Prashanta Tripura

Francesco, now more people will start counting you!

November 9, 2012
Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

Dear Francesco,
I lost touch with you after I returned home for good from the US, where, you may remember, I was a student for eight years during the 1980s. I could not help thinking of you after following the news and analysis of Obama’s re-election. That’s because everybody is talking about you! I mean the Latinos generally. I was struck by how an immigrant from a Latin American county explained, to a CNN reporter, why he had voted for Obama, “We share the family values of the Republicans. But they don’t want us here!” The second part of his remark reminded me of an amazing story that I heard from you at the University of California, Berkeley, where you went to college while I was a graduate student.

Francesco, the story that I recall vividly is about your daring passage to the US as a young boy along with other members of your family. You were born in Mexico. But sometime around the late 1970s, you and your folks embarked on a risky journey across the border to El Norte in search of a better life. Unfortunately, after getting inside the US territory, you were unlucky to be spotted by the police while crossing a highway. You were all rounded up, taken back to the border somewhere near San Diego, and deported to the other side, Tijuana. But, undaunted, you guys crossed the border again, on the very night of your deportation! If I were watching a movie that depicted this story, I would be clapping for you at this point. There was no problem after the second crossing. Your folks settled somewhere in California, and in time you would attend college at UC Berkeley.

At Berkeley, you and I both lived at the International House, a place where overseas students and visiting scholars from around the world lived alongside students from different parts of the US. If the I-House, as we called it, was meant to foster cross-cultural experience, the diversity that Berkeley as a whole had to offer was vast, very special and quite unique. The large undergraduate student population, which reflected the changing face of the US, represented the whole spectrum of the ethnic makeup and lifestyle choices that one could expect to find in the US. I remember that by 1990, the last year of my studies at Berkley, the enrolment of minority (i.e. non-White) students at the undergraduate level had crossed 50% for the first time in the history of the university. Unfortunately, however, this trend was not necessarily accompanied by increased levels of multicultural interaction leading to any ‘melting pot’ of identities. Instead, one started noticing a phenomenon that would later be compared to the salad bowl, a situation in which people of different backgrounds coexist by developing and maintaining distinct identities, often involving increasing levels of insularities.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

During my four years at Berkeley, I did find the place to be mostly tolerant and accommodating towards all kinds of people, including a significant number of homeless people who were permanent fixtures of the Berkeley scene. However, by 1990, some parts of the campus town started to become gentrified, a sign of which was the move by the administration under Chancellor Tien, the first Asian American to head a major research university in the US, to transform the historical People’s Park – a place associated with various movements of the 1960s – into a volleyball court or something like that by clearing it of homeless people. I remember seeing clashes between riot police and protesters over this issue, but I don’t know what eventually happened since I lost touch with Berkeley, a place that I had adopted as my second home in my mind, after I left the US for good in January 1991.

On my way back from the US to Bangladesh, I remember that just as I was boarding a Dhaka-bound flight at Bangkok on the last leg of my journey, news broke out of the invasion of Iraq, codenamed Operation Desert Storm. Upon reaching Dhaka, I struggled to attract the attention of the staff on duty at a hotel where I checked in, as all were glued to the radio. And while moving around on the streets, I faced cat calls – shouts of “Bush! Bush!” – aimed at me.  Even though I did not remotely resemble the senior Bush who was leading the Gulf War as the US President at that time, my long hair and other clues like clothes probably made me appear like a ‘foreigner’, someone who came from the alien warmongering world represented by ‘Bush’, in the eyes of the average street person in Bangladesh. The Gulf War would end soon, but there would be no peace in Iraq, or in the world as a whole. Since 1991, the world has changed so much. The Soviet Union ceased to exist; there were horrors like Rwanda and Bosnia; …then 9/11 happened, giving the US an excuse to invade Iraq again, destroying the country completely afterwards; the US is still waging a war there, as in Afghanistan; … on the economic front, we witnessed the introduction of the Euro, and the relentless economic rise of China, which has also been building up its military muscle. With such major changes reshaping the world, and various conflicts going on in so many parts of it, with direct or indirect involvement of the US and other major powers, it is hardly a surprise that the whole world followed with keen interest the US Presidential Election that just ended with Obama being re-elected. There has not been the same sense of witnessing history or an atmosphere of high hopes this time as when Obama came into power four years ago.  Instead, there are those who point out that when it comes to things like drone attacks along Pak-Afghan borders – causing untold sufferings and mindless deaths that are hardly acknowledged by the world – it does not really matter who is at the Oval Office. Nonetheless, many people around the world, just like many US citizens, felt slightly relieved at Obama’s re-election, mindful or worried that the alternative could mean greater levels of warmongering around the world, and harder times for minority groups of all kinds.

In Bangladesh, we are also getting ready for parliamentary elections, due to take place next year, although we are not sure of the exact date, and the process to be followed, yet. Here, there is a general mood of uncertainty and resignation among the common people over the absence of a democratic culture, even though 1991 marked Bangladesh’s return to parliamentary democracy after 15 years of military rule. Upon my return to Bangladesh, I too cast my vote, for the first time in my life, during the general elections in 1991. Since then, we have had four more parliamentary elections in this country, three of them under a special arrangement called the caretaker government. I was away for academic purposes during the time this unique arrangement came into place, after a lot of turmoil. For various reasons, I could not or did not vote in any of the elections since 1991. But this time, having recently applied for my voter ID card, I hope to be able to exercise my right to vote. I know that electoral democracy is not a perfect system, but the other alternatives that we have had some taste of are even more unreliable. Therefore I wish to do my bit as a citizen by exercising my rights and responsibilities as a citizen of Bangladesh. After all, this is the country where I was born, where, in a place called Khagrachari, my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on were also born, lived and died. I do have relatives and friends who have opted to emigrate to the US and other countries. But I made my choice in 1991, and have been living here since then. Currently I live in Dhaka with my wife and a teenage son, and naturally I am keenly interested in the course that this country is taking.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

As I indicated to you already, I am equally interested in the course that the US is taking. There are many reasons for this. We have already touched upon ongoing wars in different parts of the world, and global economic rivalries. Then there is the issue of climate change, something that Bangladesh is forecasted to become heavily affected by in the decades to come. The policies that the US or other affluent and powerful countries follow, on matters like climate change, aid and trade, have impacts on the poor, on women and children, on Indigenous people and so on in various countries around the world. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that we do follow with keen interest the kind of president that you and other US voters elect into office.

Before I end, I would like to share with you my experience of having been back to the US, just once, on a work-related visit, since my permanent return to Bangladesh. It was in 2003, after 9/11. I did not at all enjoy the experience of being back in a country where I had once spent eight years of my life. Because of the passport that I carried, it took me hours to complete some procedures that I felt did not make much sense. I know my experience could have been far worse if I had a name like Mohammad or Hussain. Anyway, I will not say much about the whole experience except to share with you the feeling that it evoked in my mind. I felt like I had set foot aboard a huge arc that had for a long time taken in whoever came seeking a place on it, regardless of where they came from. However, by the time of my last visit in 2003, things changed and I felt that I was entering a place where the gates were closing, and those who boarded it last were the ones guarding the gates so that no newcomers could get in!

The other night President Obama gave a rousing speech in which he referred to some lofty ideals. We are happy that you or your fellow Latinos, and voters representing other colours of the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ that Reverend Jessie Jackson once tried to mobilize, elected someone like Obama into office. I am sure you will never forget – but in any case pollsters and politicians of all stripes will not allow you to forget – that your vote counts, and that it can and will make a difference, not just for your pocket book, or for the US, but for the whole world, in future elections as well.

So, Francesco, please remember that as more people in the US start counting you, many others around the world will be interested to know what choices you, or others like you, make. They will be counting on your good judgment!

Prashanta Tripura
Dhaka, November 8, 2012

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Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.

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12 Responses to “ Francesco, now more people will start counting you! ”

  1. Aminul on November 12, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    You talk about our elections. I am really scared to think what will happen and what awaits us. We have terrible choices. Choices of politicians who are actually all similar. They are party people and nothing else. Their one and only concern is to remain in the good book of the respective party and for that they are ready grovel at anyone’s feet, won’t hesitate to act like the worst bootlickers ever. We are an unfortunate nation that cannot but take interest in other country’s polls and be envious at the better luck of those in the developed countries especially in the USA.

  2. Sabbir Huda on November 12, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Francescos around the world must be heard.

  3. Quamrul on November 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    Excellent writing! But every action or policy or attitude has its own ‘valid’ reason.

  4. Prashanta Tripura on November 12, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Thanks everyone for your comments and kind remarks. Just this morning, while listening to the BBC news on radio, I learned that a bipartisan initiative for immigration reform may resume at the US congress. I am sure that’s a piece of news that many ‘illegal immigrants’ in the US will be following keenly. However, I hope that the story of the border crossing by Francesco that I shared does not in any way reinforce the stereotype that most ‘Latinos’ or ‘Hispanics’ came to the US illegally. Normally I would be very careful in using terms or images that carry baggage full of prejudices and convenient histories. For example, from a historical point of view, many Mexican-Americans may actually look at California as a territory that once belonged to ‘them’ (Just think of place names, Los Angels, San Francisco, Sacramento…). And I am not even thinking of Native Americans, whose perspectives would shed very different lights on the whole matter.

    Another piece of post-election news that many of you must have heard or read already is that Obama’s first stop in his first overseas tour of the second term will be Myanmar. This, if it does take place, will be very significant and will have direct or indirect consequences on BD too, e.g. by influencing (which, one hopes, would not mean ‘condoning’) Myanmar government policy towards the Rohingyas.

    It goes without saying that those of us non-US voters who are happy to see Obama re-elected cannot be fooled into thinking that he will now start listening to distant voices from around the world, bypassing the security and foreign policy apparatus and interests of the US. In any case, our first job is to get ourselves heard in our own countries!

  5. Sabbir Huda on November 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    We will never have a leader like Obama. I would even settle for someone like Romney as he would also put national interest above anything else unlike our two leaders who we are stranded with maybe for eternity.

  6. Sabbir Huda on November 11, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Will Obama be able to repay the Latinos for believing in him? Will he be able to include them in the mainstream and do something positive about the immigrant issue?

  7. Khandker Arifuzzaman on November 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    I have to say that it is one of the most beautiful pieces I have read on the US election so far. This piece deserves to be published in a wider and more international publication.

    Just like the writer, I am also keen to see how our election that is going to be held (likely) next year turns out.

  8. Gazi on November 11, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    A beautiful write-up, or should i say, letter! It talked about a very different angle of all those hullabaloo that’s has started since Obama has been re-elected. It talks about the ignored and the ‘minority’ USA — the Latinos whose overwhelming votes have played a major role in Obama’s reelection.

    Thank you Prashanta Tripura for this marvelous piece.

  9. Pierre Claquin on November 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Your piece is a neat “cri du coeur” and tells about you as much as of the situations you describe. My honeymoon with the USA ended with the Gulf war on two accounts: the first is how come a country be so systematically and historically (supporting dictators all over) wrong in its foreign policy (answer: because only its national interests count); the second is that the bigotry, the hypocrisy, the violence, the gun culture, etc. of the US society is abhorrent to me. The bottom line is that these people, overall, are not my people and I gave up living among them on several occasions, the last one in September 2003. I could not be a US citizen.

    I followed but did not care about the results of the US elections. Yes Obama is better than the alternative. But for who? For the rest of the world? Is the USA going to clean its act on the energy issue? Are they going to help the Palestinian situation? Will they stop meddling everywhere?

    I hope there will be no rush to embark in the Ark. As you say, it will soon close to all individuals without added value to the USA. La nef des fous.

    • Prashanta Tripura on November 12, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Pierre for your comment. At Berkeley, where our reading list was dominated by names like Foucault and Derrida, I used to sneer at their interpreters who did not bother to translate whole passages into English. But knowing where you are coming from, and now that Google translator is at my fingertip, I have rather enjoyed the French expressions that you used. Thanks for those, and also for reading a misspelled word in the way intended (’ark’).

      • Pierre Claquin on November 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

        Thanks. I hope it was clear to all readers and to you that there was no arrogance in the two French inclusions. The first one means “straight from the heart”. The second (la nef des fous – the boat of the mad people) is a reference to a Middle Age real story of a legend (quoted by Michel Foucault and also the title of a novel by a German author).

        In a few years the majority of the US citizens will be non-white and certainly non-WASP. Will it change the attitude of the USA internationally? Will it upset the power and balance of the lobbies? how will the emergence of China as the major economic power reorganize politics? Like Panoss in Candide of Voltaire I should go and “tend my garden”. :-)

  10. Golam Arshad on November 9, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    Prasantha: You have vividly depicted the woes of a migrant be it illegal or legal. Legal I say, the impending procedure is complex and long. Hundreds of thousands of illegals in USA hope, that this time, tangible efforts will be undertaken to make their stay in the United States legal!

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