Benito Juárez Academy students participated in a walk out against Trump’s Inauguration in Chicago. Photo: El BeiSMan
Twenty-three years of living on the margins of society have taught me a valuable lesson: to be undocumented is not to be powerless. In the midst of uncertainty, physical labor and experience have vindicated my place in society. They have provided me with a sense of dignity and control. Though a minimal sense of control, especially when it comes to politics. Or at least that’s what I used to think until today, when Donald Trump, in his uncouth way of turning truth on its head, publicly admitted my power.
Apparently, political powerless people like myself denied him the popular vote, thus ruining Mr. Universe’s ornate pageantry on inauguration day. And this, the thought of being unfairly beaten by millions of allegedly fraudulent ballots, is deeply troubling for Mr. Trump. To make sure it doesn’t happen again four years from now, he immediately signed a decree authorizing the constructing of a wall along the southern border. At a moment when the net migration from Mexico is basically zero, such extravagant gesture might be nothing more than a way of healing his wounded ego. After all, his wall has a single goal—to keep the likes of me from entering the country and continuing to sabotage his solipsistic fantasy.
Nietzsche once wrote that, in his experience as a reader, he had never encountered a person who needed as much love as Jesus Christ, and Andy Warhol famously stated that in the future we would all claim our 15 minutes of fame. But we are well passed the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: we are in the hyperbolic twentieth-first century, the age of Twitter and endless instant gratification, and Donald Trump wants all the love and the spotlight forever, and he wants it all now.
I remember once, as my GED book indoctrinated me on the virtues American democracy, reading about the noble gesture of George Washington in resisting the temptation to perpetuate his own power. In an unprecedented act of selflessness, he stepped down, choosing instead his farm and his animals and a life rich in the glory of humility. Donald Trump is the negation of that. In a sense, he represents the end of the American democratic experiment—closer to Caligula than to Washington, Trump is as interested in exerting unchecked power as he is unnerved by the idea of unpopularity. So much so that his tenure in the White House has begun with a tantrum over the fact that those who allegedly cast illegal ballots would not choose him as president. Anybodywho ever doubted the power of the weak, behold—Trump humbled by a legion of shadows!
During my more than two decades of life in this country, I have been called many names, but never until now have I been granted the authority of a Shakespearean ghost or the mischievous invisibility of a Ralph Ellison character, the ability to frighten, to perturb the main actor of the script. Rather, my life has always had a very concrete, physical quality to it, as required by occupations like washing dishes, mowing lawns, and scrubbing toilets.
We, the undocumented, have traditionally defined ourselves through our work, through the ability to support ourselves by performing menial occupations, humble jobs commensurate to our level of education, which usually is, one must admit, extremely low. That’s why when, against the wise council of his own advisers, Trump announced the next episode of his show, some of us felt flattered—a massive conspiracy to derail the elections of the strongest democracy on earth conceived with nothing but a sixth-grade education. But this surrealism also weighs heavily on concrete life. Funds that could go to failing schools will instead be assigned to validate the paranoia of a lunatic.
For someone who ran on the perennial conservative promise of cutting back public spending, one of Trump’s first directives, launching a full federal investigation into his imaginary voter fraud, is nothing but another act of vanity. He might not have any qualms about cutting healthcare for 18 million people (many of them his own supporters), but a dent in his image is something that deeply unsettles him. The investigation he has ordered will be financed, of course, by the dollars of taxpayers like me—an undocumented Mexican immigrant.
Unlike Mr. Trump, I have been paying my share of taxes for over two decades. Unpleasant as it was at first, filing taxes every year has become to me, a non-American citizen resident of Chicago, an act of civic responsibility that the first citizen of the United States seems to know nothing about. And, while Mr. Trump gets to invent the facts that inform his alternate reality, I rely on government figures. According to the Social Security Administration, undocumented people like me have contributed $100 billion to its coffers over the past decade alone.
But this is something Mr. Trump will never tweet about. Just the same way he is not likely to tweet about how, were he to kick the 11 million of us out of this country, some of the most affected would be the average Joe, who now has no problem paying $.99 for a gallon of milk, but who would have to pay four or five times as much after our forced removal. Needless to say, the same would go for the tomatoes and apples and oranges and chicken and beef and all the services needed to make Americans’ God-given right to live comfortably and affordably a reality.
Whether or not Mr. Trump will follow on his campaign promises will require more than simply posing for the camera and signing directives. His dark vision of America’s greatness will require congressional approval and the consent of the American public, finally woken up to the fact that a tyrant threatens not only the weak, but also America’s core values.
Meanwhile, what is clear is that I, a mere shadow, have never had the power to test the fragility of a sitting president. Until now.
Benito Juárez Academy students rallied to protest Trump’s Inauguration in downtown Chicago. Photo: El BeiSMan
Jan 25, 2017
José Ángel N., author of Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant