When Jeanette Vizguerra entered sanctuary in a Denver church in early 2017, she thought she might have to stay for four years, the entirety of Donald Trump’s presidency. Acutely aware of how the new administration portrayed immigrants, especially those without documents like herself, she sought refuge while working on her legal case to stay with her children in the country she’s called home for the last 20 years. A few weeks later, the hate messages began. Some attacked Vizguerra personally, telling her to go back to Mexico, that she didn’t belong. Some were physically aggressive, even going as far as threatening to bomb the church where she stayed. But the most hurtful were the messages attacking her children.
“That part was what bothered me the most because in my mind, people can talk to me and tell me things as an adult, but not to my kids,” she says. “They called them bastards, and even one said that these kids should die.”
Vizguerra’s is just one of many stories documented in the new book American Hate: Survivors Speak Out, a collection of testimonials by people across the country who have experienced increased bigotry, discrimination and even violence since the election of Donald Trump.
“Hate is part of our country’s DNA. We have a dark and ugly history of racism, bias and bigotry in America that we routinely ignore and try to rewrite. So a book like this could and should have been written many times over again,” says editor Arjun Singh Sethi. “Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write this book in this moment in time.”
Sethi is a community activist and civil rights lawyer based in Washington D.C. He’s also Sikh American, with his own story of harassment, bullying and racial profiling, which in part led him to compile the testimonials in American Hate.
For the project, he traveled the country, interviewing victims and their families, listening to not only their heartbreaking stories, but also their hope. The collection tells the stories of a Syrian refugee, a transgender man and a Jewish mother in their own words. Sikh Americans, Muslim leaders, student activists and Native Americans share their pain and their dreams of a better future. The book addresses not only overt hate crimes, like cyberbullying, arson and murder, but also what Sethi calls “state-sponsored forms of hate” from police brutality to the lack of access to health care for many in this country to the inability of the president to condemn blatant racism.
“They uniformly see that this administration has emboldened hatred and violence towards them and their communities,” Sethi says. And yet, through the process, Sethi was also struck by the survivors’ “optimism and resilience.”
“There’s a lot of pain and grief across this country but survivors are rebuilding, enduring and leading by example,” he says. They are advocating for hate crime laws, suing white supremacists in court, having difficult conversations with their communities, and in some cases even working with the police.
Vizguerra for one worked with the cyberbullying officer at the Denver Police Department, and two people faced consequences for the hate messages they sent while she was in sanctuary. To this day, she still receives threats, although she does her best to expose the people behind them.
“We know that the Trump administration has woken up hate groups around the country,” Vizguerra says. “Sometimes we have to ignore them simply so we don’t fall into their fire, but there are going to be times that we have to take action, probably legal, probably public, so that we can identify those people who are real risks to the community.”
There isn’t a one-size fits all solution to combating hate, however, Sethi says. What may work for one survivor or one community may not be the answer for another. But by sharing the stories in American Hate, stories like Vizguerra’s, Sethi hopes the country can confront its hateful past and move toward a more perfect future.
“We want to live in a world where we are not judged, as Dr. King says, on the basis of the color of our skin. We want to live in a world where our children can play freely, not live in fear that their parents are going to be taken from them by immigration authorities, or targeted by police violence or targeted by a member of the public because they don’t like the way they look. I certainly hope that future awaits us and many people are working hard to build that future,” he says. “If we do the really hard work that we haven’t done thus far, I can imagine a place where we are all free.”
More info: Book talk and signing with Arjun Singh Sethi in conversation with Jeanette Vizguerra, American Hate: Survivors Speak Out. 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 12, Tattered Cover Colfax, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Free.