I didn’t plan to talk with my mother about fear. We were in her kitchen in South Florida. It was early in the evening. The sunlight came in through the venetian blinds at slanted angles, casting a golden hue on the counter and the sink and the floor littered with crumbs from the pastries my father likes so much. Sitting on a kitchen stool, I began telling my mother about the essay I was editing for the newsmagazine. The essay was in English; I spoke to my mother in Spanish.
“The writer’s parents brought him over from Mexico when he was a child, and he used to be so afraid all the time of immigration. Imagine. And now it’s years later. He’s got a PhD, and he’s married. He’s a great dad. He got his papers.” I paused, lifting my chin. “But the fear is still there. It’s like the fear doesn’t leave you.”
Leaning against the counter, my mother nodded. I sighed. My mother had always been a quiet woman, and now that she was in her late sixties, nothing had changed. Our conversations still often went like this, with me as her fast-talking, firstborn American child marveling over the intersection of politics and personal narratives, and she nodding in silence.
But this time my mother looked away from me, whispering, “Es terrible ese miedo.” It’s a terrible fear.
Her words startled me. Or maybe it wasn’t her words but the quality of her voice. She spoke as if she were addressing herself, as if she were reminding herself that yes, it is a terrible fear to wake up and not know if you would return home that night. She was saying, Your friend is right. That fear doesn’t leave. It turns into a second skin.
I was in my mid-thirties. I had written several essays about my mother. But this sentence of hers—it’s terrible, that fear—ungrounded me. When I called my sister that night, I didn’t say hello. Instead, I blurted, “Did you realize Mami was undocumented? That she had been undocumented?”
“I guess so,” my sister said, dragging out each word. “Didn’t she have some papers?”
“She didn’t. But you never thought about it like that, right? You never thought: Mami was undocumented.”
“No,” she admitted.
We had both heard my mother’s stories as she had told them in fragments over the years. She had come from Colombia in the 1970s. A friend had invited her. She had a tourist visa. She started working right away. (My sister and I were children. We didn’t know tourists couldn’t work.) Mami met my father. He was Cuban. He wanted to marry her. He applied for citizenship. She had to be out of the country but not all the way back to South America. They drove to Canada. She was pregnant with me.
My sister and I fell into silence that evening because, although by then we were both politically active, we had never used the words “undocumented” or “sin papeles” to talk about our mother, our aunties, our uncles. When we read the news and saw the stiff phrase “mixed citizenship status,” we thought it described other families. But here was the truth: In the ’70s and ’80s, we had been that family. My father had been eligible for citizenship because Cuban exiles were seen as allies in the Cold War. My mother had become a citizen in the late ’70s by marrying him, and she eventually sponsored two sisters. My favorite uncle, who died before I could ask, was probably one of the three million undocumented immigrants who became citizens under the 1986 amnesty program passed by Congress.
By the late ’90s, I had finished college, and—without my knowing it—my mother and her sisters had finally become citizens. Except it was a citizenship that came with miedo, or fear, which makes me think now, in a sense, it was not a full citizenship. The fear my friend wrote about in his essay was my mother’s fear as well.
I consider fear and right speech to be two sides of the same proverbial coin. Right speech is mostly talked about in terms of abstinence: Don’t lie. Don’t slander. Don’t insult. Don’t gossip. Usually the connection to fear is that we stray from right speech when we are afraid. We don’t feel good enough, so we lie. Or we share private information to bolster ourselves in the conversation. We lash out with abusive words out of fear that if we don’t we will be hurt again. But I think of fear and right speech as being intimate in other ways, and maybe that is because I came to Buddhism at the same time as I was discovering the essays of the black feminist poet Audre Lorde. She wrote a lot about language and the power that speech can have in creating communities. She wrote about the erotic, the power and the failures of feminism, about motherhood and lesbianness. She died the year I turned 17. Her book Sister Outsider felt as if it had been written for me and the girls I’d grown up with.
In one speech from 1977, Lorde described how only months before, doctors had suspected that she had breast cancer. The fear of dying, “the final silence,” she wrote, was acute, and she took two actions at the same time. First, she turned inward. “Of what had I ever been afraid?” she wondered. Lorde saw the emptiness of fear, the delusion of believing she could avoid pain. She realized she had tried to negotiate with fear. She had stayed silent. She had waited for others to speak. She had told herself: I’ll speak next time.
The second action Lorde took was to reach for community. “The women who sustained me through that period were black and white, young and old, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence.” The tyrannies were many and included the silence around having breast cancer. Lorde recognized that her fear, while it had to be faced and felt in a personal way, did not happen in isolation. Others were afraid, too, and silent. Others struggled with when to speak and what to say. “What are the words you do not yet have?” Lorde asks in her speech. “What do you need to say?”
So while Buddhist teachers were instructing me about noble silence, Audre Lorde was teaching me and an entire generation of young feminists in the 1990s to speak about our fears. “Your silence will not protect you,” she had declared in her famous 1977 speech, and 20 years later, I agreed.
I didn’t see any contradiction between what Lorde was saying and the Buddha’s teachings. Or perhaps I did, but I knew there was more to it. I had grown up between Latin American immigrants and folks born in the United States, and between a home of factory workers and a high school steeped in middle-class habits. I knew that contradictions were usually someone else’s illusion. All I had to do was find the bridge—or better yet, find the cliff from which to leap between situations that appeared as opposites.
In this case, with fear, I found that right speech was that bridge, that cliff, that connection.
In his book The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering, Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that right speech has two aspects. “The negative side is abstaining from lying, the positive side speaking the truth,” he writes, and he goes on to discuss the critical place that speech has in our spiritual lives and in community. “To realize truth our whole being has to be brought into accord with actuality, with things as they are, which requires that in communications with others we respect things as they are by speaking the truth.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi describes this as “truthful speech,” which is how I think of the writer’s essay I was telling my mother about, the essay about fear and being undocumented. The essay described “things as they are,” and they were things that for my mother and me had gone unspoken. Truthful, or right, speech connected my mother to her fears that day in her kitchen, and it also connected me to her and to a part of my childhood I had never seen before.
I am being truthful, then I have to say that right speech and fear are tangled up in my life.
Don’t lie. Don’t slander. Don’t insult. Don’t gossip.
My mother lied in the ’70s when she applied for a tourist visa. So did three of my aunties and an uncle. They were afraid that if they told the truth—I need work, I need to see a doctor—the answer would have been no. Actually that was not only a fear. It was federal law.
Truthful speech: what bruises is that laws are arbitrary and often the whims of those in power who are themselves ordinary people holding on to what they think they want. The only reason my father didn’t lie about his citizenship was that he was coming from Cuba, and in the 1960s America was welcoming anyone who hated Communism, even a young immigrant like Papi with a third-grade education.
Truthful speech: I was afraid to write this essay, even though everyone tells me that my mother’s citizenship can never be revoked.
Truthful speech: In my work as a journalist, I have not written about a new study showing the prevalence of a particular infectious disease among immigrants in the United States, because I think my words could hurt more than help. Last year, I met a fellow journalist who had been reporting on Syrian refugees in Europe, and she told me that aid workers there didn’t want to talk about any medical issue that might make a refugee sound less than perfect.
Truthful speech: Some days I believe I am being silent at a terrible cost, and other days I think silence is the best option of many bad ones. Still other days I find myself thinking, things will turn around. But then I read what the poet Claudia Ranke said about Citizen, her much-lauded book on racism and police brutality. “I wrote it because I thought, what the fuck? What are we doing? What are we doing?”
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I stopped watching cable news, because nothing felt truthful. Refraining from that kind of speech felt wise. I didn’t talk to my father, who had voted for Trump. I fast-forwarded through podcasts when air time was given to the newly elected president or his supporters.
I did write about the new political climate for two blogs, because I was asked, and I hoped that what I wrote was right and truthful. I hope what I said into a bullhorn at a political rally in downtown Cincinnati was also truthful, and I know that the sign I carried to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.— “Make America Brown Again”—might not have been right speech. It was angry and sarcastic speech born from the fear of seeing my country elect a man with a white nationalist agenda. I also know that a number of women photographed my sign that day. It might not have been right speech by the usual standards, but my sign articulated a collective despair, which makes me think there was something about it that was right.
These days, I am learning in a new way how it is critical for me to work with fear not only for my spiritual life but also because it is absolutely necessary for being in community with others. Recently, in New Mexico, a college student told me about her auntie. “She’s been deported again.” In Ohio, I met two young people, one Latino, one African American, who considered taking or tried to take their own lives. In Maryland, a pregnant woman from El Salvador who had received refugee status told me how she had watched the map go red on election night. “Rojo, rojo,” she kept repeating to me, as if the color red scraped against her skin, or as if in using that one word she could control the fear she felt.
With each person, I listened carefully, staying aware of my own jagged breathing, my belly clenching, my heart racing and slowing and then racing again. Being mindful of fear and my mind’s reaction to fear makes it feasible for me to draw closer to people as they share their stories with me. It helps me to listen. It makes right speech, truthful speech, imaginable, then possible.
The reason my mother and I were able to talk about her fears and her history of being undocumented was because of one writer’s essay. He, in turn, had written that essay because the activism of undocumented college students had made him reflect on the ways in which fear and silence had shaped his life. Now activists are warning all of us to not urge anyone who is undocumented to come out about their status. It is a decision that could be dangerous, that could lead to deportation. It is a decision each person who is undocumented has to make in the light of their circumstances, of their families, their communities, their own hearts.
Fear, I now think, requires truthful speech. It demands bringing one’s whole being into connection with things as they are. This is how things are today: I am the daughter of an undocumented woman, and my byline has appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The writer whose essay I have been discussing is Alberto Ledesma; his first book—a blend of comic book, memoir, and cultural criticism—is titled Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer and is being published this year by Ohio State University Press. The woman I mentioned who kept repeating the word “red” gave birth this year to a boy in Maryland, a few miles from the White House.