When it became apparent that Donald Trump was winning, this eight-year-old girl named Angelina rushed up to me in tears. She saw sobbed and she asked me if her mom was going to be deported now. I hugged her back and I said it’s going to be OK. But I really didn’t know.
This was the photo that we took that night forever ingrained in my heart. Here was this little girl who was around the same age I was when I went to camp in Brainerd. She already knows she is the other. She walks home from school in fear every day her mom can be taken away.
So how do we put ourselves in Angelina shoes? How do we make her understand she is special and not simply unworthy of having her family together? By giving camera time to her and families like hers, I tried to make people see them as human beings and not simply illegal aliens. Yes, they broke a law and they should pay a penalty for it but they’ve also given everything for this country, like many other immigrants before them have.
I’ve already told you how my path to personal growth started. To end I want to tell you how I hit the worst bump in the road yet, one that shook me to my very core. The day, April 10, 2014, I was driving to the studio and I got a call from my parents: or you want the air, they asked. I immediately knew something was wrong.
“What happened?” I said.
“It’s your sister; she’s been in a car accident.”
It was as if my heart stopped. My hands gripped to the steering wheel and I remember hearing the words: ‘it is unlikely she will ever walk again’. They say your life can change in a split second; mine did at that moment. My sister went from being my successful other half, only a year apart in age to not being able to move her legs, sit up or get dressed by herself. And this wasn’t like summer camp where I could magically make it better. This was terrifying.
Throughout the course of two years, my sister underwent 15 surgeries and she spent most of that time in a wheelchair. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. The worst was something so painful it’s hard to put into words even now. It was the way people looked at her, looked at us changed. People were unable to see a successful lawyer or a millennial with a sharp wit and a kind heart, everywhere we went I realized that people just saw poor girl in a wheelchair. They were unable to see anything beyond that.
After fighting like a warrior, I can thankfully tell you that today my sister is walking and has recovered beyond anyone’s expectations. Thank you.
But during that traumatic ordeal, I learned there are differences that simply suck and it’s hard to find positive in them. My sister’s not better off because of what happened but she taught me you can’t let those differences define you, being able to reimagine yourself beyond what other people see, that is the toughest task of all but it’s also the most beautiful.
You see, we all come to this world in a body, people with physical or neurological difficulties, environmentally impacted communities, immigrants, boys, girls, boys who want to dress as girls, girls with veils, women who have been sexually assaulted, athletes who bend their knee as a sign of protest, black, white, Asian, Native American, my sister, you or me — we all want what everyone wants: to dream and to achieve.
But sometimes society tells us and we tell ourselves we don’t fit the mold. Well if you look at my story from being born somewhere different to belly dancing in high school to telling stories, you wouldn’t normally see on TV. What makes me different is what has made me stand out and be successful. I have traveled the world and talked to people from all walks of life and you know what I’ve learned: the single thing every one of us has in common is being human. So take a stand to defend your race, the human race. Let’s appeal to it, let’s be humanists before and after everything else.
To end, I want you to take that sticker, that piece of paper where you wrote down what makes you different and I want you to celebrate it today and everyday, shout it from the rooftops. I also encourage you to be curious and ask what is on other people’s pieces of paper? What makes them different? Let’s celebrate those imperfections that make us special.
I hope that it teaches you that nobody has a claim on the word normal. We are all different, we are all quirky and unique and that is what makes us wonderfully human.
Thank you so much.
Resources for Further Reading: