Last Wednesday, just one day before we kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month, news broke that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had spent over half a million dollars to send two planes full of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The migrants had been duped about both their destination and the purpose of the journey; their arrival blindsided the community, which nevertheless rallied to provide food, shelter, and COVID tests to the group of 48 men, women, and children, some as young as 2 years old. This cynical act of political theater was a one-man show, whereby DeSantis—seemingly attempting to one-up another Republican sadist, Texas Governor Greg Abbott—reportedly angered former Monster-in-Chief Donald Trump, who is said to have fumed that DeSantis “stole [his] idea” for the stunt.
While my inbox and social feeds were flooded with graphics and promotions from corporations “celebrating” Hispanic heritage, it was hard not to notice that none of these entities was acknowledging, let alone publicly denouncing, DeSantis’s move. For a Latina watching the day’s events unfold, this coincidence of timing was bitterly powerful. It occurred to me that, with its silence, corporate America had wasted no time in reminding our community that—no matter what anyone says on Instagram—these months are mere illusions brought to you by companies’ departments of marketing and communications, and not expressions of their values.
I wrote last week that I have mixed feelings about designated celebration months for marginalized groups, in no small part because they enable large-scale hypocrisy. Hispanic Heritage Month, and theme months like it, allows power brokers in America—corporations, media outlets, political parties, politicians—to make public pronouncements that various communities hold value to them, perhaps as a means of preserving members’ brand loyalty or votership. Then, during the rest of the year, these corporations, media outlets, and politicians go on to treat the same marginalized communities with disdain or neglect. This year, that disconnect is clearer than ever.
DeSantis’s ploy has been likened to the Reverse Freedom Rides employed by southern segregationists during the civil-rights era, and to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s forcible relocation of political dissidents to gulags. David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England, told The Guardian this weekend that the incident marked “a mini–ethnic cleansing with genocidal precedence.” Livingstone Smith added: “As soon as you start treating human beings as undesirable problems to dump on others, you are in very dangerous territory.”
The truth is that, on a purely factual level, the Venezuelan migrants fleeing the dictatorial regime of Nicolás Maduro are not U.S. Latinos. They are not part of American “Hispanic heritage.” And yet, in ignoring that human beings have been moved around like chattel, “mainstream” America further exposes how little it truly understands Hispanic heritage in the first place. Because, although there may be differences in the exact impetus for migrating to the U.S., the shape of the journeys taken, and the exact acts of discrimination and dehumanization inflicted upon the newly arrived (or newly conquered) Latin person, there are common threads of experience.
The Hispanic American history of displacement (which is felt even when we, personally, have never moved from where we were born) and the exploitation and discrimination faced by our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all resemble parts of last week’s story. My fellow Latinos understand that the plight of last week’s Venezuelan migrants could have happened to any of our ancestors, or to us. If these Venezuelan migrants are granted asylum, one of their granddaughters could be in some version of my shoes 50 years from now.
Perhaps this is why I am equally rankled by the speculation that DeSantis could “lose some” Latino support in Florida over this stunt. From where I stand, he should be faced with Latino outrage in the streets of his state! He should be facing waves of Cubans and Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans calling for his resignation—regardless of party affiliation. Because this isn’t about immigrating the “right way” or the “wrong way”; it is about condoning a further dehumanization of human beings whose stories mirror those of so many of our forebears. To not speak out against this stunt is to condone—symbolically, at least—our grandmothers or grandfathers being tricked into boarding planes under promises of a better life, all to “own” the libs. Hungry and frightened, these individuals have become physical pawns in a game of political one-upmanship, all because they believed opportunity lived here in the U.S.
This is still relatively recent news. It’s possible that the dominant culture will surprise me. Maybe some organizations, companies, or individuals will feel they can’t, in good faith, host Latinx panels for their staff and “celebrate Latinx heroes” on social media or bundle movies with “Nuestras Voices” and not say anything about using Latin human beings as the leave-behind in a game of ding-dong ditch.
But, more than likely, I expect there will be silence. Tangling with DeSantis hasn’t been good for his opponents. I can’t imagine that there’s much inclination or appetite to denounce several popular governors for their treatment of noncitizens. As such, I leave the powers that be with this: Don’t pretend to “celebrate” our cultures as you stand by silently and watch their continued discrimination and ostracism. And don’t try to curry our favor as we watch the propaganda campaign that has kept Latinos from being seen as an integral fiber of this country—which we are—continue in front of our eyes.
P.S. I wrote this as Hurricane Fiona was gaining power over the waters of the Caribbean. It saddens me that exactly five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island is once again in the dark. This morning I heard a reporter ask, “How, after all the billions of dollars authorized by Congress after Maria, is the power grid in Puerto Rico so frail?” I urge you, critical reader, to not lean into this ridiculously wrong-headed question. It is a question that implies Congress somehow had attempted to rescue Puerto Rico when it is, directly and indirectly, Congress that ties the hands of the island in the first place. Again and again and again. Puerto Rico is in the dark because Puerto Rico is a colony. Full stop. Any other answer is a diversion and a distraction from the hard-edged truth. The right question is: How, after all these years of exploiting Puerto Rico for its land and resources, can the U.S. begin to make amends and rebuild Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans?
Please take a moment, if you can, and consider making a donation to a mutual-aid fund or local organization in Puerto Rico. Once again, it is the people on the island who really are one another’s heroes.
Some of my colleagues will be in conversation with several of today’s biggest names in business, culture, politics, and health this week at The Atlantic Festival. For a limited time, use the code TAFFRIEND for 50 percent off in-person registration. Learn more here.