Mi America

It was a hectic day. Waking up before the sun had even risen in the sky, I awaited the delivery of one of the first pieces of furniture for my new apartment – a couch. What would otherwise have been a simple delivery quickly escalated into a difficult situation. Ultimately my couch was left out unexpectedly without any driver notification while I was at work. Nightmare fuel on the first day of moving. 

My apartment wasn’t ready on schedule for the day either. Skilled workers painted, prepped, sawed, and cleaned up what soon will be my new home. Unbeknownst to me, their presence was a blessing in disguise. 

As I moved in my boxes, I noticed they seemed shy to speak to me in English and tried not to bother me. But I wanted to make sure they knew how grateful I was for everything they were doing. Busting out my heavily French-accented Spanish, I welcomed them into my space. I instantly saw a spark light up on all of their faces. “Thank you much, you are so kind,” piped one of the workers. 

The workers began to check on my work and make an effort to ask me questions. I saw one worker checking Google Translate on his phone before asking me some questions. That made me smile. It reminded me a lot of my students.

One of the workers asked what I did for a living and practiced some of his French. Others helped grab boxes as I walked in, making brief comments as they went along. 

As the day passed by, I went from organizing cutlery to learning a little bit about each worker. 

“I do this for my son. I want him to go to college. I don’t want him to be me.” I saw the rough skin on his knuckles. His eyes looked like he was always peering into the sun – weathered, yet powerful. 

Another worker passed by with a mop, using Pine Sol Lavender Scent. “It is so fresh, yes?” He smiled. “You’re making every part of my home beautiful!” I replied. “It is why I love my work,” he said humbly. “Who had lived here before did not care as much about walls and floors.”

Another man saw the sofa and had asked about the situation. His face became stern. “How can someone do this? This is not okay. We are here for you. Let us finish our work first.”

I wondered what their work meant to them beyond a paycheck and what had brought them to Virginia. So I decided to ask a very broad question: “What is your America?”

The worker I was speaking to at the time looked like I had asked him to describe someone he loved when he replied. “My America – mi America – it is this. It is making things beautiful. It is cleaning what others don’t like to keep clean. It is building nice places for families to sleep. It is bringing God’s love.”

Another smiled over. “Here I can do what I could not back home. I am from three hours outside of Mexico City. Hot, like living in the desert hot, with the sun all the time. Sometimes I miss it, especially the food. You know elotes? The corn? I miss this. But I would not trade that for now.”

“America is my home. I am American. I am Mexican, but now I am here. I am home. I am building. And I am still talking with smiles when people cannot understand me because people are all people.” This worker was covered in sawdust, yet his expression looked like he had just won the lottery. 

What was my America? I was seeing it before my eyes. A complex country filled with people who work hard and believe harder. I got back to putting my dishes in the cupboards. 

About an hour later, I heard loud grunts from out front. All of the workers teamed up to bring in my sofa. They unpacked it and noticed that the legs needed to be attached. 

“We will do this for you, do not worry.”

Not only did they assemble the couch, they went above and beyond. There was a part that didn’t seem to fit, so one of the workers took his own vehicle to a hardware store just to make sure that he had the right piece. 

“We don’t want you to have a dangerous sofa. You are a good person.”

After having spent the entire day working in my apartment, these gentlemen took yet another hour and a half to do something that was completely unrelated to their work duties. Their reasoning was that they felt I was a good person and cared to talk to them. When I tried to pay them back, they refused my money and instead gave me some snacks from their truck as a housewarming gift. 

“Muchas gracias!” I chirped over. “De nada. May God bless you in your new home.”

This is my America. 

Homage to Frank Lloyd Wright

By chance, I just found out today marks Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday. His designs have always held a special place in my heart. I remember seeing the “Tree of Life” window at The Art Institute of Chicago and being blown away by its stunning symmetry in person. I also remember passing by one of his incredible creations on my former commute to work – the 1940 Gregor Affleck House on North Woodward in Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Without even knowing that 2017 marks his 150th, I have been planning a FLW-inspired living room in my new apartment. It’s strange and wondrous the kinds of entanglements that exist between our present and points of inspiration from the past. 

Happy Birthday, harmonious spirit.

Dissonance on the Downtown Mall

altrightcvilleprotest

As the sun began to set on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, the tone of the evening quickly changed. I went from sharing boisterous laughs with a group of colleagues to end our day to encountering a large crowd gathered outside of the iconic Miller’s Bar and Restaurant, chanting and waving signs. Known as the bar where the Dave Matthews Band had its start, one could imagine it could attract large crowds. These were not fans surrounding rock stars, however. These were protesters denouncing a famous blogger of the alt right and local Charlottesville resident – Jason Kessler.

Kessler, like other internet personalities of the alt right, immediately decided to record the event on Periscope (through Twitter), denouncing the protesters who were labeling him as a Nazi and a fascist for his views. “These people have come up and have been harassing me, they’ve been out here for half an hour,” complained Kessler, who recently was sentenced for disorderly conduct and ordered to complete fifty hours of community service after having punched an area man while collecting signatures back in January. He also has been in attendance at recent alt right demonstrations in Charlottesville, including the Lee Park torch rally that went viral on social media.

As I stood face-to-face with the protesters, the police, and the alt right, I saw that there was dissonance and no dialogue. Protesters were chanting “Nazis go home,” but the reaction of the alt right members (who claim they do not represent Nazi/fascist views, yet still have not found a way to prove this…) was to record, to ask questions, to troll and taunt, and eventually after the social media post was made, to go home. The only interaction they had with their opposition was mockery.

For the alt right online following it was a perfect storm: Kessler could post ideal content – a video of himself surrounded by a mob of angry protesters – to fuel the fires of other social media followers of the alt right. Though protesters were also using their devices to record the situation, their mission was clear. When I spoke with them, they were upset that such a figure of the alt right lived in Belmont – near the Downtown Mall – an area where “families live and children grow up.”

Knowing that the alt right could use this footage as evidence for whatever future actions they wanted without even addressing the fact that they were being denounced as “Nazis” in a public space was not satisfying for me, particularly as a WWII researcher. So I decided to ask the tough question directly to the alt right, to see if they could respond.

“I hear these chants and I see these signs from your opposition, but I don’t hear you. Can you explain to me how you are NOT in fact, Nazis?”

Kessler’s friend seemed surprised by my question, and very willing to answer. Their claim was that they felt stifled by the left, that they could not voice their opinion without receiving shouts in return – stifle tactics that did not give them access to their First Amendment rights.

Granted, I replied, but they were evading the question. How then is the alt right not Nazi or fascist for the views it maintains? “Just like Richard Spencer, I don’t agree with everything Kessler says or does,” said his friend, “but I’m here to support him.” What did that mean? To support what exactly? As an academic, I felt like I needed to pry the sources, the evidence, the research – but all I was receiving in response was rhetoric and non-answers. Were they in fact conscious of the similarities and simply afraid to expose themselves, or was it that no one had ever asked them such a question monotonously?

I didn’t receive any concrete answers to my question. The claim was made that they were trying to disassociate themselves with violent right-wing movements, but how could they say that when I was walking close to an online personality who had physically punched an opponent? All that was there was instigation devoid of ideology.

Knowing conflicts like these continue to erupt in my new home every week or so is jarring. Though Charlottesville is a positive community by nature, the striking political disharmony that currently exists resonates long after both sides have gone home.