I had a racially stereotyped view of Mexican men before meeting my husband. Prior to him, they had always been the ones catcalling down from the scaffolding as I walked by; the ones proudly blaring mariachi music with the windows down in the car next to mine; the maintenance guys, the landscapers, the dishwashers. Then he breezed into my life and swept those stereotypes aside, while also indirectly exposing my prejudice. I fell in love, slowly, with this brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking, intelligent, mischievous, hard-working man. He opened up another world to me.
I never imagined I would be married to a Mexican migrant of “questionable” status, in a country in the throes of a border crisis; in a country with a president who spews and encourages hateful rhetoric about Mexicans, escalating violence toward Latinos, mass ICE raids, overflowing migrant detention centers, and an administration that draws a hard line on immigration status. Ours is a quieter fear than most, hiding just below the surface, but we feel it. My husband is not entirely safe or welcome here.
In the layers of grief and rage I experience hearing the stories of lives risked and lost in the pursuit of not only freedom but basic survival, I can’t help but see my husband’s face. When I read, “Shoot them,” I see his beautiful brown skin and a target on his back. I see his eyes, staring back tired and determined, the twinkle still there but dulled under years of unrelenting hardship.
It is a complicated entanglement of sorrow when I weep for migrants. It is not our narrative, and in many ways, it is. When I hear the stories of migrants and see their faces, I can no longer separate them into a category of “Others.” Migrants are our people. Empathy and the bond of our shared humanity dissolve the mentality that we are fundamentally different. We’re not.
For this reason, among many, I cannot sit by and silently observe the suffering of migrants fleeing home or held captive in detention centers. I cannot see their faces on my screen and scroll quickly through while eating my dinner in the relative safety of my home. I cannot choke down the violent indictments against my fellow human beings. And I cannot ignore the connection between my country’s consumption and the fate of numerous Central and South Americans.
The personal threads between each one of us are as real as they are intangible.
My Mexican familia resides smack dab in the center of Mexico, in what is considered to be one of the “safer” cities that remain not yet infiltrated by cartels. Now, a large population of Honduran migrants are beginning to fill the streets of the city. My mother-in-law recently told my husband over the phone that migrants are everywhere, asking for food. The Mexican government won’t give them jobs. Many don’t look like they’ve showered for a hundred days, she said. The Mexican residents, being the hospitable culture they are, feed them as best they can. But the migrants are a people in limbo, stuck in a dead-end situation. Most have nothing to return to, and no one waiting to welcome them in.
Increased deforestation in places like Honduras has caused the region to warm faster in an already rapidly warming world. A loss of trees has contributed to shifting the climate from temperate to dry. While migrants are fleeing their homes for a number of reasons, including depressed economies, politics and rising violence, a key reason that Latin Americans—from southern Mexico to Panama—are storming the borders is due to climate change.
A recent United Nations report found that 2 million Central Americans are at risk of starvation due to prolonged drought. In one Honduran village, five years of drought have left the people desperate, facing down meager options: stay, starve, or move. The problem is, many don’t have the resources to move and there aren’t any viable options for nearby relocation. The ones who are able may join a migrant caravan heading north, but this option is increasingly fraught with peril.
They are fleeing the loss of their communities and livelihoods. And if they make it as far as the border, they are being met as criminals. Enemies. President Trump looks at the border crisis and sees a war within a bubble: the U.S. immigration system versus criminal Latin America. In doing so, he ignores and attempts to revise the last century of history of U.S. intervention in the global South. The United States has long treated the countries of the global South as commodities, intervening where it will best serve U.S. interests. The United States has funded civil wars, supported corrupt leaders that have plundered their own citizens, exploited workers through low-wage positions, and pillaged natural resources, helping to drive these countries to places of poverty, violence, and overall instability.
Meanwhile, as one writer noted, “The world continues to warm at an alarming pace, causing droughts, storms, and flooding, because the necessity of capitalism to be ever more profitable requires the increasing burning of fossil fuels. All these disasters, and more, force people to take the huge and perilous decision to flee their homes, work, friends, and family.”
As all these factors converge, the crisis at our borders reflects climate change in motion, a tidal wave consuming the poorest among us before it devastates anyone else. Yet President Trump continues to do everything in his power to close borders and “punish” Central American countries for not doing enough to control mass migration. One of his solutions is to cut U.S. aid to the most economically vulnerable nations. As someone who ignores history and science, he refuses to see the migrations of fleeing people for what they are—climate refugees—a crisis that the United States has had a strong hand in creating. Then, he seeks to penalize the victims by sealing the borders, filling detention centers, authorizing mass deportations, withdrawing aid, and using targeted verbal attacks, effectively perpetuating the cycle of injustices against migrants.
The truth is, addressing the issue of mass Latin American migration will require a certain degree of humility, truth-telling, and a willingness to acknowledge the role we each play in this vicious cycle, and to create change. A key challenge is how to connect the dots between mass migrations, climate change, and our society’s culture of consumption.
Consumption patterns in the United States have contributed more to climate change than in any other country in the world, yet the current administration, and many Americans, continue to lash out at the most vulnerable victims of the system in which we live. Most Americans are unwilling to see that the war we are fighting is one we have co-created. It’s been decades upon decades in the making, as we have selfishly prioritized our own economy, the capitalist model, and the political gains that support it, over the greater good and well-being for all.
"Most Americans are unwilling to see that the war we are fighting is one we have co-created. It’s been decades upon decades in the making, as we have selfishly prioritized our own economy, the capitalist model, and the political gains that support it, over the greater good and well-being for all. "
’ll be the first to admit, it’s a lot harder connecting those dots in our individual, day-to-day lives. It can feel so abstract, so distant, so theoretical. Cutting back on plastic, making sure we compost, and buying less stuff seems far less daunting than contemplating our national energy and water consumption, the agricultural industry’s environmental impacts, and carbon emissions from cars and planes.
Examining our personal consumption alone, however, is not going to cut it when it comes to climate justice. We need massive systemic and social reform and, as much as possible, to disconnect our values from those of capitalism. We need innovative solutions in energy, technology, transportation, and agriculture. We need to cooperate with other countries as global partners, tackling this issue and holding each other accountable. And what this looks like is so hotly debated—so complex in nature—that it can be easy to become overwhelmed and push it aside.
But this is our reality, and we can’t shy away from it: “Climate change is the result of our current economic and industrial system.” We can’t successfully tackle climate change and hang onto capitalism as we know it. The latter has to go. And this will require letting go of a piece of a perceived identity that Americans have clung to with pride and absolute insistence. It will demand an upheaval and total reimagining of our economy, industry, ownership, basic income, social programs, and well-being for all people.
What other choice do we have? When the price tag on our consumption is catastrophically driving up global warming—driving fellow human beings to such desperation as to cross deserts and risk everything, even lives, for a chance of survival—it is unthinkable to consider this a price worth paying.
To translate this from something theoretical to something personal and fundamentally humane, we must be able to look at people who seem very different from us and catch sight of ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors in their eyes. This empathy is the thread that connects the dots of our stories and binds us, ultimately, to each other. It is what calls us to urgent action, to seeking justice and making reparations, on behalf of each other. It is what prioritizes life over profit, comfortability, and non-absolute rights.
We may not all have a loved one whose different world merges with our own, but this universal thread of empathy compels us all to open the borders of our thinking and extend the reach of our perspective—to see the debt we owe migrants in our interconnectedness, and to do everything in our power to support the work of climate justice and reparations.
Amber Cadenas is a freelance writer with a passion for social justice, environmental advocacy, and conservation. A Pacific Northwesterner at heart, she is most at home among trees and wildlife. Most days, you can find her outside picking up litter, feeding squirrels, snapping photos, or practicing yoga.