August 7, 2021
“Wednesday was the first time I saw my aunt since the pandemic first started a year and a half ago. It was the first time she saw my tattoos, and when she asked for the meaning of the monarch butterfly on my arm, I gave her the same answer I give everyone: ‘Me recuerda a mis raíces, de donde vengo (It reminds me of my roots, where I come from).’
I’m realizing that my truth goes a lot further than that. I have been thinking about what an abolitionist relationship to borders looks like at a personal level, and I’m reminded of Harsha Walia when she says that ‘borders are not natural law.’ This feeling of limbo, of feeling unrooted throughout the past two years, of struggling to find stability in between the different places I have come to call home.... It’s a symptom of the separation that border enforcement inherently implies.
The butterfly is a homage both to the life story I’m creating and to the life stories of the folks that came before me. It’s ingrained on my skin as a reminder that this feeling of being unrooted is, in itself, a part of my ‘raíces, de donde vengo.’ The folks before me left the homes they knew and created new ones, crossing borders and rivers and feeling as unrooted as I imagine butterflies sometimes do.
As I move through different places on this Earth, from México to the Río Grande Valley to all over the East Coast, I am reminded that life is too divine, too vast, too complicated to be confined by borders, both physical and not. I am reminded that my strongest roots are those that are entangled in my own being and in the relationships I’ve built with others, beyond any physical location.
These are the thoughts on my mind as I sit at the airport waiting for my flight back to Philly... transcending borders, just like my folks always have.”
I look down at my phone screen and read the words I wrote last summer. I scroll through the pictures in the Instagram post: a selfie with my siblings in the hotel lobby; a picture of the bus my aunt left on that day; a rainbow painted across the sky as we crossed the border back.
I pull up my shirt sleeve and trace the outline of the butterfly on my arm, feeling the slightly raised skin... all the places where the needle pierced through.
“If they come back, they come back in a casket.”
In many ways, this project is a reflection of the experiences I carry in my being; knowledge about borders and migration and longing that my body has racked up over time. It’s why, I think, I managed not to fall apart each time I interviewed these deported veterans.
“It’s like you’re just left alone to die.”
Sus voces (their voices)... ache and pain through every syllable, every breath; an agony no being was ever meant to endure; an agony beyond the borders of the skin, beyond the borders I knew too well.
“I was left there, alone, without anything or anyone to reach out to.”
Organized abandonment. That’s what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls it—the threads of racial capitalism shaping and reshaping institutions and life circumstances against marginalized people, murdering them before the slowness of old age is able to.
“He’s brown... let’s deport him.”
We have been socialized to find blame in each other, to view our traumas as a moral failure instead of seeing them as a symptom of their true cause: a system that privileges whiteness, wealth, and citizenship.
Mainstream immigration narratives advocate for the “good” immigrants—to deport the criminals, not the humble workers; but pitting entire livelihoods against one another only serves to invisibilize the truths we carry.
“It’s the ones in most distress who need the most resources.”
Countless veterans come back from deployment with wounds deeper than our eyes can see. The PTSD, the depression, the suicidal thoughts... but who do they turn to when the medical care they were promised is mediocre at best?
“It’s our only way of coping.”
The binaries we are often seduced into—legal vs. illegal, good vs. bad—are all justifications for making people disposable. We learn to rank certain lives above others; we stop looking past the categories we group people into.
“He’s a criminal. Of course he should be deported.”
Criminal. A better word would be criminalized, for is it not the state’s fault that veterans turn to drugs to begin with? Someone can get deported for coping with a mental health disorder, but the system that failed him remains untouched.
“Crime and harm are not the same.”
Ripping someone away from their community; sending kids to underfunded schools; not paying people a living wage. These are all violent, and yet none of these are crimes, because it is the state that holds a monopoly on violence; it alone decides when violence is legitimized and when it is not.
“It’s up to us to connect the dots.”
The politics of abolition call us to be critical thinkers; to question the role of prisons, to ask why military recruiters target low-income Black and Brown communities, to untangle what it really means to be categorized as “at-risk”, as “illegal”, as a “citizen.”
“We all end up in the same dirt, anyway.”
Life is not black and white. This project has made me realize that many truths exist at once, and I cannot claim abolitionist politics without acknowledging this. I cannot call for the abolition of prisons without also calling for care and resources for those most vulnerable to the system’s grasp.
"Dismantle it all, but provide abundance."
... I look out the window in front of me. I hear the bells ringing across campus. I take a deep breath, running my fingertips across the flowers inked on my wrists. The song playing on my speaker trails off...
“... llegarán... las endorfinas... que nos hagan liberar... lo que oprime...”
(“... the endorphins... that will liberate us... from what oppresses us... will arrive...”)
It’s like Michelle Alexander so brilliantly said. “Accept all of us or none.”