I’m fourth or fifth generation Irish and German – I don’t know how far back that German heritage goes. Also, possibly, Native American. My dad’s side of the family is from Indiana. There is this family story that just recently came out. I think my older family members didn’t want to talk about it, but we might have Native American heritage with tribes that were in that area.
Nobody ever really talked about the German side either. We don’t even know if our last name has changed. It should’ve been “Chwartz,” like, C-H. That was kind of rough growing up in my town, because people would mispronounce my name all the time because there were a lot of Schwartz’, but I’m “Swartz.” I think our last name got messed up when my family came over here from Germany. We don’t know much about our German heritage – or at least I don’t. I know a lot more about my Irish heritage. I went back to Ireland four years ago to meet my last remaining second cousin once removed…or something like that. That experience was really cool.
My mom’s side of the family did have a lot of Irish pride. We’d talk about it a lot. They actually grew up going to Ireland pretty often, because my grandfather would go there on business and we had family there. I don’t know why my family came from Ireland to here. I just know that some of them were still back there.
I’m connected more to personal family stories. Those mean a lot more to me than saying, “Oh, my family’s from Ireland.” If I told you today that I was proud that Ireland is the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage, because I am part Irish, it’s hard for me to legitimize that choice.
My family is from Puerto Rico. My mom was born in the U.S., my dad and all his family is from Puerto Rico. My mom’s parents were born in Puerto Rico, so I’m half-generation. I feel like it’s weird to talk about.
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the past few years. People don’t really think about Puerto Ricans as being immigrants, because it’s a commonwealth of the U.S. I am really connected to my Puerto Rican heritage. My parents always made it a point that we spoke Spanish growing up. I did shy away from it for a long time. I feel like that is a recurring theme in a lot of Puerto Rican homes. People in my generation just refuse to speak Spanish at first or don’t want anything to do with it, because I grew up speaking Spanglish. I would say that’s my first language. There were things that I had no idea how to say in English. In school, people would be like, “What are you talking about?” I was just like, “I don’t know. I can’t communicate with you, because I don’t know what you’re saying in English.” That’s why I shied away from it.
Now, I’m a bi-lingual immigration paralegal, so all I do is speak Spanish all day long. My parents are super proud of that. The work I do has always been something that interested me growing up. The community I live in is primarily Puerto Rican. I work with a lot of Mexicans and Dominicans. Some of my friends were undocumented growing up. I didn’t really know what that meant. I just didn’t get it, because I was a kid. Then, when I got into college, I just started taking more courses. Everything that happened, in Arizona, in 2010 I think it was, where Gov. Jan Brewer was stopping people on the street — just because if you looked like an immigrant, you could be stopped. But what does an immigrant look like? Who looks illegal? If you think about it, the U.S. is comprised of all immigrants. If you really want to take it that route, then you need to stop everybody, because most people are not Native Americans. It’s a very small population.
I don’t think the families I work with realize at first that I’m very compassionate but when we start to talk we develop good relationships. I think they do know that I understand that it is hard. It doesn’t make a difference that my family didn’t have to go through the whole immigration process because I’m empathetic. I understand what it’s like, especially working in the legal world and understanding just how messed up our immigration system is and that we seriously need comprehensive reform. It’s a hot mess right now.
I have clients that haven’t seen their parents in 20 or 30 years. It’s just weighing on their heart every single day knowing they still can’t go back because their application still hasn’t been approved. Or, in some cases, the application was approved, but now there’s a delay with actually getting the green card. It’s an all-around mess.
I think growing up in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood, if you see white people, it’s like, “Oh, wow, they probably have so much money.” You have this idea, but as I got older and more educated, I realized that it wasn’t true. All white people are not rich and all white people are not mean.
Going to college, seeing how there are so many allies, people that actually care about these types of issues and then meeting people like Elena, she’s very aware of her privilege, but she also understands that her place and her privilege can help with the cultural competency.
My Irish heritage, I think it has allowed me to think a little bit more about what it means to be an oppressed group of people. Then, also, why race, nationality, and all those types of things are mostly constructs. The Irish are prime examples of that. They were seen as less than human when they started coming to the U.S. They were definitely discriminated against within my grandfather’s lifetime. He had stories about being teased or being discriminated against as a kid because he was Irish. I think being a good ally, number one, is not denying that there’s a difference between people. I think that’s a huge thing people do, and it’s totally out of a place of goodness, but they deny there’s racial wealth.
I think you can’t be a good ally until you recognize that people are different and recognize the elements in your background give you unearned benefits. I think a big thing also, and this is something that a lot of people struggle with, is guilt. Being like, “Oh my God, all these social problems that were created generations and possibly centuries before I was born, it’s my fault.” It’s not. It’s just your responsibility to recognize it now and just listen to people who don’t necessarily have those privileges.
I think everyone has very complex identities. If you are someone who has a privilege in one area, you might not have privilege in another area. You might have education privilege, but you might not have wealth privilege. You might have skin privilege and wealth privilege and educational privilege, but you might not have gender privilege.
I feel like people get lost in that. They get lost in stacking up ills of society against them, because they think that’s what the argument is about. They think it’s against society. It’s not, it’s how we help each other, if that makes sense.
Shyanne and I are tour guides for the Mural Arts Program. The Mural Arts Program is an awesome arts initiative in the city, it’s actually nationally known. They put up murals in the city and other public artworks, and Shyanne and I lead tours.
Since Elena and I started at the same time with The Mural Arts Program, we did a couple of tours together while shadowing. It was really awesome to meet her, because since I came back to Philly from college, I was struggling to meet people that were engaged in the same social justice community outreach kind of things that I’m into.