Confessions of an American Refugee
April 24, 2017
I have a confession to make: I am a refugee.
I first came here with my parents and siblings forty-two years ago. It was for an all-too-common reason. The United States, in the persons of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, interfered in the elections in my country of birth, Chile. After sowing chaos through CIA-sponsored assassinations, psychological warfare, and misinformation—what we might call “fake news” today—the U.S. government, led by those same criminal characters, encouraged, financed, and engineered a brutal military coup in what was once the longest-standing democracy in Latin America.
I was only nine years old, but the coup and the events that led up to it are seared with the permanence of a cattle brand into my memory. I remember the increasing tension that accompanied most adult political discussions, the specific events that ratcheted up the country’s political anxieties, and the way these unfolding crises rocked the foundations of my world. One of these, which produced widespread panic at home and at school, involved a tank regiment taking to the streets of Santiago. It was an aborted first attempt to bring down the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.
Political instability, then as now, takes many forms. Like most families in Chile at the time, mine had to queue up for anything of value—bread, meat, medicine, batteries, toilet paper. Our neighbors, who seemed to queue less, consistently pushed a spanner-sized handgun on my parents; just as insistently, they refused it. The handsome pair regularly let us frolic in their swimming pool. When the poor came to attack our prosperous neighborhood, they said, the children—my sister, my brother, and I—would be well defended. If my parents wouldn’t take the pistol, they declared, they would wield it themselves.
The coup and its aftermath, which, like all civil wars, was bloody and desperately stupid, wrenched me out of my child’s world with the force of an earthquake. It was the end of a hopeful time, and the beginning of a new period, full of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. That fear ghosted millions of lives in a way that was both public and private. In the more than four decades since, it’s become clear to me that the coup didn’t just cut short my own boyhood. It wiped out the childhoods of most of my generational cohort—both those who who stayed in Chile after September 11, 1973, and those who left.
Immigrating to the United States after the coup was an act weighted with ironies, as I’m certain my parents were fully aware. But what’s a little Third World paradox compared to the mother of all ironies of our age? The world’s undisputed cultural, economic, and military hegemon, the United States, has only practiced what it preaches in its founding documents at home, while routinely and repeatedly disregarding those same fundamental principles abroad.
Today we stand on the brink of a sea change where American exceptionalism is concerned. Trump’s attacks on everything from Islam to the press to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is taken straight from the global dictator’s playbook. Though numbering only in the hundreds of thousands (the U.S. let in 84,995 displaced people last year), refugees like me understand the lessons of dictatorship in a way most citizens, frankly, ignore (Note: the systematic oppression of non-white communities in the U.S. deserves its own explication, which we won’t get into here). Most immigrants to the U.S. from the Third World have graduate degrees in authoritarianism. Our teachers make up a depressing list of experts. Under “P,” for instance, are filed the names Peron, Pol Pot, Pinochet, and Putin.
No wonder, then, that immigrants are both so invaluable and threatening to the new leaders in the U.S. Not only are immigrants among America’s most defenseless residents—making them the easiest to scapegoat—they also bear inconvenient witness by their very presence to a history of authoritarianism that complicates the power-hungry narratives of figures like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
Immigrants, in fact, are unique in being able to call out multiple perversions of power precisely because they have skin in the game—they have experienced governmental abuses personally, in a way many native-born Americans, especially white Americans, have not. Among these abuses are the arbitrary use of force, the suspension of individual rights, the abrogation of the rule of law and the muzzling of the press. Put another way: immigrants know what the world looks like not just when democracy is imperiled, but when it is effectively broken.
In the face of these developments, artists and cultural workers must become increasingly aware that, like at no time in recent history, culture has become a powerful political weapon—so powerful, in fact, that it decided the 2016 election. Visual art, music, and literature, among other cultural products, have historically been deployed in the U.S. not just to criticize the status quo, but also to strengthen political and economic power, from the massive gentrification scam that was Richard Florida’s narrative about creative cities in the 1980s and ‘90s to the fake news propounded by Breitbart and InfoWars today.
Of course, the idea that art and culture can be used as a weapons is not new. In modern times, its study dates at least as far back as George Orwell’s 1941 essay “The Frontiers of Art And Propaganda.” Orwell was particularly concerned with pointing out how, “in a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides, and his feelings had to find their way not only into his writing but into his judgments on literature.” For our purposes, swap out the word “literature” for “art.”
Several years into a global conflagration that Orwell says began with “Hitler and the slump,” the author of Animal Farm and 1984 asserted a simple but morally effective rule of thumb for cultural production in wartime England: It “had to become political, because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty.”
Orwell’s basic recognition about the power of art and culture deserves repeating here. There are times, he says, when art needs political causes to properly connect to others, and those periods serve to remind us that culture was not always made to serve the market or even art itself. These eras, in fact, force definitions, much like falling interest rates affect housing prices. Or, in Orwell’s own words: “propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book,” “every work of art has a meaning and a purpose,” and “our aesthetic judgments are always colored by our prejudices and beliefs.”
This is what happens when one lives in a world where “one's whole scheme of values is constantly menaced,” Orwell wrote. “In such circumstances,” he added, with impeccable judgment, “detachment is not possible.” He goes on: “You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from; you cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat.”
Currently we find ourselves in a historical period not unlike Orwell’s—one in which the subject of books, movies, and artworks can and should acquire an urgency that matches or even eclipses the way they are made. But for this to happen, artists must take a cue from America’s most vulnerable residents: its refugees. Before you get back to work at your studio or office, assume, like many of America’s most defenseless immigrants, that everything you treasure—home, family, well being your own hard-fought place in the world—can be taken away from you tomorrow.
I’m here to tell you that it can. The right to truth, stability, and freedom from fear needs fighting for now, and quick.
[This text was adapted from a talk given at the at Fashion Institute of Technology on February 27, 2017, at an event christened Make America Great Again—Like it Was a Few Weeks Ago: A Town Hall Meeting on Art and Politics]