Who gets to be a citizen in America?
How do you tell the story of people who have been erased?
How can we learn from previous acts of resistance by immigrant communities in Philadelphia?
These are some of the questions guiding my research for the next two years as I focus on Indonesian and Southeast Asian immigration to Philadelphia. I had been looking to integrate my interests into one project that combined activism, art, storytelling, and history, and I found it in the description of the Chronicling Resistance Fellowship. Witnessing a demagogue come into power in the 2016 elections shocked me into activism, and I wanted to know what we could learn from previous acts of resistance in Philadelphia. What can we learn that we can carry with us? How have immigrant communities in the past resisted efforts to disenfranchise them, to push them out of their neighborhoods?
Migration is part of human history. My ancestors who settled in modern-day Indonesia were seafarers who left out of what is now Taiwan thousands of years ago to explore new lands, settling in islands throughout the archipelago and going even as far as Madagascar. Why do people leave their homes, extended families, and everything behind to start a new life? Why do they leave without any guarantee of finding what they’re looking for?
The “West” and America is a goal destination for so many people around the world. We hear stories of this magical free land as children growing up in dictatorships. What is the reality for the immigrants when they come here to the United States? I want to find and tell those stories—the stories of people living in the shadows, who have had their histories erased. What are their resistance stories? One day, I want people in the future to know that they were here, in Philadelphia.
And when the immigrants arrive in America, who gets to be a citizen? DACA activists in this country have everything to lose and risk deportation, but instead of staying in the shadows, they came out in the open to organize a movement to fight for immigrants’ rights and a path to citizenship. What has it been like in the past with other immigrant groups as they fought for the rights to citizenship?
In the last four years, we have seen immigrants being used as scapegoats, which is not something new, as we have seen in the Chinese Exclusion Act. What have we learned since then?
I checked out a book from the Parkway library right before the stay at home order last March, and a passage from it has been in my mind since then. On the first page of This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Suketu Mehta tells a story about his grandfather sitting in a park in suburban London:
An elderly British man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. “Why are you here,” the man demanded. “Why are you in my country?”
“Because we are the creditors,” responded my grandfather who was born in India, worked all his life in colonial Kenya, now retired in London. “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.
We are here, because you were there.
What has caused the displacement? What is the link between Southeast Asian immigration and American activities in our home countries? Of American colonialism abroad?
It wasn’t until the last few years that I understood the role of the United States in the 1965 mass killings and coup in Indonesia, after watching the documentary The Act of Killing. It’s still unclear the exact number of people who perished in the years following— estimates range from 500,000 to 1,000,000—yet I did not learn this as a child growing up in Indonesia. The propaganda movie we watched as children told a different story. How many people’s histories were being erased and then re-written to be packaged into propaganda movies that could then be shown to children? I think about the rise of authoritarian regimes and wonder about the “regular people” witnessing the transition from one system to another. What did they do? Did they realize what was happening? What if it happens here?
I’m feeling the urgency of doing this work especially with the attempted coup incited by a sitting US President that happened last week at the Capitol. This is a critical moment in the history of America. The concept of the America that immigrants have believed in for so long has eroded in the last four years, and the future of it is still uncertain. What does it mean for immigrants from countries that have experienced this kind of unrest to watch a version of it unfold in America?
I have a feeling that as I embark on this research as a Fellow, I will come up with more questions than answers, that it will lead me to places I didn’t expect to, but I’m looking forward to the journey, of exploring our histories, so we can take these stories into our future.