Suspicious skin

Suspicious skin

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2010, Erin O’Connor-Garcia contemplates the new life she’s started in Alabama and how it will accept her husband’s Peruvian roots. 

So far Mobile, Alabama has been super great to me. Only two months have passed since my husband, Daniel, and I moved here from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and as we ride our bikes in the sunny, mild fall weather under the hundred-year-old live oaks on our street, grazing on the raw pecans littering the city sidewalks like candy after a parade, we catch ourselves repeating to each other: this is an amazing place. It’s like this hidden gem that I had no idea about — and I grew up just five hours away in suburban Atlanta. But then this new immigration law passed and we realized: Daniel is Latino.

Well, I mean, we knew he was Peruvian before the law passed. I have traveled to his home country and met his family. I keep meaning to get more fluent in Spanish so I occasionally declare that we will only hablamos espanol en esta casa ahora, and that lasts until I really need something or we have a fight (language advantages are really not fair in marital spats—so I make sure to claim mine first). After 14 years in this country, he’s received two master’s degrees, married an American citizen and taught at two prestigious private colleges, and he’s still frequently asked how long he plans to stay, so we’ve known for a while that something is different about him. Now we suddenly find ourselves living in the state with the toughest immigration law on the books. It requires police to demand proof of legal status if they have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally; and this is not a border state. This legislation, known as HB 56, bars undocumented immigrants from using a wide range of public services (although public schools were just excluded) and prohibits anyone from transporting an illegal immigrant in a vehicle.

It’s that “reasonable suspicion” part that has us contemplating Daniel’s Latino-ness. Just like the rest of the country, we keep hearing stories on the radio about uninformed, uneducated immigrants — legal and otherwise — who have fled to Louisiana or gone into hiding because of this law and whose children are terrified to leave their parents’ side. Several of the local food groups I’ve found in town have been sending me e-mail after Facebook update about how they need help harvesting their crops. They are literally telling me that if I can come out and pick tomorrow, they will hire me on the spot. Coming from Michigan, I haven’t heard offers like this…maybe ever? But I’m not taking them up on it — I have my own work in front of me already. And it seems that not many other people are taking them up on it, or if they are, they’re leaving after a few hours because, news flash, it’s hot here in Alabama, ya’ll. Even in October.

There are also really ugly stories coming out of this state like this one.  Here is a white Birmingham business owner defending his legal immigrant workers and he is being targeted with anonymous and claimed attacks from people all over the country. When I read this, I am reminded that these folks stopped even pretending that this is about illegal immigrants — this is about businesses that hire Latinos. Local headlines still talk about how Latinos “skipped work” to protest the law and it’s clear that none of the writers have actually talked to the Latinos they are writing about. The sore lack of any clear information, for citizens and even for the police who are supposed to enforce this new law, only underlines this general haze of fear and blame.

Still, we’ve only been here 60 days; I barely know my neighbors and Daniel still gets lost if he deviates from his home-to-work-and-back route. While we feel welcomed by the individuals we’ve met, we don’t feel like part of the community yet. And because of the way my spouse looks and talks (he has a very sexy Spanish accent), he could be stopped at any time, anywhere in this state.  If he does not have his green card on him (which, prior to this, he didn’t carry around in case his wallet is ever stolen or lost), he could be detained — even thrown in jail. I won’t speak for Daniel; I’ll speak for myself. When he drives away from the house, I am afraid that if the car breaks down, if he’s involved in an accident, if he runs a red light or if he says something a grumpy coffee shop owner thinks was rude (anyone can call the hotline), he could be detained. For us, that would be an expensive inconvenience. I’d call a lawyer and the local press and the president of the college where he works to make sure he’s taken care of. But it’s not just that we can deal with this if it happens—it’s that he and hundreds of other people of color living in Alabama now have to live with the fear and knowledge that just being in this state is enough to get singled-out.  We have resources; there are many people who don’t. But the feeling is palpable: you don’t belong here.

Sociologist Howard Becker named what I’m describing here as deviance. He writes, “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying these rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders.” I’m sad to say this about myself, but as a person who has lived in Michigan for the past decade, I’ve had the luxury of thinking that the immigration debate in this country wasn’t my issue, and that these types of laws — first Arizona, now Alabama — were because of backwards-thinking people on the other side of the country. And I do believe that we need to get a grip, stop panicking with electric fence ideas, and start finding serious solutions to immigration reform in the U.S. But there are backwards-thinking people everywhere (one of the nasty calls the business owner in that article received was from a woman in Michigan!) — people who want to make sure that the rules always apply to “others.”

The result of this particular state’s feeble, shortsighted attempt at “reform” has made us feel that just physically being here is an infraction of the rules, and we will always be outsiders because all Daniel has to do is be seen in order to look suspicious. Similar to DWB (“driving while black”), this is “existing while brown.”  And that’s why I say that by moving here we realized Daniel is Latino, because here it means a whole new set of rules for what it means simply to be himself.