When Did I Become “Them”?

Photo: Stefanie Vinsel.
Azie Tesfai is an entrepreneur and actor currently starring in Jane The Virgin. The views expressed here are her own. Labels come with my job. Even though I don’t like it, I have grown to bear it: the need to categorize myself to make it easier to be identified for a role. It sucks — a lot — but as an actor, you move on. "Actor," "entrepreneur," and "daughter" are labels that I identify with, and am proud to be called. There are also other labels that I grit my teeth and tolerate. But lately, the labels that have spurred a newfound fury deep in my soul are "us" and "them." There is a wave of xenophobia being cloaked as patriotism that has run rampant since the beginning of this election cycle. It is fervent rhetoric spread via fear-based political tactics that paint a portrait of the immigrant as the enemy, an enemy who takes jobs away from Americans. The message is loud and clear: Immigrants — "them" are bad for Americans, "us."

Lately, the labels that have spurred a newfound fury deep in my soul are 'us' and 'them.'

As a first-generation woman born to immigrant parents, my experience is that most immigrants don’t talk about the dark points of our history. Immigrants, including my parents, don't discuss our place in America, or what it's like trying to balance living between two cultures. We don't speak about the labels that divide us just so that other people can “understand” us better. We rarely talk about these things within our families, and hardly ever make this conversation part of the public discourse. We were taught to keep our stories private for fear of judgement. When I discussed writing this article with my mother, it was sensitive and difficult. She immediately voiced concerns about what could and couldn’t be shared. I quickly realized her feelings were rooted in fear that can be traced back to the experience of living through an oppressive dictatorship and war. This desire not to share publicly is both the root cause and the symptom of a strained political environment. It is just as much used as a powerful tool by one group as it is an insidious defense mechanism by the other.

Why is my mom being being labeled with the most intolerant, divisive rhetoric I have heard in my lifetime? When did she become “them”?

I’ve always felt protective of my mom and family, and have not wanted to discuss anything publicly that would force them into the discussion. But my mom understands that hearing the perpetuation of this tale of us versus them breaks my heart. She said that if it could possibly open one person’s mind, I should go for it. So I will. As a first-generation American, I've always felt it was my responsibility to live the American dream while simultaneously defending my parents’ legacy and traditions. I also believe that first generation kids — like myself — are uniquely positioned to comment from a perspective of divergent cultural identity. More and more, we are becoming the majority rather than the minority. But where do first-generation Americans like me fall in this "us versus them" narrative? Where does that put those of us who identify as strongly with being American as with our parents’ culture? How are "us" and "them" defined for those like myself? It is by culture? By skin color? Which immigrants are deemed fit to live in the United States under these rules? It is this blatant division of villains and victims that breeds prejudices and misconceptions.
Photo: Stefanie Vinsel.
This election cycle has given immigrants one of three labels: They are criminals, workers taking jobs from Americans, or people that do the work no one else wants to do. This baffles me because this is not the reality I grew up with. My mother came to this country on a nursing scholarship. Although thousands of women applied, only three were selected. My mother came in fourth. But a week before the three winners were set to leave, one of them found out that she was pregnant and was disqualified. This is how my mother was fortuitously able to come to the United States. After her arrival, my mom transitioned from nurse to ultimately running numerous mental health facilities across the U.S. For 15 years, she employed hundreds of people and provided mental health care for thousands of others during an era when the subject was taboo. My mother also inspired my other family members who have immigrated to the U.S. to open medical practices or meaningful businesses that positively contribute to the country as a whole. I myself took cues from her when I started my own company, Fortuned Culture, a global accessories line that supports charities that empower underserved women and children across the world. This is what makes this country great: innovative and meaningful contributions on various levels, many of them made by immigrants.

I will stand against anyone who dares to threaten individuals just because they were born across a border or ocean.

So why is my mom being being labeled with the most intolerant, divisive rhetoric I have heard in my lifetime? When did she become “them”? And does that make me “us,” because I was born in America? At least once a week I’m asked: "Where are you from?" After responding, "Los Angeles," I get:
"…but, where are you FROM?" "I’m Eritrean," I say and, after a puzzled look, proceed to explain that it’s a small country just northeast of Ethiopia, and west of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The next line is either, "Ah, I guess you DO look like a mix of African and Arab," or “So do you speak Arabic?” as they struggle to categorize me into one stereotype or the other.
Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty Images.
I share this experience because I understand that we all make cultural judgments. I wouldn’t be truthful if I were to say I haven’t used this ambiguity to my advantage. I have had the honor of playing characters that are American, African, Arab, Latina, and of mixed race. Two of my most recent roles were Nadine Hansan — a talented detective from Miami on CW’s Jane the Virgin — and Dr. Michelle Marrs, a conservative Muslim doctor in Brian Michael Bendis’ TV interpretation of his comic book Powers. But while we have all made cultural assumptions in our lives, combining stereotyping with fear (and the permission to act on that fear) breeds a very dangerous division with violent repercussions. This is where it becomes alarming. This is where we find ourselves today. As an American and a daughter of immigrants, I can not allow my family to be judged this way. I will stand against anyone who dares to threaten individuals just because they were born across a border or ocean. Our voices are heard louder than our parents', so it’s time to speak up. We cannot stay silent anymore. Please get out and vote as if your own mother’s life depends on it. Because some of our mothers' lives do.

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