As mobs attacked the Capitol last week, the scene brought a sickening feeling of familiarity for some immigrants. It surfaced painful memories of insurrection in their own countries, a kind of unrest they never expected to experience. Not again, and especially not here.
What does insurrection look like? William Alvarez watched it begin slowly in Venezuela, with a dictator stifling the press.
While Claudia Lach, as a teenager growing up in Argentina would hide the covers of books that could get her detained for having what some in power considered “subversive material.” Ultimately both agree: what insurrection looks like is storming the Capital to stop an election from being certified when your candidate doesn’t win.
Lach could barely focus last Wednesday. She remembers back to her youth, when people, who were seen as a threat to the regime, disappeared. She lost a very good friend in those days, most of whose family was killed. She called her two sons the night of the attacks on D.C., feeling incredulous.
“This is not what I was hoping for you to experience even as adults in the United States," Lach said she told them. "And I cannot run to you right now and embrace you, but, it is that feeling, ‘Oh my God. This happened here?’ ”
Alvarez has been obsessed with the news for the past week. Watching. Waiting. He too has a family to protect. Like Lach, he thought they wouldn’t have to worry about this type of turmoil, in a country they thought they knew.
“Since last week, I have not been able to stop, I'm cooking for my kids and I'm looking at the phone, and I feel like something can happen at any time," Alvarez said. "Something that I don't expect, something tragic, something terrible is going to happen.”
Tragedy arrived at his front door years ago in Venezuela when a wayward military bullet fatally struck his 21-year-old brother outside his home. The military had been chasing someone else after curfew.
Alvarez’s life is divided in two. Before and after that grief.
“The first thing came to my mind at that time was, 'how is this happening to me?' You know, I couldn't believe that my body's experiencing this pain and this loss," Alvarez said. "So when I came here, I feel, I felt safe. ... I'm in this country with all the differences. There's a lot of welcoming.”
Alvarez, like many, maintains that this attack doesn’t define the United States.
Patricia Montes takes a different view. She’s executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant rights organization. She grew up watching the news with her father every night, seeing images of unfolding violence in her native Honduras, often by U.S.-backed forces. She bristles at the notion of American exceptionalism.
“If we don't know the history of the U.S. involvement in Latin America and many countries around the planet, we're going to repeat history," Montes said. "We're going to continue seeing the U.S. as the heroes trying to build democracy and that is a fantasy. It's a fantasy, and we need to understand that it is not reality.”
For Montes, it’s ironic that people have been surprised by the insurrection given America’s history of intervening abroad.
But Chevy Vithiananthan was taken aback last week.
“We always looked at the U.S. as the model for democracy, as the model for tolerance to a certain extent," Vithiananthan said, "and the ability to have different views and still get along.”
There’s a threshold his own nation of Sri Lanka crossed when discrimination and intolerance led to violence between ethnic groups. In 1983, a young, militant group known as the Tamil Tigers attacked an army convoy. Thousands died. Whole neighborhoods burned. The war raged for decades. Last week, Vithiananthan was embarrassed talking to friends back home.
“Now, you know, friends back home are telling us, you know, you guys are not much different than us," he said.
Last Wednesday, all agree they witnessed the worst and best of this democracy in one night. Authorities eventually cleared out the mob. The people’s choice was certified.
But what last week revealed was that if we’re not vigilant, it can happen here too, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers For Civil Rights.
“We have seen it. We have lived it. We have heard about this from our elders," said Espinoza-Madrigal. "We are not immune from that, as my mother said, 'We left Central America for this?' ”
For these fragile freedoms, a place that has given each of them so much. A home they would like to protect and preserve for everyone. That’s what democracy looks like.
This segment aired on January 14, 2021.