I had never tasted anything so delicious, though in hindsight, the meal was quite ordinary. There was a small piece of cake, a carton of milk and a sandwich. The cardboard box in which the meal came was white and had a large, red cross on the lid. The memory is such a key to my childhood that for years I kept the box neatly preserved in my closet. It would be some time before I could understand the concept of a “box lunch” and what exactly the Red Cross was. For a refugee child who had waited for asylum for half of my short life, this unexpected meal marked the end of a frightening journey and the beginning of a new life.
We had been up most of the previous night, crowded in small airport rooms with many other exhausted mothers with sleepy, small children. My mother only had one lap, so my sisters who were smaller took turns trying to sleep. I wandered around and looked out the window at the beautiful night sky. It was a difficult thing to understand, what was happening to our lives. I knew God was up among those stars, and that the new land where we were going was under that same night sky. The next morning, we boarded the first airplane of my life, and I apprehensively wondered how soon my Dad would come. No one had told us the possibilities of him leaving Cuba were slim. It would be many years before I would see him again. The small plane crossed the stretch of ocean separating Havana from Miami faster than anyone imagined. In a flash we were here, in that “land of libertad” our parents had longingly described: the United States.
From my first day of elementary school, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about my new home. I read U.S. history avidly. I memorized my civics lessons and treasured the loaned books from my parochial school. I got to know “Americanos.” They were somewhat mythical beings, different from us, unknown. But in the closeness of daily life we found community. There was Mr. Fraker, who taught us Math and how to rely on ourselves, and Mrs. Murray, the English teacher who encouraged our faltering tries without ever belittling our efforts. There were the E.S.L. classes and the bilingual lessons, so I would not fall behind in my other subjects. And for a child suddenly ripped from all I knew, there were the families of my new school friends who invited me over for dinner and gave me my first taste of gingerbread.
As I reflect on the Trump administration’s ban on refugees and those being turned away at our airports and our borders, I keep remembering that small box with the Red Cross on it. When it was placed in my hands, a feeling overtook me that told me: “There are good people in the world; learn to trust again.”
When did the United States change so drastically? When did we stop believing in the dreams of the multiple waves of migrants and refugees who made their way here, seeking freedom and a better life, for over 200 years? Donald Trump’s rhetoric is about making this country ”great,” but his actions are heartbreakingly contrary to anything any of us who came here believing in the dream would call “great.” To turn our backs on the vulnerable of the world and to build walls against our neighbors is to deface the memory of this nation’s dreams, to make us trivial and cowardly and utterly un-Christian.
I became a citizen as soon as I could. Years later, when I was finally able to travel to Philadelphia for the first time, my recounting for my family at Independence Hall of the events that had taken place at that monument to this Republic’s beginning drew a small crowd. I was not an official guide, but I loved that story about “We the People,” and it had become a part of me. I have been wondering where that spirit has gone, not just since this presidential election, but for many years now. The founding of the United States was quite imperfect, as were its architects. Philadelphia was only the beginning of a brave experiment, not the end. Telling ourselves this country is flawless has created the conditions for the kind of blindness that has brought us to today. We have not loved our nation in spite of its flaws—too often we have covered over those flaws and allowed them to grow. Immigrants like myself learn quickly that racism, exclusion and poverty will be part of our lives, and yet we persevere, because we have lived imperfect and difficult lives for much too long.
To love the United States does not mean to love it only, or to love it blindly. Isolationist nativism is akin to an unhealthy possessive relationship: we think if we build walls around our beloved they will always belong to us. We pretend all is well and lie to ourselves and to the world. Such attitudes are dangerous in interpersonal relationships—they breed sickness and resentment—but they are especially dangerous when we speak of a nation in the context of a world.
Even as a small child, like millions of children today, I had been aware that things were being done in Cuba that were wrong, shameful and that injured us all. We were broken, and as a dissident I wanted to heal such brokenness. Dissidents were everyday people, people willing to speak out about what was forbidden, to keep watch at a window while a home Eucharist was celebrated, to barter for food on the alternative markets, to visit the prisoners or to find medicines for the sick. Tragically many of the adult dissidents ended up in prison, and as a child I often ended up in the principal’s office told that questioning official dictums was not allowed.
I now reclaim that title in defense of the dream of being “created equal” that this land first taught me. What will it mean to be a dissident now? For one thing, it means being called to defend the dignity of all, even those whose actions or apathy have done great harm. The hundreds of thousands of us, of many faiths and no faith, who these days have converged on airports in defense of immigrants, are keeping alive that brave experiment begun in Philadelphia,. As I stood at Los Angeles International Airport bearing witness with a group of Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Episcopalians, I spotted a sign carried aloft: “You can’t wall all of us in!”
To be a dissident today will mean to share in the fire of passion for God’s vision that fueled the people of Israel and nurtured Jesus. We will share the precarious nature of political powerlessness they experienced, while we meet together and receive the Spirit in upper rooms all over this land. To be a dissident today will mean to finally understand the depth of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes. You are blessed by sharing the fate of the dispossessed, and this work will be difficult and painful, but perhaps it will bear the most beautiful fruit within you. You will be the bearer of a box full of love for someone whose dignity has been trampled.
America the beautiful, be beautiful.