Letter to America

Letter to America

My hope: empathy, compassion, the capacity to imagine that you are not unique


Let me tell you, America, of the hopes I had for you.

As the smoke was swallowing Manhattan and the buildings fell and the terror spread into the farthest recesses of your land and your hearts, my hopes for you, America.

While around the world many of the past victims of your own terror, your own attacks, were thinking and often saying, saying and more often thinking, they deserve it, serves them right, it’s about time they knew what it’s like to be on the receiving end. Not true, I thought, I said. Nobody deserves terror. Justice. What we deserve, all of us, is some measure of justice.

My hopes for America: not that this was good for you. No, not that. But I have seen suffering before, I have seen widows wandering remote streets with the photos of their loved ones asking if anybody knows if they are alive or dead, I have watched men and women and even countries turn their deepest sorrows into a source of strength, a form of self-knowledge, a chance to grow.

A chance to grow, America, that was my hope.

Loss turned into maturity.

A chance to understand. Not alone, America, not alone in your grief. A perpetual valley of terror, that is what most of humanity is born into day after faraway day. Ignoring if tomorrow we will once again be assaulted and bombed, humiliated and tormented. America suddenly living what almost everyone else on this planet has experienced at some point yesterday or today: the precarious pit of everyday fear.

My hope for America: empathy, compassion, the capacity to imagine that you are not unique. Yes, America, if this dreadful destruction were only to teach you that your citizens and your dead are not the only ones who matter on this planet, if that experience were to lead you to wage a resolute war on the multiple terrors that haunt our already murderous new century.

An awakening, America.

Not to be. What did not happen.

Your country, hijacked. Your panic, used to take you on a journey of violence from which it is hard to return, the men at the controls not worried about crashing America into the world.

But not just the fault of the men who misgovern you.

They can only do what you have allowed them, responding, those men, to some of your deepest desires.

Above all, this: to be innocent again, to feel good about yourselves, after Vietnam. Vietnam? That country you turned into a mass graveyard?

Innocence, handed back to you, America, on September 11, 2001. A terrible price to pay, but there it is. Those atrocities, that devastation, finally making you all into victims. No ifs, no buts, no listening to the naysayers, no patience for those who suggest you look at your own history, your own interventions across the globe, to understand why so many out there in the crazed world might detest you. No more self-doubt, America.

Beware the plague of victimhood, America.

The finger I point at you, pointed back at my own self. I know that thrill, I have sweetly sucked it in, I have felt the surge of self-righteousness that comes from being unfairly hurt. Anything we do, justified. Any criticism against us, dismissed.

Beware the plague of fear and rage, America.

Nothing more dangerous: a giant who is afraid. Projecting power and terror so the demons within and without will not devour him, so the traumas of the past will not repeat themselves.

Beware the plague of amnesia, America.

Or have you forgotten Chile? Not just a name. Chile? Democratic Chile? Demonized, destabilized by your government in 1973? Chile? That country misruled for seventeen years by a dictator you helped to install?

And other countries, other names. Iran, Nicaragua, Congo, Indonesia, South Africa, Laos, Guatemala. Just names? Just footnotes in history books, your creatures?

But I do not speak to you only from afar.

An insider.

How could I not wish you well? You gave me, an americano from the Latino South, this language of love that I return to you. You gave me the hot summer afternoons of my childhood in Queens, when my starkest choice was whether to buy a popsicle from the Good Humor Man or the fat driver of the Bungalow Bar truck. And then back to calculating Jackie Robinson’s batting average. How could I not wish you well? You gave me refuge when I was barely a toddler, my family fleeing the fascist thugs in Argentina in the mid-1940s. One of you then. Still one of you now. How could I not wish you well? Years later, again it was to America I came with my own family, an exile from the Chile of Pinochet you helped to spawn into existence on precisely an eleventh of September, another Tuesday of doom. And yet, still wishing you well, America: You offered me the freedom to speak out that I did not have in Santiago, you gave me the opportunity to write and teach, you gave me a gringa granddaughter, how could I not love the house she lives in?

Where is that America of mine? Where is that other America? Where is the America of as I would not be a slave so would I not be a master, the America of this land is our land this land was meant for you and me, the America of all men, and all women, every one of us on this ravaged, glorious earth of ours, all of us, created equal? Created equal: one baby in Afghanistan or Iraq as sacred as one baby in Minneapolis. Where is my America? The America that taught me tolerance of every race and every religion, that filled me with pioneer energy, that is generous to a fault when catastrophes strike?

So was I wrong?

When I hoped you would rise to the challenge as death visited you from the sky? When I believed America the just, the rebellious, the unselfish, was still alive? Not entirely spoiled by excessive wealth? With the courage to conquer its fear?

America learning the lesson of Vietnam.

Vietnam. More, many more than 3,000 dead. More, many more, than two cities bombed. More, more, more than one day of terror.

And yet, they do not hate you, America.

The enduring lesson of Vietnam. Not next time: Obliterate the enemy. Not next time: Satanize those who disagree.

What the Vietnamese are whispering to you: They remember and yet they do not hate. Not that easy, America, to forgive the pain. Or can you forget your own September 11 that easily?

Not that easy, America.

To grow.

Or was I wrong? Have I become contaminated myself with your innocence, lived too long among you? Do you need 50,000 body bags coming home before you start to listen to your own voices of peace and dissent?

Am I wrong to believe that the country that gave the world jazz and Faulkner and Eleanor Roosevelt will be able to look at itself in the cracked mirror of history and join the rest of humanity, not as a city on a separate hill but as one more city in the shining valleys of sorrow and uncertainty and hope where we all dwell?

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