By Jorge Castorena, Executive Editor
I was 7 years old and a new, non-English-speaking immigrant on September 11, 2001.
The story goes much like the way most in our generation recall it – we were little, at school, too naïve and too young to understand the weight of what took place that day. But in my case, I couldn’t even understand English.
In truth, we had already lived in the U.S. for a year by that point…technically. I was born in the town of Juarez, a border town. But in 2000, we moved just across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, which most of the time seems like an extension of Juarez: the two cities are separated only by a nearly-dried up river and the population of Juarez has overflowed so much into El Paso that to see any other ethnicities – yes, even white American – is rare.
At that time, going back and forth (legally, of course) between the two cities was fairly easy and painless, and everyone did so frequently. So nothing was alien about El Paso; no, not even school as the entirety of my first grade experience there was in Spanish.
Thus, I don’t feel we truly immigrated until very-late August 2001 when we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, a town that, back then, lacked the significant Latino population it now boasts. Everything was alien and we truly, for once, felt like we were in a foreign land as foreign people, far away from anything and anyone associated with what we called home.
America was now home. It had to be anyway because there was no sign of moving back to Juarez (I would have settled for El Paso), even though my mother just two weeks after leaving everything familiar watched the news coverage that day in our new apartment – lonely, horrified and fearfully thinking, “We need to go back. We have to go home.”
It was a tragic welcome. What was more shocking? That the more perfect union that promised domestic tranquility, ever securing the blessings of liberty was brought to her knees in a matter of hours, or that the whole world watched it happen? Or perhaps you’re most moved by how America proved her strength that day, how in the face of adversity if for just this one, single day in recent memory, the United States of America – 300 million souls, my family included – were, in effect, united.
That day defined this nation, we know that. And my recently-immigrated family joined these millions in wondering, except perhaps for us it was for the first time, what it meant to be an American. Could we commit to it?
At that time, I think being an American meant being able to get back up, to stand united and to rebuild at the face of something meant to divide and destroy. America was one. Truly, one nation, under God, indivisible, able to overcome all evils.
So it was promised that it would never happen again. That America would be safe, always united. That we would make the world a better place. We went to go fight, for revenge or justice or peace or against terrorism, was it?
And what happened? What defines us today? Many could endlessly argue the pros and cons of our interactions with the Middle East and the world since 9/11. According to a survey by the University of Washington in Seattle, half a million people died as a result of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, I read an article on CNN that blamed the U.S. for ISIS, and Vladimir Putin blames the West for Europe’s immigration crisis, involving more than 350,000 refugees in 2015 alone, according to the United Nations. And then I hear conversations from presidential hopefuls about building walls along borders, and a real-estate/casino mogul thinks he can be president because that’s how divided we are. Now we fear domestic terrorism as a bigger threat to homeland security, more than anything else. Where have the last 14 years gone? Is this a better country? Are we living in a better world?
I recall a country that welcomed me and spoke of peace and justice and united we stand, divided we fall, with a goal to shape a better, safer world. On 9/11 every year I remember how much I love this country. Perhaps I didn’t realize it then, but in retrospect, I, too, was defined. I am indebted to this nation because it took me in and nurtured me, raised me and taught me English so that I could understand the goings-on around me. She did this at a trying time in her history and when she had every reason to mistrust non-Americans.
For all the tragedy of 9/11, greatness was defined in America that day, and I’m proud that I measure the length of my Americaness by that date. Today, I think of the 2,977 who lost their lives, and I hope that we remember who they were and what their deaths reminded us of back then – who we are: America the beautiful, a beacon of hope and greatness and liberty and justice for all.