For the first time ever, in a very long life of international travel, I was ashamed to be an American. My husband and I went to the profoundly important Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia in Mexico City a few years ago. Having been to many Holocaust museums around the world, I expected this one to be similar. But I was wrong. It was not a typical Holocaust memorial. It was a museum dedicated to tolerance. Indeed, there was much emphasis on understanding the antecedents and consequences of many different modern genocides, starting with the Armenian genocide and ending (at least temporarily) with Darfur.
We spent almost five hours going through the museum and reading everything (in Spanish). Then, at the end, there was a special exhibition by an artist. It was a small room that had messages of tolerance and then alternatively showed two videos. One was a YouTube video of Trump saying Mexico was sending us rapists—you remember this opening campaign statement from our then President-elect. [now our President]
The other video was equally disturbing. It showed a young man looking at the camera from his truck saying he was going to pick up some obviously Hispanic men on the street to have them come and help build his deck. They excitedly piled into the back of his truck. And then the camera panned to the driver who said, “They think I am taking them to my house to help build a deck, but that is not where I am taking them.” No surprise, he drove them to the immigration office to turn them in. He then returned to his truck and grinned into the camera, proud as punch for having scared the bejeezus out of some poor people who were willing to do work for him because they needed the money. Above the video, the words “trabajo no es crimen, trabajo is dignidad” (work is not a crime, work is dignity) appeared.
We were in the exhibition room with a number of young Mexicans. We looked over at them. Their expressions showed the same shock and disgust that we were feeling. I was mortified. This is not the America that I have been so proud of all of my life. I was ashamed to be a part of this view of America—so ashamed that I wanted to apologize to these young people, but words failed me. I did not believe this is who we aspire to be. I thought it was indeed shameful.
Unfortunately, the recent events at our border, separating children from their parents, has made me think that I am wrong about the aspiration part. There are powerful people (and as the featured video shows some not so powerful people) in this country who think, in fact, that demonizing people from other countries will “make America great again.”
What would you do?
As the exhibit expressed, the men in the truck video were people who were looking for work. Work is not a crime, it brings dignity. People fleeing extreme violence in their home countries is not a crime, it reflects the natural instinct for self- and family-preservation.
I wonder, dear readers, if you were in a country where it was dangerous to live and the ability to support your family was non-existent, what would you do? It is in our DNA to protect ourselves and our loved ones. If you weren’t born in America and you lived in a dangerous place (e.g., Tegucigalpa or San Salvador), would you accept your fate and just stay in place or would you do whatever it takes to get the hell out – taking your kids with you?
Instead of chasing down and deporting people, our country should do everything in its power to help make all countries safe to live in so people don’t have to leave. Unfortunately, the stories of the many genocides displayed in the Tolerance museum have demonstrated that, all too often, our government (and that of many other wealthy nations) sides with the oppressors or simply turns a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow man. This has got to change if we are ever to have a world without displaced people who are just trying to do what all of us would do if we were in their situation: Survive.
If you are ever in Mexico City, please visit the Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia. It will change your view of the world. In fact, it would certainly be helpful for the future of the planet if our President, his advisors and cabinet members as well as the leadership of Congress, could spend a few hours there.
Editorial comment: This story was first published on June 27, 2016, with the title, “Remembrances, Tolerance, and Shame.” I wrote it shortly after my husband and I returned from a trip to Mexico City. Unfortunately, if you watch the featured video, you will see that it is even more relevant today. Shame!