This past summer, I had the honor and privilege of working with the fiercest and most dedicated public servants I have ever met. A stone’s throw away from Yale’s campus, Junta for Progressive Action is New Haven’s oldest Latino community organization, founded in 1969 by and for the Puerto Rican migrant community. Junta has been on the forefront of immigration issues for the last several decades — you might have heard of them as the folks behind the Elm City Resident card, which helps undocumented New Haveners access city resources and official banking. They also provide an incredible variety of direct services, in the form of children’s programming, English classes and more.
I share all of this because Junta, and the organizations like it, are what are going to get us through the next four years — not the people in the iconic buildings in Washington, D.C. Rather, it’s the folks working in the crumbly-looking Grand Avenue house here in New Haven and the thousands of people like them across this place we call America.
The first time it hit me that Donald Trump had an actual shot at the presidency, I remember getting in bed and solemnly hiding under the covers. I was flashing back to the thousands of times in my life that I have said the Pledge of Allegiance. I was thinking about the millions of kindergartners who get asked if they want to be president some day. I was remembering my high school civics teacher encouraging us to dream big. In this moment, I felt, as we all have felt before, a collective loss of direction, a sudden aging and heightened cynicism, a splintering of the path beneath my feet.
But when I opened my laptop later that day to do my readings, I found the answer staring me squarely in the face. I should have known. Over the last year, the topic of my readings for many of my area studies and history classes has been, frankly, this: The nation-state is bulls–t.
At Yale especially, but also in high school history and government classes, I have been fed a culture that says that Washington, D.C., is the highest ideal of public service. Somehow the many Pledges of Allegiance ringing in our ears, the media’s mania and the rationalized impulse to help “the most people” cause us to privilege the “national.” We glamorize the happenings of the country’s capital. Deep-rooted political ideologies of the last century have caused nations to form where none have existed. Borders have been drawn and tightened, and all of us are conditioned to take it for granted that people always know the name of the president of the United States but not their state representatives.
But I am looking at this country I am living in, and it does not define my identity. It is a constructed community, and sometimes it gets in the way of me seeing the other communities I am a part of. Today, I struggle to call myself American. Instead, I am Portland. I am New Haven. I am the Shades of Yale. I am Timothy Dwight College. I am Westview High School. I am my friends and family.
Many in my generation are rightfully grieving, in fear of what the future holds. I cannot begin to imagine the pain that immigrant families and communities of color feel right now. I do not say all of this as a panacea, nor do I believe that we must stop our crying and just “get back to work.” I offer this only as a kernel of how I am beginning to cope, of how I will wake up — maybe not today, but maybe tomorrow — and continue searching for opportunities to make this world better for people who have been trodden on for far too long by the existing power structures. For me at least, learning to subvert one of those surreptitious structures — the all-dominating nation-state — is going to free me to continue the work that must be done.
Junta has never really assumed that the White House was on their side. They have organized in this city and in the neighborhood of Fair Haven to make sure people know and have access to their rights, and I have seen firsthand the radical change they have brought to thousands of our neighbors’ lives. Their love and strength radiates across the state and across the country, joining with the light of thousands of other local organizations that are doing the same.
Look around at your neighbors. Look at this city. Realize you all have more power in each other’s lives than you ever imagined.
Jacqueline Salzinger is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .