I knew the vulnerable feelings I’d been having about my ability to keep my family safe and secure were the direct result from one of the following:
- The recent break-in of our home;
- The increase in my annual property taxes;
- The conversation I had with my son about the term “illegal alien.”
This is how that conversation went down.
One peaceful and calm evening not too far in the distant past, my daughter danced her heart out in her room, while my son and I lounged in the living room. He was plugged into media, full Skullcandy headphones on. I was watching CNN, listening to the latest comments about the necessity of building walls between people living on either side of the United States/Mexico border.
I thought only one of us was tuned into the news pundit, but as the commentary morphed into recent statements made by presidential hopefuls about “illegal aliens,” my son tore off his headphones and listened attentively to the news commentator.
I wondered what had gotten his attention so quickly. He answered my unspoken question when he asked, “Why are they calling people ‘aliens?’”
It’s important to note here that the reference by the presidential candidates to “illegal aliens” didn’t shock me, unfortunately. My familiarity with the term stemmed from growing up in the ‘80s, during Reaganomics, and the “Decade of the Hispanic”—a time when the term “illegal alien” was the term of choice to refer to any and all undocumented people living in the United States. Hearing that population of people referenced as “illegal aliens” wasn’t new to me, even though I am still not sensitized to it and never will accept it. However, I was caught off guard by my son’s astonishment. Had he really lived in South Texas for 12 years and missed hearing the reference to undocumented people as “illegal aliens” all that time?
My 12-year-old son is obviously coming from a different time period and from a really different educational experience than I had. He’s a kid whose primary education was spent in a public school, Spanish immersion program. In that classroom, all but four peers were English-as-a-second-language speakers. His daily interactions were with children, whose parents may or may not have been documented citizens of this country. My son spent the first six years of his primary education solely with this cohort of students, so much so that they became like primos to each other.
I knew that he was about to get a crack in his world. What could I do but talk honestly with him?
“It’s a name used to refer to undocumented people in our country. Usually it’s about Mexicans and Latinos,” I said.
“Why? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why doesn’t it make any sense?” I asked. I wanted him to share his conclusions, make sense of his feelings, find his own explanations.
“People aren’t aliens like they’re from another planet. That’s dumb.”
What happens when humans are referred to as “aliens”? In my mind, I was thinking it’s the first step in the dehumanization of people—to present people as objects or things. Language that dehumanizes can lead to the next step of dehumanizing practices, through changes that affect social services, policies, legalities. It’s what helps perpetuate the subconscious idea that some bodies matter more than others.
As a parent, that evening, I considered the fact that there are certain memories parents will always remember about their children growing up. The cliché ones include those firsts or milestones—the first tooth, the first step, the first day of school.
What about the first time one’s child realizes the discriminatory practice of language? What about the first time one’s child wonders why his friends are viewed so differently because their parents came to this country as immigrants in 2016 rather than in 1916? What about the first time one’s child identifies with the minority group, the group considered alien, because his skin is brown and his name is untranslatable in English?
On many levels, it was a first for my son that night.
What I said was, “It is dumb. Down-right stupid.” That summed it up for me, too.