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Aurora’s Taste of Ethiopia and El Paso

August 5, 2019

1.

There is something special about seeing a community, seemingly invisible much of the time, to burst forth – in all its color, music, dress – and of course food – into the public eye in celebration. 

Two days ago, Saturday, was the, among other things, the seventh “Taste of Ethiopia” event in Aurora, one of the occasions – there are several – when the Ethiopian community of Colorado, most of whom live and work in the greater Denver metropolitan area – come out in droves to celebrate their culture. In seven years it has become a major cultural event, well publicized in the local media and drawing thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.

This year’s festival was no different.

An entrepreneurial people par excellence, Ethiopian merchants of call kinds came to show their wares – Ethiopian clothing vendors,  coffee shops, restaurants, hairdressers galour. People dressed either entirely or in part in the green, yellow, red and blue of the Ethiopian flag strolled about, people of Ethiopian background of all ages speaking Amharic, Tigre, Oromo as well as English. And of course there was music.

Being there, watching this Ethiopian Community in all its vibrancy, its own singular diversity and talent, I couldn’t help thinking of my Russian-Polish Jewish grandparents who came to the United States a hundred and fifteen years ago (1904 to be precise). Of course Eastern European Jewish immigrants then and Ethiopian immigrants today are quite different, but…both come from a historically rich cultural heritage, both value education to an inordinate degree and both are attached to the food and language from whence they came. And both had/have barriers of prejudice to overcome…and overcome of them they did and will do.

The exact number of Ethiopians in Colorado is not known, but reliable sources put the number at anywhere between 25-35000, making it along with Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis as one of the country’s most important concentrations. A significant majority of Colorado Ethiopians live in Aurora, the burgeoning multi-ethnic city just east of Denver.

Appreciating the growing clout of this community as a political force in the state – Ethiopians are the second largest ethnic community in Colorado after Hispanics from Latin America – local politicians were present too. Goveror Polis was in attendance; Aurora mayoral candidates Omar Montgomery and Mike Coffman (defeated Republican U.S. congressman) worked the crowd. U.S. Congressman, Jason Crow (who defeated Coffman) was also on hand as was Morgan Carroll, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party. The Ethiopian-American Initiative of Colorado Democrats, an initiative by Colorado Dems to reach out beyond its traditional base, had a booth. In fact, I helped out a bit with a survey they were doing. (1) This initiative speaks to the needs of both the Ethiopian Community and the Democratic Party. Like the “Taste of Ethiopia” itself, for the Ethiopians, it is another chance to connect to break out of their typical immigrant isolation and connect to broader Colorado society it is a part of. For the Democrats, at a key moment in the party’s history, it is a chance to both listen to the concerns of Colorado immigrants and to embrace those concerns as a part of the party’s program and legislative activities.

The Ethiopian-American Initiative of Colorado Democrats, an initiative by Colorado Dems to reach out beyond its traditional base, had a booth. In fact, I helped out a bit with a survey they were doing. (1) This initiative speaks to the needs of both the Ethiopian Community and the Democratic Party. Like the “Taste of Ethiopia” itself, for the Ethiopians, it is another chance to connect to break out of their typical immigrant isolation and connect to broader Colorado society it is a part of. For the Democrats, at a key moment in the party’s history, it is a chance to both listen to the concerns of Colorado immigrants and to embrace those concerns as a part of the party’s program and legislative activities.

Our whole family went – Nancy, Carol Chatfield, David, Molly, Abbie – even ten week old Teddy – and myself. I have to admit, that given what was happening in another community with a large immigrant population, that of El Paso, Texas, the question of security at “Taste of Ethiopia” was on my mind. The whole purpose of these massacres is to create and foster fear, fear to be associated with immigrants, to isolate the immigrant communities and to discourage the different ways that such communities are trying to connect to the broader society, so much so that it becomes something of a political act simply to attend an ethnic festival that should pose no threat to anyone.

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A portion of Colorado’s Ethiopian Community enjoying a musical number at “Taste of Ethiopia” on Saturday, August 3, 2019 in Aurora. If I am not mistaken, this particular musical number came from Zimbabwe.

2.

While Denver-area Coloradans, most of them Ethiopian immigrants were enjoying a relaxing and culturally rich exchange at “Taste of Ethiopia” – itself an Ethiopian appreciation for the general warmth and open arms with which the state has welcomed its African immigrants – Ethiopian or otherwise – elsewhere in the country, ugly events of, frankly, a horrific nature, inflamed by the blatantly racist and anti-immigrant policies and pronouncements of President Donald Trump and his Administration were unfolding elsewhere.

These days, more often than not, so-called soft-targets are chosen – schools, mosques, synagogues, cultural events, shopping malls, discos –  places where people tend to be relaxed, with little or no security on hand, or if the security is on hand, it is more often than not inadequate and poorly trained for the surprise attack that follows.  Jews, Moslems, Gays have in the recent past been victimized; this weekend in El Paso, Texas it was Mexicans – be they American citizens or immigrants – that were specifically and systematically targeted.

A young white male – having drunk his fair share of President Trump’s racist campaign cool aid  – traveled nine hours to El Paso from his home in Allen, Texas  to kill Chicanos at a Walmart near the U.S Mexican border. Before he was finished, twenty people lay dead and two dozen more injured. Prior to his savage escapade the murderer had posted a 2400 “manifesto” which the New York Times described as “a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto … online. It spoke of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” “It detailed a plan to separate America into territories by race. It warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners.”

Forgetting, or more than likely he never knew, that the state he lived in was for hundreds of years a part of Mexico and that the ones who “invaded” Texas were white Americans from Southern states wanting to expand the slavery system, his “manifesto,” a piece of racist garbage, called for a separation of the United States into racial enclaves.

Writing about the carnage in El Paso on social media Isaac Castillo – friend of a friend – wrote:

I have not lived in El Paso for 25 years. But I was born and raised there. I spent hundreds of hours of my childhood in and around Cielo Vista Mall. I have many thoughts about today. First, for those not familiar with El Paso, it is important to know that El Paso has long been one of the safest big cities in the United States. Contrary to how it is often depicted in film and television, violent crime is low and it is safe. Until today. I read the shooter’s manifesto so you don’t have to. It is vile. It is ignorant. It is disgusting.

This coward picked El Paso because it is safe. He was not from El Paso, nor does he represent El Paso. This coward traveled to El Paso to commit an act of terrorism. He purposely picked a weapon and ammunition to kill as many people as possible. He targeted American citizens. He targeted them because of the color of their skin. Because they chose to speak a different language. Because of their last names. This was not random. It was calculated. It was intentional.

The same weekend, far to the north of El Paso in Dayton, Ohio, a masked gunman using a 223 caliber rifle equipped with extra magazines killed nine and wounded at least 27 others in a one minute firing spree before he was, himself, killed by Dayton police. Given how well armed the gunman was “if the Dayton police had not gotten to the shooter in under a minute, hundreds of people in the Oregon District would be dead today,” Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley commented. By late Sunday, the number of mass killings in the country for the year 2019 had topped 250, an average of more than one a day in a country out of control.

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Me with Sandra Yifru; we were doing a survey for the newly formed “Ethiopian-American Initiative” on the views of Ethiopian-Americans. Two responses repeated themselves from the respondents I interviews: 1. The Democratic Party should be more inclusive 2. Trump must be defeated in 2020

3.

It’ s not just at the border that immigrants are being harassed, targeted, incarcerated, children separated from their parents but also within the country itself. Encouraged by what for an American president is some of the most openly bigoted. racist comments in the country’s history, wacko racists, often connected either formally or informally to racist websites and social media have taken their KKK hoods and sub-machine guns out of the closet and engaged in an orgy of racist and homophobic violence not seen in this country since the post-Reconstruction period after the Civil War.

The United States seems to experience a kind of cultural breakdown every now and then, when a wave of immigrants changes the cultural mix. A century ago, during the period just prior to and after World War One, there was an earlier wave of anti-immigrant paroxysm, a violent outbreak of racist venom, then like now, hiding behind a thin veil of “patriotism” and narrow definitions of what “American culture” consists of.

Then its target were Eastern Europeans (like my grandparents), Italians, Serbs, Russian and Polish Jews, Catholics. It resulted in the Anti-Immigration Act of 1924, the most restrictive up until that time. It was also a time when, in order to restrict immigrant populations, that a eugenics movement burst forth giving legal sanction to the involuntary sterilization of tens of thousands, many of whom were immigrants.

There is a curious parallel between the past and present anti-immigrant hysteria. Both in the early 20th century and today, the effort came after the fact. A century ago, the immigrants were already here and had already started to make their way from the unskilled ranks of the working class into the more skilled jobs and the professions.

Today, the great fear is that the demographics of the country is evolving in such a way that soon the major of residents of this country will be non-white, and that together Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and Middle Easterners will make up a majority of the population. They already make up a majority of the country’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class. The notion that an ill-conceived wall, or odious racist attacks like the one in El Paso will in anyway stop or even slow such historical processes is ludicrous.

Speaking of those many in this country bitten by anti-Immigration hysteria, a friend, an immigrant in Colorado from Canada recently noted:

They (these racists) live in a demographic shadow and they are afraid of the sun.

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Some of the faces of this country’s future – Ethiopian and otherwise….

_______________

Notes:

1. The two most common answers to “What can Democrats do better” – from the people I surveyed – some 15 – 20 – were “Be more inclusive” and “Defeat Trump”

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