Viewpoints

Deciding who belongs in America and who doesn’t

Special to The Bee

My family did not belong in America. That was the reality of my personal family history. My grandparents legally immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s.

The fields of California needed strong backs and my family was hungry for work and a new beginning. But America only wanted their hands to harvest the crops. They could not buy a farm; the Alien Land Laws specifically barred Asians from ownership. Without land, planting roots became a challenge. They were not welcomed.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my family was rounded up and imprisoned because they looked like the enemy, exiled to desolate prison camps in remote areas. My parents were American citizens by birth, yet they were told to go “home,” back to Japan, a country they never visited. They were treated as if they did not belong here.

Our new president questions some people’s right to belong. Sadly, people impacted the most are often invisible, hidden precisely because they do not feel like they belong. Immigrants and children of immigrants. Those believing in a different religion. Those who wear a different face. Those who speak a different language.

Belonging is personal. You feel like you belong. You develop a sensibility, staying in places you know you are welcomed. With belonging comes belief that you have a right to be here.

Belonging also is political. Not belonging has been legislated. America has a long and terrible legacy of “dis-belonging” groups: Native Americans, black slaves, immigrant scapegoating, non-Christians. All have been denied their rights at different times, told they did not belong here.

Belonging is emotional. Narratives are being built that isolate and ostracize. Negative experiences quickly undermine our sensibility. We stop trusting each other. Victims blame themselves. They hide and slip into the shadows, wanting to become invisible.

Our Valley lies in the middle of this national debate. We are filled with a broad spectrum of diverse peoples, cultures and religions. We have immigrants who are documented and undocumented. We have a history of exploiting new arrivals as cheap labor for our agricultural industry, yet many immigrants have planted roots figuratively and literally as family farms thrive and second, third, and fourth generations became hyphenated Americans.

Who should work our fields and grow the food that feeds many? What hands does a nation need to process, transport, prepare and serve our food? The solution to this debate may begin in our own conversations and exchanges as we answer the basic issue of who determines the plight of marginalized communities.

I think of the good neighbors who helped my family. They offered my grandparents a job and gave them shelter. Right before departing for the trains to the internment camps, one farmer let our homeless family spend a week in a barn. It wasn’t much but it meant a lot. I know of a few good people who took care of farms and property for the interned Japanese Americans.

What we forget is that those acts of courage were preceded by many discussions. I can imagine the debates within a community, arguments about helping those people. One of these good neighbors told me: “There was a lot of back talk and I was called a ‘Jap lover.’ But it didn’t stop me. It was doing the right thing.”

My grandparents and parents hid their personal baggage of “not belonging.” They rarely spoke of their pain. I was sheltered. But history catches up, hidden in the unspoken stories was a shame that manifested itself in silence. It’s a silence I inherited and a burden I carry.

Stories can break this silence. Stopping to listen can bridge differences. As we learn the narrative of others, we can hear and feel their sense of “dis-belonging.” We too can move beyond the political and into the personal. We are a nation of stories that bind and connect. When we learn the stories of others, we can no longer hate.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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