GUEST COLUMN: Coming to America: A Personal Reflection


A version of this post appeared on on July 24, 2019.

by Helio Fred Garcia

I am an immigrant, an American by choice.

I choose to be an American because of all the places in the world – and I’ve been fortunate to have visited or worked in dozens of countries on six continents – this is one of the few places where your birth circumstances do not determine the rest of your life. And where the national aspiration, still a work in progress, encourages us to be our better selves.

I have been able to build a good life here. I married a wonderful person, and together we’ve raised two remarkable young women. I graduated from two of the finest universities in the land and am a professor at both. I’ve worked with or for some of the best companies in the world.

I pass as an American, and I carry with me all of the manifestations of white privilege.

But it wasn’t always so.

Welcome to America – Now Go Home, Or Else!

When I arrived from South America as a young child, I was a different from the other kids. I was an easy mark. Scrawny. With an unpronounceable name, a heavy foreign accent, and a very weak command of the English language.

I was the Other. And I was a target. I was tormented for years by a pack of boys who saw in me an opportunity to feel superior. I was constantly told to go back to where I came from. But what began with taunting and insult and name-calling metastasized into physical violence and sexual humiliation. I was beaten. I was held down by the boys, who took turns peeing on me and then ran off, laughing.

More than 50 years later I carry scars around my eyes where I was kicked with a heavy boot. Now that I no longer have hair, many other scars are noticeable, especially on the top and back of my head, where I was hit with sticks, with rocks, and in at least one instance, with a brick. I also have scars on my soul.

But I was also very lucky. I had a number of caring and gifted teachers who made me their project, investing time and love not only in school but also beyond the classroom. Because of them I came of age on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, as a Page, watching the House consider articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Since then I’ve met presidents and prime ministers, one king, several princes, one pope, and hundreds of religious leaders of most of the world’s faith traditions. I’ve advised hundreds of CEOs and public officials. I’ve visited the White House on business three times, under three presidents.

But in my seventh decade I still have a visceral fear of being alone with men with whom I don’t have a relationship of authority. I avoid sporting events; I don’t hang out with groups of men. I have only a handful of male friends. My therapist advises me that nearly 50 years after the assaults I still suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m still the cowering little boy terrified of the bullies.

Semper Fi!

My father worked for nearly 30 years for the United States Army, teaching soldiers and soldiers-in-training. He and my mother, who never became citizens, are buried in the West Point cemetery. My Dad always told me that there is no greater honor than to teach people who wear the uniform of the armed forces of the United States.

When I was 21 I became an American citizen. I took an oath affirming that I would protect and defend the constitution and serve the nation. I have done so.

Although I have never worn the uniform myself, for almost 30 years I have taught and advised senior officers of the United States military – mostly Marines. I have taught dozens of generals and thousands of senior officers and NCOs, and also senior members of each of the other armed services. Almost all of this teaching has been on a pro bono publico basis. It’s my form of national service.

Teaching at the Marine Corps School of Infantry – East at Camp Lejeune, NC, 2019

Most of my career has been a form of overcompensation for being inarticulate and powerless. I have worked for some of the top communication consulting firms. For almost 20 years I’ve owned and run a crisis management and leadership communication consulting and coaching firm. Our work helps leaders become better leaders by harnessing their own power with humility and empathy, building trust by connecting meaningfully with others. I’ve written four books about how to use the power of communication for good.

But I’ve also been acutely aware of the use of communication to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate. And of how dehumanizing and demonizing language can lead some people to commit acts of violence.

The Tone from the Top

The Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide defines “dangerous speech” as hate speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.

And we’re seeing that kind of speech right now. On July 14 President Trump tweeted about four freshmen members of Congress, all women of color. One, Rep. Ilhan Omar, is a refugee from Somalia, who came to America when she was a child, became an American citizen, and has chosen a career in public service. The others are all American-born citizens. Trump’s tweet:

“So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.

Of course, three of the four did not come from outside the United States. But whether they did or not, “go back to where you came from” is a familiar experience of many immigrants. It is even embodied in U.S. law, as a prime example of racism. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, on its website on Immigrants’ Employment Rights, lists it as an explicit example of the kind of language that may violate federal employment laws:

“Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.

Donald Trump’s statement about these four members of the House of Representatives is merely the most recent manifestation an unprecedented phenomenon: the use of language by a president of the United States that inspires some people to commit violence.

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, speaking of President Trump in February 2019, said,

“People really do listen to their leaders… The civility of our dialogue is deviating downward, such that individuals… feel emboldened and, perhaps, even entitled to take matters into his own hands and carry out acts of violence.”

All four congresswomen report significant increases in death threats against them. But we also see disinhibition that subjects immigrants – and those perceived to be immigrants – to insult, exclusion, and violence.

Ten days after Trump’s Go Back comments, one of my former students, from China, was spit on by a well-dressed man who shouted, “Stupid Asian, go back to your country.” When I posted that on Facebook, another student, from Peru, shared that the day before a client — a client! — asked where she was from, and then asked, “Why don’t you go back there, then.” Many more of my friends, colleagues, and students have since reported similar experiences, with a noticeable uptick this week.

I worry about the effect of Trump’s language, which may influence some of his followers to commit violence against his rivals and critics. But I worry more about the current generation of immigrants. However bad my experience was — and it was pretty bad — back then there was no president of the United States inspiring insult, humiliation, and violence against me and other immigrants.

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Helio Fred Garcia is currently writing a book about language that inspires violence, including Donald Trump’s language. The views expressed in this post are his alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization or individual.




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