Sophi’s choice is America’s shame

3-year old Sophi

From a story on NPR:

At a Border Patrol holding facility in El Paso, Texas, an agent told a Honduran family that one parent would be sent to Mexico while the other parent and their three children could stay in the United States, according to the family. The agent turned to the couple’s youngest daughter — 3-year-old Sofia, whom they call Sofi — and asked her to make a choice.

The choice the little girl was asked to make was whether she wanted to go with her father, to Mexico, or stay with her mother and her siblings, in the US. If this sounds eerily familiar, you may be thinking of the film starring Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to make a horrendous decision about her family, namely to decide which of her two children will live and which will die.

How can it be that in the US we are tearing families apart? And that we are asking a 3-year old, likely already bewildered by her journey and the strange new culture and language, to make such a choice? The Honduran family’s dilemma is a result of the US government policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” — also known as “remain in Mexico” — which requires Central American migrants to wait in northern Mexico while their immigration cases are handled by U.S. courts.

Sofi’s family was trying to migrate to the US because the violence in Honduras was coming very close to the family; her grandmother was killed by the gang MS-13, a murder that Sofi’s mom witnessed. Sophi’s aunt was also a witness and was later kidnapped, tortured and slain to keep her from testifying against the gang. The gang then posted a note on the family’s door telling them they had 45 minutes to leave. That’s when the family decided to flee. Added to the very real threat of violence, little Sophi has a heart condition. A US doctor examined Sophi and pronounced her condition as serious. With the help of the doctor, the Department of Homeland Security was convinced to allow the family to stay together for now. Whether they are eventually granted asylum in the US is uncertain.

BTW, Sophi elected to stay with her mother, but she and her brother and sister wailed when their Dad was led away and clung to him to try to prevent the agents separating the family.

Contrasting views

I am writing this from Brno, Czech Republic, where I have been attending a conference on intercultural communication. There are attendees from all over, but more from Asia than from Europe or North America. The theme of the conference is “East / West: New Divisions, New Connections and Populist Political Reality”. Many Western speakers (UK, USA, Europe) have highlighted (and bemoaned) the populist political atmosphere in many countries, which encourages suspicion of immigrants/foreigners and celebration of nationalist views. In the process, they often critique their national governments, especially the xenophobic rhetoric from Donald Trump’s White House. On the other hand, the Chinese colleagues (not those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau) have highlighted in their talks a Chinese government development which I have not connected with intercultural communication: the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The project involves Chinese companies working with local authorities on infrastructure projects. In the West, it has been controversial due to insensitivity to local cultural conditions and to debt-trap diplomacy.

Another controversial issue that arouse at the conference was the social responsibility of teachers, especially university professors, to speak out publicly about issues that might be viewed as political such as social justice or income inequality. Some colleagues pointed out that in some countries doing so might lead to those speaking out losing their jobs, or even going to jail. Others pointed out that just because of that fact, those of us in countries where it is (relatively) safe to speak out should do so. From that perspective, it may be that for those working in the area of intercultural communication might think about adding to the traditional components of intercultural competence, i.e. skills, knowledge, attitude, a fourth element: action. That would translate into encouraging students to take action to promote intercultural communication, which could involve political engagement, such as working to elect leaders who support tolerance and diversity. If we have that expectation for our students, that translates into teachers doing the same.

Monuments contextualized

The American Civil War Center

A new museum has opened up recently here in Richmond, Virginia, namely the American Civil War Museum, located in the former Tredegar Iron Works, along the James River. The new institution is a merger of two museums: the long-standing Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The museum is striking, dug into the Tredegar hillside, with a glass curtain as an entrance.  Upon entering, visitors pass through ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works before reaching the museum proper. The take on the Civil War is equally striking. Rather than serving as a shrine to the Confederacy, as one might expect in the city that served as the capital of that break-away entity, the museum strives to tell a balanced and broad history, one that includes narratives from the variety of participants: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, women and children, enslaved and free African-Americans. There is no attempt to provide a single perspective, but rather to mirror the diversity of experiences. According to the architect responsible, Damon Pearson, that idea is built into the building design: “The exhibits themselves are meant to be fragmented. We tried to reinforce that with the architecture. You’re meant to see this event from as many different viewpoints as possible. And you’re seeing all of them simultaneously” (interview in the Richmond Times Dispatch).

One of the crucial aspects of the museum artifacts is that they are shown and documented in context, with rich information on their provenance and on the people involved. That’s in contrast to the famous (or infamous) Confederate statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond (of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate war heroes), which are shown larger-than-life, sitting defiantly on their horses, inviting the admiration of viewers who must assume, given the statues’ size and prominence (on a famous avenue), that these were indeed great historical figures. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, as these were the men fighting to maintain slavery, the real issue of the Civil War, as the new museum makes clear. What particularly is missing in viewing the Monument Avenue statues in their current stand-alone status (a small name plaque provides basic info), is the fact that they were built during the Jim Crow era, as a manifestation of the belief in the Confederate “lost cause” narrative, i.e. that the Confederacy was a just cause and that the South was in its rights to secede (and to maintain slavery). In other words, the statues are a monument to white supremacy. Without the historical context, that is not immediately evident. Monuments have such a profound influence on the narratives that shape personal and group identities that we need to have as much historical context as possible to provide story lines that accord with historical reality.

One of the ways that context could be provided in viewing historical or culturally significant sites would be to use mobile technology through augmented reality. A mobile app could provide an overlay of information when a viewer points a mobile phone at a statue or other artifact. That is being done today often for tourists with apps such as wikitude, which uses image recognition technologies that allow for viewed images (through the phone’s camera) to trigger the display of localized information. That approach is being used today in Miami to provide context about climate change to murals in the Wynwood district of the city, famous for its many murals.

That might offer as well be an option in the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the horrific fire last month. There have been a variety of fanciful suggestions for re-imagining the roof and spire of the Cathedral. However, the French Senate recently passed a resolution to rebuild the Cathedral the way it was, to the extent possible. The creative re-workings of the Cathedral, if not present in reality, could be available virtually through an augmented reality overlay. That could include not only striking visualizations of Notre Dame’s roof (the spire as a beacon into space) but also historical info, such as the role of Victor Hugo’s novel (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in exerting public pressure to preserve the valuable cultural heritage the Cathedral represents.