America, or Japan, or France.
In addition to that, we seem to invite the immigrant to feel like they belong in that world through our actions of cultural colonization. We have made everyone feel like they are, or should be, an American – by selling them American clothes and American movies.
“The U.S. way of life is introduced to all the people as the way of life. Commercial enterprises quickly sell the trimmings of this way of life to the local people, thus enticing them to become “American,” although simple economics makes this next to impossible and U.S. immigration laws generally prevent it. Thus the love-hate relationship continues to develop and local cultures continue to be threatened. Their people are not allowed to migrate to the US, but the exterior trimmings of the U.S. way of life are sold to them and replace their own products” (Elizondo, The Future is Mestizo,97).
So what do the people in other nations do? Well of course they want to go there – to America – where people eat the best produce and wear clothes first-hand and receive a fair living wage; where maybe they will be able to save enough money to return home and build a little house.
And what do immigrants from Central America find when they get there? They find that James from Great Britain was right. That this world of equal pay and living wages is not for them. They finds that the white people who “built this country” want to protect it from people “like them.” They find that people who have lost their jobs due to US outsourcing, somehow blame them for “taking their jobs.” They find that they are forced to do menial labor that no one else wants to do, in sometimes hazardous conditions, and that people still blame them for taking “their job.”
So why do they keep coming? As Father Virgil Elizondo says in The Future is Mestizo, “The quest for survival is much strong than any human law against migration” (98).
That is exactly what makes people like Giovanni and the powerful music he creates as Phenomenon so incredibly important; because it makes youth in Guatemala hold their heads up high with pride. That is exactly what makes Cesár and his dreams of creating fair trade production for differently-abled deportees so important; because he tells people who think their life is over that instead it has just begun. That is exactly what makes Willy’s determination to educate deportees and immigrants to understand and be proud of their country so vital; because it tells them that they are people of incredible worth and heritage already, and do not need to go anywhere else to “become somebody” because they already are somebody.
The work being done at Cafe R.E.D. is so important because it contradicts British James’ superiority mindset and sends people the message: We can survive right where we are. We can thrive right where we are. We are enough.
In order to create a just world, we have to begin by contradicting the myth that the American life is superior and to be desired by all. People in Guatemala need examples like Phenomenon to look up to; people who have overcome hardship and gotten back in the ring.
As we finished our coffee, I told Giovanni that I needed to go in search of some items for a friend back in San Juan. He walked me out of Cafe R.E.D. and down the block towards the Parque Central. When we reached the park, he gave me a hug as we parted ways and said, “I’m going this way… I’ve got to get back in the ring today.”
Yes, Giovanni, I thought, watching him walk away, thousands of kids around Guatemala need you to get back in the ring today. They are counting on you. They need you to help them build their Guatemalan Dream.
Esta tierra es tu tierra, esta tierra es mi tierra
Desde California a la isla Nueva York
Desde el bosque de secuoyas rojas, hasta las aguas corrientes del golfo
Esta tierra fue creada para tí y para mí.
…Desde las calles de Xela a las playas de California
Desde los pueblos de la Laguna Atitlan a la Cataratas del Niágara
Esta tierra fue creada para tí y para mí….
*Featured photo courtesy of http://www.reverbnation.com/giovannilopez, video courtesy of DESGUA.org Look out for Phenomenon’s new album Underestimated, coming soon!