Coffins and Cages

By: Samantha Ramirez- Herrera

My heart feels heavy, it feels dense like osmium.
My mind is foggy. It is yearning for sunshine, more like begging.
My spirit is lightly humming, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly.”
But this flame, this fire deep inside of me, yes, it is still alive. I refuse to let it die.
The pride I carry of who I am, who I was born into this life, the color of my skin which is brown like earth, my culture, my name, my native language that beautifully slips from my tongue… that pride, it is intact.

It’s no secret that the past 2 years, 199 days, 2 hours, 9 minutes and 28 seconds counted at the time I wrote this, have felt like a violent game of dodgeball that’s only fun for the one holding the ball while many of us do our damn best to dodge, jump, bend back, and leap incessantly while trying to catch our breath and simply exist.

Being brown, hell, being anything other than white in America right now feels more dangerous than drinking gasoline while smoking a cigarette. Everywhere I turn, people who look like me, who come from where I come from, kids who remind me of my younger self are finding their fate in coffins or cages.

You may wonder why I’m so candidly sharing these somber and real AF feelings with you when I’m supposed to be an inspiring speaker?

My answer is simply because, it’s true. It is because I am human. It is because this is the reality of so many, including students getting ready to head back to campus. For the past year I have been touring college campuses and universities, visiting members of Congress, educating corporations and people about immigration, sharing my personal journey growing up as an undocumented brown immigrant in America, becoming a DREAMer, carving a path, overcoming challenges, being a voice for my community and for others who don’t have one. All the while I have been revered as brave, as a badass, as a rebel, as an inspiration by some and on the flip side which I don’t openly share I have received the hate messages, the death threats, the not so well wishes. And while I know I am brave, and I rise and hold my head high it does not mean that this work is easy.

I remember visiting a campus last year where the student of color population was of less than 3% and the Latinx population less than 1%. I arrived at campus early to meet with some of the students prior to my keynote. We ate pizza together and I will never forget their excitement to meet me. I was shocked in a way, but soon learned that it wasn’t necessarily me they were excited to meet but instead they were thrilled to see someone who looked like them there for them, they were proud to claim me as their own, they were happy to have someone they could relate to culturally, they were yearning to hear someone share the journey of self-discovery. I realized that my story to them symbolized possibility. They shared some of their experiences on campus such as a time when someone wrote on the walls near their dorms, “BUILD A WALL.” They remembered that moment with fear and sadness. They felt a sense of not belonging. I related to those feelings because my whole life has been filled with those moments. But I also have grown and learned to be brave with my life and to own every bit of me, to love every single part of me and live boldly.

This has not been the only story I have heard from students on campuses, primarily campuses where the student of color populations are so low. I do my best to remind students that they do belong. I do my best to inspire them to spread their wings and choose to fly regardless of the weather. I do my best to be 100% honest with them about my own challenges and my story. I do my best to show up with my whole being, not only the best parts of me. I do my best to educate others who don’t come from where we come from, or who don’t have the same experiences that we have. I do my best to speak up even when my voice shakes, even when I’m scared, even when I’m not feeling my best, even when I turn on the news and all I see and hear is hate and negative narratives about people like me, people like my family, people like my parents, people like my son, people like the students I meet.

The latest mass shooting in El Paso, Texas gutted me. The kids in cages was already weighing on me, the attack on immigrants too, the constant attacks on our communities, the negative words, the microaggressions, everything was already hurting. And now I’m feeling just like I described in the first paragraph of this piece, out here working hard to change the world, building my businesses, prepping my upcoming keynotes while carrying a heart as dense as osmium.

It is these times that continue to give me courage. I won’t run and hide. It is these times where I know I must stand tall and be a lighthouse for others. It is these times that I vow to continue showing up as my full self everywhere I go. It is these times that I know I must continue to speak because I want to remind those who look like me, those who are afraid, those who feel like they don’t belong, those who are under attack that our fate doesn’t have to continue to be coffins or cages.