The day I was sworn in as an American citizen, my life of uncertainty and fear was replaced with the possibility of safety and freedom. My shiny blue passport told me I could dream, grow and explore as far as my imagination and hard work allowed. I would need not fear anything or anyone. And most important, my daughter would grow up, fearless, in a nation that valued her.
But as our country has become more and more polarized, fear chokes my words like a giant serpent. I am brought back to my childhood in Honduras, uncomfortable with confrontations, arguments and debates.
Yet I force myself to share my political opinions, and I scream trying to reassure myself: As a U.S. citizen, I have a right to my ideas. America is no place for fear.
In my native Honduras, fear reigned since I was 3. The war with El Salvador caused my family to first lose its peace of mind. Our neighbors accused my mother, Honduran-born but Salvadoran raised, of treason.
Afraid for her life, my mother posted copies of her birth certificate on the doors of our house and our little grocery store. She escaped being dragged off to the football stadium, an impromptu concentration camp for Salvadoran “enemies.” But we never trusted our neighbors again.
In the 1970s, fear took the shape of silence. Hondurans feared speaking out against the repressive junta, participating in political parties, exhibiting any dissent, and mostly, being “disappeared.” Succumbing to fear, my dad, a curious and engaged thinker, built a bonfire in the backyard one evening. We watched as the flames consumed his books.
My parents ordered my sister and me to be silent, avoid discussing politics, and refrain from repeating dinner table conversation. Silent in fear, we passed as apolitical, stoic and uninvolved.
Fear relaxed briefly in 1981, with Honduras’ first democratically elected leader in 10 years. But fear returned in the 1990s, in the form of violence, gangs, drug cartels and economic instability. We built barbed-wire-topped walls around our homes, hired guards for our schools, businesses and ourselves, bought guns, installed alarms and suspected everyone.
Losing hope, we began a new life in the USA. In my newfound safety, I shed my fear and silence, sharing my thoughts on everything from insignificant matters to life-changing issues. I worked, I studied and I grew.
I moved to a new state that beckoned me with a big sign: “Welcome to Iowa: Fields of Opportunities.” And I found opportunities. I felt safe in my fenceless home amid the prairie darkness and tranquility. I left my doors unlocked, even kept my car running while I ran into the store one cold winter morning.
In recent years, however, fear has moved into our country, along with its best friend, silence. We keep silent to avoid a family dispute, keep our jobs and protect ourselves. We are more distrustful of others, and more aware of what we say and whom we say it to. But I must force myself to be loud, because this is America, and I cannot be fearful.
We are told we can make America great again. The essence of what makes us great is to be diverse, accepting and to care for the individual. We cannot live in fear of being immigrant, brown, black, gay, transgender, female, Democrat, socialist, outspoken, environmentalist, Native American, idealist, socially conscious, just, fair, critical, conservative, Republican, atheist or religious.
This country cannot allow its children to grow up fearful and silent. Encourage your children to think, form and share their own opinions, and live without fear. Too many of us have already paid the high price of fear already.
In this crucial moment, we can stride forward valiantly or shrink forever in the company of fear and silence. We can make America truly great — now more than ever — by rejecting fear in all of its forms.
MIRZAM PEREZ is associate professor of Spanish at Grinnell College. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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