El Salvador stole my heart 17 years ago. I remember my first glimpse from the airplane window — mouth agape, I was captivated by the dramatic volcanoes, the palm-lined coast, the glistening Pacific dotted with fishing boats. When we landed, everyone on board clapped, and as the plane’s door opened we were greeted by the steamy, hot Salvadoran sun.
Of course, it helped that a man from El Salvador had stolen my heart the previous year. I was a senior at American University in Washington, D.C. and a friend took me to a football game at the Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis. There I met Luis, a systems engineer major with a German minor who was in his fourth and final year at the Academy.
I immediately gravitated to his brains, his charisma, and his sense of humor. I had never met anyone from El Salvador before, and he’d never met a Jew. In spite of our different backgrounds — or maybe because of them — we hit it off.
We started dating but graduation loomed over us like a black cloud. Before meeting Luis, I had no idea our military service academies each accept up to 10 foreign nationals per year. These students have to meet the same rigorous academic and physical standards as their American counterparts and they receive the same education and military training. Yet upon graduation, these students don’t join the U.S. military. Instead, they return as commissioned officers to serve in their respective home militaries. This meant Luis would have to return to El Salvador.
We made five years of long-distance dating work — a pretty remarkable feat, considering there wasn’t FaceTime or even texting back then. We spoke on the phone as often as we could; we visited each other about four times a year. We wrote old-fashioned love letters and emails, notes I still treasure to this day.
In February 2005, Luis was deployed to Iraq with the Salvadoran military. Since he was fluent in English, he was stationed at a U.S. embassy, where he worked closely with U.S. forces on rebuilding efforts. The deployment was not easy on either of us, but I felt comforted knowing he was at a U.S. embassy and I was enormously proud of his and his country’s contributions to the U.S.-led coalition efforts. He was, too.
We got married in 2006 and moved to Michigan, where we live today. The day in 2010 when Luis became an American citizen was one of the proudest of our lives — bested only, perhaps, by the birth of our two beautiful, multicultural kids.
Maya, 7, and Ben, 4, are half-Salvadoran Jews being raised in an interfaith home. Our kids are on their way to being bilingual; they’re learning Spanish from Daddy through books, movies and — of course — watching futbol games. From me, they’re learning about Jewish culture and religion, and Maya has been in Hebrew School since kindergarten. Our kids love my great-grandma’s brisket and their abuelita’s pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran street food (tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese and served with a tangy cabbage slaw).
I take a look at our blended family and I think: This is the American Dream.
So you can imagine just how disgusted I was over the ugly words that Donald Trump uttered last week. During a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders to discuss immigration, Donald Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as “shitholes.” He also asked why we don’t bring in more immigrants from Norway.
In other words, the president wondered why black and brown people are coming here, and not white people. If that doesn’t make you sick to your stomach — to hear our country’s leader speak so disgustingly of entire nations and continents — well, I don’t know what will.
What’s equally painful is that I feared this would happen. I predicted it here, that, if elected, Trump would continue to incite and spew racism. I felt it as a Jew, as a woman, as the wife of a Salvadoran husband and the mother of half-Salvadoran children. I felt it as a human being. And now here we are, a year into his presidency, and it’s hard to deny that the man that 46% of voting Americans elected into office is a racist. Not “sounds racist” or “has racist tendencies” — he is a racist.
Sadly, this is just another example of his racism on the marquis for all to see – witness, for example, Trump’s lack of words and actions after Charlottesville — and it’s personal. It feels like a punch in the gut — especially because Luis moved here, started a career and family here, and even got his MBA here. To me, my husband embodies the American spirit. That anyone could think otherwise about him — or where he is from — is an insult to us all.
So now what? How do we parent our multicultural children in these trying times? Luis and I want our kids to be proud of who they are. We want them to be citizens of the world; to have a thirst for understanding other cultures and religions and races. As such, we teach them Daddy’s language, we educate them about our traditions, we read them books about other cultures, and introduce them to foods from all over the world.
Our kids think Trump is a bully — not because we told them, but because they see it with their own eyes. At three years of age, Ben told us, “Donald Trump is not a nice man.” We don’t disagree with him — after all, we encourage our kids to treat others with kindness and empathy. We are teaching them to think before they speak; to look out for those who can’t look out for themselves; that if they don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
As Jews, it is our responsibility to speak up for those who are hurting or for those who can’t speak for themselves. We must speak out for those Haitians, Salvadorans and Africans who were just called out, and who are far more than the color of their skin. As Jews, we know what it’s like to be persecuted against. And no one — I repeat: no one — should feel persecuted by the president of the United States.
What Trump seems to forget is we are a nation of immigrants. That’s what makes America so awesome: If you work hard, you can fulfill the American dream, no matter where you’re from. My own family are immigrants — they came from Russia and Poland (maternal side) and Ireland and Italy (paternal side) looking for a better life and future for their families. My husband is an immigrant. And, of course, Donald Trump’s own family were immigrants, too.