By Jasmine Moawad-Barrientos
A new survey out this week says that one in ten Latinos face discrimination in America today. But I don’t need a statistic to tell me what I experience nearly every single day.
I am Muslim. I am Latina. And I am a woman. Each of these identities has shaped who I am – and also placed institutional and social limits on who I can become. I left South American for Virginia when I was 18 years-old. More than two decades later, I’m proud to be call Virginia my home – both my citizenship paperwork and in my heart. But despite Virginia’s iconic slogan, Virginia is not just for lovers. In fact, my beloved state is home to plenty of haters.
These “haters” did not wake up on November 8, 2016 and suddenly decide to start discriminating against Latinos and other minority groups. America has a long history of oppression and racial violence – and progress towards alleviating past injustices has been slow at best. But in the past year, Donald Trump and his backers have empowered racists, xenophobes and white supremacists to come out of the shadows. He’s given them license to march down the streets of Charlottesville, brandishing torches, yelling hate-filled slogans. He’s given them a platform to vilify people of color and immigrants, and he’s used the power of his office to separate children from their parents and deprive young people of a path to citizenship in the only country they have ever called home.
But the threats aren’t just in the White House, they’re here at home. The hateful lies and rhetoric in Washington have made their way to Virginia, where Republican candidate Ed Gillespie has echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and white supremacist impulses. The gubernatorial candidate’s latest ad campaign – linking immigrants to gang violence – is a deliberate effort to demonize immigrants to score political points with his extremist supporters. For me, these attacks are not only morally offensive, but also deeply personal.
English is not my first language, and my accent is a dead giveaway that I was not raised in this country. Perfecting my English vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar has been a long journey – and often a source of deep-seated anxiety. For example, just a few weeks ago, I gave a speech for United We Dream, advocating for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and their families. A group of white supremacist came on their bikes and one of them said that he could not understand me, heckled me and kept interrupting me to ask me where I was from and to say immigrants are criminals.
I would like to run for office one day and this experience made me realize that is not going to be easy, but definitely not impossible. Situations like these make me a stronger defender of everyone’s rights. And by everyone, I mean everyone.
As much as these haters would like to silence my voice – and the voices of thousands of immigrants across the Commonwealth – we must speak up louder than ever before. Because defending our rights and values starts with electing the right leaders. We have to take our struggle to the voting booth and elect leaders like Ralph Northam, Mark Herring and Justin Fairfax, who will stand firmly on the right side of history. These candidates will fight for a more inclusive Virginia and create opportunities for everyone – no matter your religion, ethnicity or country of origin.
Despite what we’ve endured this year, I still believe Virginia is for lovers. This Tuesday, let’s make sure it stays that way.
Jasmine Moawad-Barrientos is lawyer, civil rights advocate and a Virginia-based communications fellow for the Center for Community Change Action.