In 2015, a presidential candidate, who ultimately won the election in 2016, launched his presidential campaign by calling Latinos "criminals, drug dealers, rapists," here to "take your job.” We heard that hateful rhetoric from Donald J. Trump again and again in the course of four years while he was the president. The damage of these hateful words and labels not only affected our local Latino community in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the United States, but also our neighbors.
It divided us in more ways than one. It emboldened those who had these hateful thoughts of Latinos already, and it fed wrong and damaging stereotypes of our community to those who had yet to know us. In addition, it wounded, and in some instances permanently damaged relationships with our loved ones. In my personal experience, people I cared about, and whom I thought cared about me, hurt me deeply as they silently approved, and in many cases minimized the pain, meaning and impact these abhorrent descriptions and damaging policies that followed had on our community.
This is why, on January 20, 2021, our community was finally able to breathe. In the first 24 hours of the Biden-Harris administration, small and subtle steps — as well as major ones — were taken to restore the dignity and humanity of our community.
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The following are just some actions that happened in the first hours of Joe Biden’s presidency:
- Latinas played major roles in the inauguration. The first and only Latina in the Supreme Court, the honorable Sonia Sotomayor, swore in the first woman vice president, Kamala Harris. Jennifer Lopez sang a beautiful rendition of “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful,” adding to it a Spanish twist of including “Una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos!” Talk about chills for someone who has not heard our Spanish language being valued in the highest office of our country in a very long time.
- And while Latinos do not all speak the same language, Spanish is a dominant language for us. In the first 24 hours, the White House has brought back the Spanish language section of the WhiteHouse.gov website. This section was removed by the previous administration.
- A subtle but symbolic moment was watching a bust of civil rights and farm labor leader Cesar Chavez placed behind the Resolute Desk, surrounded by personal pictures of President Biden with his family. This spoke volumes to members of our community.
- Biden sent a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress right away that calls for a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and policies that will keep families together, not separate them. This is in stark contrast to the executive orders that were later followed by policies separating hundreds of young children from their parents the Trump administration enacted in their first days in office. Hundreds of children separated from their families are still, to this day, separated because the Trump administration lost track of the children's parents. Biden’s immigration bill goes a step further by eliminating the word “alien” from the government’s vocabulary, instead using “non-citizen.” To me, personally, this says this administration is intentionally eliminating practices and rhetoric that have dehumanized our community.
- Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, along with Chef José Andrés and Eva Longoria, were part of the inaugural celebration that closed out the night.
Finally, in the weeks before the inauguration, the Biden-Harris administration elevated Latinos by naming several members of our Latino community to cabinet positions. Among them are Miguel Cardona to lead the Department of Education, Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Isabel Guzman to lead the Small Business Administration and Xavier Becerra to lead Health and Human Services.
I am a Latina from Guatemala who has been working with our local Pittsburgh Latino community for 10 years, most recently as the executive director of the Latino Community Center. I, by no means, represent all Latinos. In fact, we are so diverse, we can’t even agree on a term that represents us all — and that’s OK. However from my personal experience, these past four years have been rough, painful and exhausting.
The Latino Community Center has stayed focused on our original mandate of empowering our kids to be able to dream and see themselves in high-ranking positions as secretary of education or Supreme Court Justice. However, these past four years, we have also been fighting a hateful and dangerous narrative about our people that was exacerbated by the tweets of the man meant to represent all Americans. We have seen first hand how the cruel policies of the Trump administration affected members of our community, slowly stripping away their dream to go to school, putting them in situations where they had to choose: “do I risk our immigration status for food and rental support during a pandemic?” We have been there when our country’s leadership was not, supporting families during a pandemic because the relief meant to help families survive these unprecedented times completely ignored mixed status and undocumented families — all because we have not been seen as human for far too long.
With the foundation the Biden-Harris administration established in their first 24 hours reaffirming the value and importance of Latinos in this country, I am hopeful that our community will heal from the wounds inflicted upon us over and over again these past four years. Even small steps, even if symbolic, are hugely important for dignity restoration and healing.
There is no doubt the damage has been done, and we will continue to raise awareness around the strength of our community. The difference is that this time we will be in unison with our country’s leaders, and that is a good place to start.
Rosamaria Cristello is the executive director of the Latino Community Center in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com.