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‘I’m afraid to be brown’

Lansing Latinos hear familiar notes at higher pitch


After a deadly shooting in El Paso targeting Mexicans, immigration crackdowns in Washington and “invasion” rhetoric from the White House, Lansing’s Latino community is “on edge” at best, in “total panic” at worst, depending on whom you talk with.

On Lansing’s north side, Maria Sotello smiled gamely from the window of her food truck, Maria’s Cuisine.

“I’ve been living here almost 19 years and it’s the first time I got this feeling,” she said. “I’m afraid to go outside. You look around and see who’s around you.”

Juan Marquez, owner of the truck, was not smiling.

“It makes me feel like one of these days, someone is just going to come with the guns and start shooting people, just like nothing, because we’re Mexicans,” he said.

As Marquez talked, an elderly woman in a shawl and a young girl in sleep pants dotted with leopards came up to the window.

“¿Cómo estás?” Marquez greeted them.

“Bien,” the woman replied.

The girl shyly approached the counter, stretched her arm up and handed Casella a 20-dollar bill. Marquez paused the unpleasant conversation until the girl left the window.

“That guy drove nine or 10 hours just to kill people,” he said. “It’s been crazy from 2016. We are living afraid.”

Lourdes Casillas, owner of Taqueria El Chaparrito down the street from the food truck, came to Lansing from Mexico 35 years ago.

“We are more aware what is going on around us,” she said. “When there’s more people, there is fear. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Sein Paul Benavides, co-organizer of the annual Latino Lugnuts Day baseball event Aug. 18, said that after the El Paso shooting, he has “lowered expectations” for this year’s attendance.

The event, now in its eighth year, drew about 500 people last year.

“Let’s face it. If you’re putting together any kind of festival, it’s going to be on a lot of people’s minds,” Benavides said. “The Lugnuts are going to talk with the Police Department to have a soft presence, obviously not overdo it.”

A longtime friend and supporter of Lansing’s immigrants, both documented and undocumented, agreed that the mood in the Latino community has changed.

“My friends are telling me, ‘I’m afraid to be brown,’” the woman said. Although she has been deeply rooted in Lansing for over 70 years, she didn’t want her name used, for fear of drawing the notice of ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“At different times, ICE has said to me, ‘How did you find out about this person? Where did you meet? How often do you see them?’” she said. “Total interrogation, on the phone.”

On top of the gun massacres and family-destroying ICE raids, Latinos are experiencing a daily degradation of simple civility. Recently, a Latino friend was shopping in the produce aisle of a “one of our big grocery stores,” the woman recalled, when an apple whizzed by his head, thrown by one of three teenagers standing nearby. Another friend was confronted in a store by an angry man for speaking Spanish.

Angela Rojas-Dedenbach, a medical interpreter who helps Lansing area Spanish speakers navigate the health care system, reported that her clients are fearful and stressed, and she’s none too calm herself. Rojas-Dedenbach left her native Chile in 1967, when she was in her early 20s.

“I felt welcome here,” she said. “I felt people were interested in my culture.”

That has changed.

“I did not feel this kind of thing until 2016. I get the bad looks in the grocery store,” she said.

Recently, she was consulting with an elderly client in the waiting room of a cardiology clinic when an irate man suddenly began to harass them for speaking Spanish.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “He said, ‘You people are an embarrassment to your race. This is America and everybody should speak English.”

The man threw his magazine on the table and stormed out of the office.

Many Latinos in Lansing reported that such incidents are happening more often since the election of Donald Trump, who frequently inveighs against “invaders,” in 2016.

“The people who hate other ethnicities, they are not afraid to show it now,” Sotella said.

Oscar Castañeda has experienced the same change.

“As an immigrant and as a person who speaks English with an accent, you get this sense of not being welcome in some spaces anymore, which is a feeling I didn’t feel before,” he said.

Castañeda works with both documented and undocumented immigrants as a member of Action of Greater Lansing, an advocacy group that protects civil rights for immigrants.

“The ones who are undocumented — they live a life of continuous, total panic,” Castañeda said. “They’re panicking every single day of their lives. They get this sense of, ‘I’m going to work and I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back.’”

Each day’s news brings a new source of anxiety. In recent days, while the El Paso shooting and Mississippi ICE raids were grabbing headlines, the feds rolled out a tangle of administrative razor wire aimed to ensnare poorer immigrants, even documented ones, who they deem likely to use some form of public assistance.

The sweeping, 100-page overhaul of the “public charge” rule announced Monday is complex and scary, even to relatively well off immigrants. Suddenly, Castañeda has to worry about his married, 28-year-old daughter, who has lived in the U.S. for 27 years and is expecting a baby in two weeks. Her husband, a recent college graduate, has a job waiting for him in Michigan, but the job doesn’t start for two months.

“Now they are totally afraid of applying for Medicaid for the birth, because they fear it might affect their future citizenship application,” Castañeda said.

The rule would also take income into account to determine whether an immigrant is likely to be declared a “public charge.” To avoid possible deportation, income would have to exceed 250 percent of the poverty line — about $64,000 for a family of four, according to The New York Times.

“That’s way above the median income in Michigan,” Castañeda said. “All this, happening in a country that was made of very poor immigrants coming to the shore. Ask any person who comes from somewhere in Europe, how their families got here 80 years ago, 100 years ago. Nobody was in the upper part of the median income.”

In the face of such a multi-pronged onslaught, Latinos are reporting new levels of anxiety, but many are also mindful that anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new.

“That type of thinking, that Latinos don’t belong here, aren’t deserving,  etc. — it’s always been there,” Benavides said. “We had it at MSU in the 1980s when we were fighting just to get a Chicano/Latino Studies Program going. It’s always been there, it’s just more prevalent now.”

For older immigrants who fought off discrimination and racism to make their way in this country, it’s a nauseating form of déjà vu. In early June, Maria Star Van Core was accosted while waiting in a long line for a water taxi in Cleveland. She is president of the Lansing area chapter of Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

“The guy came out of the taxi, walked right up to me and asked me if I had my passport,” she said. “I was the only Latina around, but it still took me off guard. It blew me away. Never in my life have I been asked that, or even questioned.”

The incident took her back to when was 15 and came to Michigan for the first time.

“They started talking about taco benders and beaners, greasers and all that,” she said. “I’m 63 now, and now that all of this is happening, it seems like the old wounds, the stuff I had buried, is coming back. It’s scary.”


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