My family did not belong in America. That was the reality of my personal family history. My grandparents legally immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s. They fit well: the fields of California needed strong backs and my family was hungry for work and a new beginning.
But America only wanted their hands to harvest the crops; they could not buy a farm due to Alien Land Laws that specifically barred Asians from ownership. Without land, planting roots became a challenge. They were not welcomed.
Then, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all my family were rounded up and imprisoned because they looked like the enemy. They were exiled to desolate prison camps scattered in remote areas. My parents were American citizens by birth, yet they were told to go “home” – back to Japan, a country they never visited. They were treated as if they did not belong here.
During the first months of our new president, the question of belonging hangs over many. Sadly, those impacted the most are often invisible, hidden precisely because they do not feel like they belong. Immigrants and children of immigrants. Those believing in a different religion. Those who wear a different face. Those who speak a different language.
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Belonging is personal. You feel like you belong. You develop a sensibility, staying in places you know you are welcomed. With belonging comes belief that you have a right to be here.
But belonging is also political. Not belonging has been legislated and people relegated to the margins. America has a long and terrible legacy of “dis-belonging” groups: native Americans, black slaves, immigrant scapegoating, non-Christians. All have lost their rights at different times in our history, told they did not belong here.
Belonging is emotional. Narratives are being built that isolate and ostracize. Negative experiences quickly undermine our sensibility. We stop trusting each other. Meanwhile victims blame themselves. They hide and slip into the shadows, wanting to become invisible.
Our Valley lies in the middle of this national debate. We are filled with a broad spectrum of diverse peoples, cultures and religions. We have immigrants who are documented and undocumented.
We have a history of exploiting new arrivals as a cheap labor source for our agricultural industry, yet many of those immigrants have planted roots figuratively and literally as family farms thrive and second, third, and fourth generations became hyphenated Americans.
Who should work our fields and grow the food that feeds many? What hands does a nation need to process transport, prepare and serve our food? The solution to this debate may begin in our own conversations and exchanges as we answer the basic issue of who determines the plight of marginalized communities.
I think of the good neighbors who helped my family. They offered my grandparents a job and at times gave them shelter. Right before departing for the trains to the internment camps, one farmer let our homeless family spend a week in a barn. It wasn’t much but it meant a lot. I know of a few good people who took care of farms and property for the interned Japanese-Americans.
What we forget is that those acts of courage were preceded by many discussions. I can imagine the debates within a community, arguments about helping “those people.” One of these good neighbors told me: “There was a lot of back talk and I was called a ‘Jap lover.’ But it didn’t stop me. It was doing the right thing.”
My grandparents and parents hid their personal baggage of “not belonging.” They rarely spoke of their pain. I was sheltered. But history catches up; hidden in the unspoken stories was a shame that manifested itself in silence. A silence that I inherited as part of my history and a burden I continue to carry.
Stories can break through this silence. Stopping to listen can bridge differences. As we learn the narrative of others, we can hear and feel their sense of “dis-belonging.” We, too, can move beyond the political and into the personal. We are a nation of stories that bind and connect. When we learn the stories of others, we can no longer hate.