The power of enunciation

We
had just landed in Edinburgh, and customs was half empty. The woman at the
counter checked Daan’s ID and discarded it quickly, then took a look at my
passport and started with the usual questions. She was surprisingly kind, “how
long are you going to stay here? Are you a couple?  What’s the reason for your visit? We gave the
standardized answers and then THAT question came up: what are you going to do
after December when you finish your Masters?
I looked at Daan and before he could say anything I quickly said: well
you know I could extend my visa but most likely I will return to Mexico ( I
made emphasis on the most likely)  She
Stamped my passport and we were free to go.

With
that stamp I was labeled as “non-threatening,” even though both my visa and my
passport were about to expire in a few months and The Mexican Central Bank had
made it clear they had deposited my last paycheck several months ago. However,
she did not bother to ask about my finances. Other factors had influenced the
woman’s decision to let us enter Scotland: I was a white graduate student in
the company of a Dutch white man, Mexican, but “highly educated”. My social
location in that specific moment greatly influenced my newly acquired label.
Daan was surprised; he had never experienced an interrogation like that. I
laughed and told him “this was nothing, she was extremely kind.” Labels
surround us influencing both our life experiences and delimiting our
opportunities.

Now
that we live in a world that is so afraid of words, is very ironic how quickly
we use labels. Muslim, religious extremist, feminist, blacks, refugee, Syrian,
terrorist…these words keep appearing on news and conversations. Jokes and threats
are made under said labels with a specific purpose whether we want to admit it
or not. Discourse is, after all, a
project.
I was working on this piece thinking of how should I address this
issue, how to remind people that we need to go back to basics, to our words
before our actions. And then Paris happened. Drawings, hashtags, flowers, hate
speeches, support messages all was there, on the internet. And I thought, “We
live in a world of words”.

Our so-called activism, our solidarity, and
our anger are now expressed through social media, with words. But who is talking through them?

I
did not learn what “Muslim” means just by hearing it; someone told me what the
term entailed.  Someone or something
helped me link that word to violence, oppression, primitive values, terrorism
and death. Who talks through me?

I
do not attempt to play a blaming game. There is enough of that already. I
attempt to display the power of enunciation. Every word we say portrays a historical struggle and subjugation that
is perpetuated every time we underestimate their power
. Calling someone
refugee, immigrant, Latin, African etc., brings a series of implications we are
not entirely aware of.

Our speech either maintains
a structure of oppression or breaks it.

We
need to take the responsibility of our words and acknowledge who is talking
through us, who has influenced our perception and understanding of these
labels. Why did we address this person in this manner?  But most of all how does this label impact
their lives?

I
still struggle with this, I still find myself using labels without thinking. I
classify people by their gender, their race, and their class. I provide an
explanation of their behavior based on this. Stating that they are embedded in
this structure of oppression, “they don’t know better” I say. But the truth is
they do, and us as well. We live in a world of binaries and dichotomies to make
sense of all the violence we need to confront. Labels rule the world and the
specific combination of them greatly determine our imaginary, and overall our
future. Is not the same to be a white Mexican woman finishing her masters in
the Netherlands, that being a brown, Muslim Syrian or Eritrean asylum seeker
crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Yes we’re both migrants, yes we both need a
visa to remain in Europe, but the difference is that I am here comfortably
writing this while she is struggling to be labeled in the “correct” way. In a
way, she will be able to survive.

Migrants hold up pictures of their
homes and loved ones as they wait to cross the Slovenia-Austria border in
Sentilj, Slovenia.  Photo: REUTERS/Srdjan
Zivulovic

Cintia Rivera Macias

Cintia is currently working with the migration and
refugee protection team at Oxfam Novib. To her joy, she has now finished her Masters
thesis at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague which explored Mexican
immigrants’experiences in the Dutch context. She advocates for questioning one’s
positionality continuously and a single conversation with her will leave you
intellectually stimulated and challenged! It is no surprise then that her call
for action emphasizes the crucial role of empathy.  We wish her an excellent graduation ceremony
next week.

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