9/11: Impossible to Forget
Looking back on the 18th anniversary of the infamous day.
On September 11th, 2001, the sunshine announced it’s arrival in Pasco, Washington, at 6:30 AM. As my alarm went off, I went through my usual routine, slowly crawling out of bed as though I was the pilot of a spaceship that had crash-landed on earth. Living back in my mother’s house took some getting used to after a brief stint in Seattle, but I was managing. Before carting off to church, where I was part of an aggressive 6-month internship dedicated to doing youth ministry, I decided to turn on the television in the living room. I thought no one was awake, so I made sure to keep the volume low. Soon enough, I was joined by my little sister.
We channel surfed, briefly, eventually landing on Fox News—at the time I was still an avid viewer, and the breaking news caused our jaws to drop. The North Tower of the World Trade Center looked like a Christmas chimney during the holidays, with smoke pouring profusely from its side. The clock on the corner of the graphic banner read: 9 AM. The gaping wound had been there for 14 minutes. The images left us paralyzed, eyeballs glued to the screen. Four minutes had passed when the second plane struck the South Tower. By 10:30 AM, both buildings had collapsed and white ash had covered TriBeCa.
The shock rendered us silent. I was 19 years old, my sister 14, and our family was undocumented. We had arrived in the late 80s from El Salvador and had only recently been issued Temporary Protected Status (TPS). That government program approved by Attorney General John Ashcroft provided Salvadoran nationals with work permits. The AG, like other top officials who served in the Bush administration, would later be heavily criticized for what he knew and failed to act upon in advance of 9/11. However, unbeknownst to most Americans, among the migrant community, our sentiments about how to obtain legalization had long-been informed by the decisions of the feds.
Before the incident, Immigration and Naturalization Services or la migra as we called it, then under the purview of the Department of Labor, kept the threat of deportation ever-present. Although the frequency of raids dipped through the 90s, the community remained on edge. After the towers fell, INS would be absorbed, think-tanked, and spit back out into the public as the Department of Homeland Security. It would feature three branches: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
For immigrant families and asylum seekers, it never stopped being la migra, and many of us felt the pressure to live further in the shadows with our heads down. However, a new era of activism was fastly approaching, as the failure to pass the Dream Act that same year catapulted new voices into the public square. Still, hope was significantly lacking. For anyone being forced to migrate north and uprooting themselves in order to survive, being wary of government officials was a fundamental coping mechanism. The policies that were ushered in due to 9/11 exacerbated the holding patterns of those stuck in undocumented limbo. It was to be expected, considering the track record of U.S. interventionism throughout Latin America, and its key interest in maintaining cheap, disposable labor.
The devastating events of that fateful morning transmitted foreign and domestic waves of panic right into our homes. For my family, living in Eastern Washington State, within a largely conservative community where we were commonly referred to as “illegals or wetbacks,” generated an endless list of contradictions. We were embedded into the very fabric of our small town, contributing to its vibrancy but felt reduced to statistical figures whose worth was based on fiscal output. The process of untangling them would become marked by this singular tragic day, as the shift in policies toward immigrants and foreign nationals took a dramatic turn as a result of the attacks. While there were calls for unity and expressions of “one America,” the underlying tensions over immigration only grew.
With the visuals seared into my memory, I reached for my car keys, said bye to baby sis and left. As I drove, I watched the landscape of my hometown morph from lower-income suburbs in the east to the developed westside and coasted along until finally reaching the rural farmland where the church property was located.
Along the way I prayed, asking God, “Why?”
Every morning, when I step out of my place in Soho and cross West Broadway to visit my local coffee shop, I look over my right shoulder. From that intersection, I can see the Freedom Tower standing tall. It was completed in 2014, three years after the 9/11 Memorial. Occasionally, I wander over toward the solemn monument. At the foot of the structure, one can sense the heaviness evoked when seeing the names etched in stone paying homage to the nearly 3000 lives lost.
When I stand there I close my eyes and let my memory take over. I remember the day it happened. I remember the chaos the was unleashed upon society. I remember how George W. Bush’s “I can hear you!” speech at Ground Zero rang true at that moment. I think about how cynical I’d become the more we understood how it all came to be. I remember the innocents who died. The buildings. The planes. The cell phone calls. The ones who lept from the windows. I remember the New York City first responders; the law enforcement, and firefighters who died. I pause to consider the ones who died during the struggle to receive treatment for their compromised health, long after the ash settled. I can see Jon Stewart, furious before congress, arguing on their behalf.
I remember the waves of Islamophobia, warmongering, and rampant xenophobia that only kept increasing. I remember the endless wars. I think about how Standing Rock and Mauna Kea, among so many others, are sacred burial grounds just as deserving of reverence as much this one. I remember Bush’s sleight-of-the-hand immigration plan, Obama the Deporter-in-Chief, and Trump’s harnessing of the unmitigated rage from America’s abandoned, poorest whites. I think about how the cages and family separation were long-established, but how they continue under the purview of this administration. I think about the Muslim Ban, the Border Wall, and how ICE was granted unchecked authority to the detriment of due process. The legacy of abuse towards marginalized people perpetuated under the guise of patriotism. The contradictions are so stark, making the future seem bleak. All of it, leaving an unsettled feeling in my stomach.
I think about my journey as an undocumented immigrant from Central America to being a naturalized U.S. citizen. It has been an odyssey that led me from the shadows of existence to a life of activism. One that allowed me to see that humans are just as capable of harm as we are of lifting one another out of the rubble. The memorial isn’t just a gravesite for the dead. It’s a place for those still living. Remembering is what helps unite us.
That’s when something remarkable happens. I open my eyes, and I see tourists and New Yorkers of all shades, all backgrounds. They are here. Gathered together. Some take selfies, others place roses next to the names of their loved ones. One woman places a flower next to a name and it falls off. A nearby stranger picks it up and puts it back in its original place. There is laughter. Then tears. Our collective conscience is capable of grieving in unison. Perhaps, then, we are also capable of paving a path that leads to healing, together.