A Gang of Witnesses

(Post by Jason Tseng. Picture by Anna Rahn of multiple BREATHE FREE rehearsals.)

I wasn’t planning on getting my hands dirty.

When I was asked to join the planning committee for Flux’s Food:Soul – BREATHE FREE event, I soon learned that the day of the event I would be out of town on a business trip. I reasoned that since I couldn’t be there to guarantee my work product, I would simply provide logistical support. Gus encouraged me to write something, but… I’m not an immigrant. Sure my family is. But they came over way back in the 1800s for the railroads. That’s pretty much as American an Asian American can get. This isn’t really my story, someone else should tell theirs.

Then I met Rafael (not his real name).

I had heard the broad strokes of Rafael’s story through the grapevine–undocumented latino young man, detained by I.C.E., freed through collective action, now an active and radical activist against the deportation system. It’s the kind of story you read about in the paper. I was expecting to meet a man shrouded with a halo of self-sacrifice. I was expecting something akin to how one imagines Ghandi or Mandela or MLK or someone similarly grand.

I wasn’t prepared for how normal Rafael would be. He doesn’t walk around with the weight of the world on his shoulders, despite the atrocities and injustice he’s experienced–he was falsely accused of a violent crime by the NYPD (the charges were dismissed), imprisoned for a year and a half, held in an I.C.E. detention facility, and nearly deported. Hearing him tell his story, it shocked me how many times the criminal justice and immigration “systems” had utterly failed him. And yet, hearing Rafael speak, he was almost eerily dispassionate. It was as if he was telling someone else’s story. Like he heard it second hand.

But maybe that’s what it’s like to experience that kind of injustice. The kind of injustice that is so boldly immoral that it sends shivers down your spine to even consider it. Maybe it’s easier to separate it from your real life, your normal life. That even when these atrocities happen to us, they become abstracted and compartmentalized. Our own stories become like the stories we hear about in the news.

After meeting Rafael and hearing his story, I felt an enormous obligation to share it–to do justice by it. But more than anything else, I wanted people to understand that Rafael isn’t a capital H, Hero. At least not in the Greek sense.

But that’s the beauty of it all. Rafael isn’t superhuman. He’s exceedingly human in the best ways possible. He’s an ordinary person who has helped create extraordinary change. If Rafael can speak truth to power, so can I… and so can you.

A Gang of Witnesses is written by Jason Tseng for Food:Soul—BREATHE FREE,  and is directed by August Schulenburg, featuring Nicole Betancourt, Emily Hartford, Chester Poon, & Jane Lincoln Taylor. Additional development support from Anna Rahn. 

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