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  • James Ilish Sanchez

An Act of Reconciliation


“What is your original face before your parents were born?”

-Zen Koan



When I think back to my childhood, I think of lessons that were hard to understand. On Sundays, I heard prayers to God in a language that I didn’t speak. My family would hold my hands and whisper that it would make sense when I was older. In our home, the hums and ums of Zen meditation music clouded the living room. I would fold my legs, close my eyes, and try to reach the mental space where my parents were. Often, I’d receive a koan, a little Buddhist riddle, as a lesson. The one above relates to the letting go of what we believe to ourselves and connecting to a more universal being. I was unsure of what my origin was to answer this question, both metaphorically and literally. As a stateless, military child who’d recently moved to Paterson, New Jersey, I wasn’t entirely sure what this “self” was supposed to be.


Childhood in Guantanamo Bay

Unlike other members of my family, I was born as a stateless child. This means from birth, I had no nationality of my own. This arose from an anomaly situation of being born in the U.S. military base of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from non-Cuban parents who were only U.S. residents. GITMO children--those born in Guantanamo, have confusing nationalities even without my complicated circumstances due to Cuba not recognizing Guantanamo as part of the country, and the U.S. only recognizing Guantanamo as part of the U.S. when convenient. In the eyes of the world, I did not exist.


My parents had immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States to create a better life for their future children. As any newly arrived immigrant might tell you, life is not so easy when you don’t speak the native language and look like everybody else. The only option was for my father to join the U.S. military to secure the path that they dreamed of. Before they knew it, my parents gave birth to my brother, and three years later while on base overseas, I was born.


For the first three years of my life, I lived in Guantanamo Bay, before briefly staying at a base in Puerto Rico, then moving to another base in Leavenworth, Kansas for about two years. When I finally moved to the non-military and heavily Hispanic town of Paterson, New Jersey, my life revolved around the inner circle of my brother, father, and mother. I came to meet many other immigrants, almost all with ties to their culture and roots. After only knowing GITMO, Fort Buchannon, and Fort Leavenworth, this was quite a shock to me.


I, on the other hand, didn’t even speak Spanish. From Guantanamo Bay to Paterson, I was raised to be an American before anything else, even if America never recognized me--not even as an immigrant, as that status implied one had a national origin. America has no classification, laws, or pathways for stateless people. “Where are you from” was always a very complicated question that I could never quite understand. Out of convenience, I might sometimes say Cuba, other times the Dominican Republic like my parents.


I experienced Iglesia and the Spanish language as an observer. The fact that my family also practiced Zen only further muddled what this “self” was supposed to be. After leaving the army, my father began a lifelong foray into higher education. Family values became values in education, morals of living became lessons in philosophy. I was taught to live inside of books instead of cultural dances or community gatherings. Even now, I wonder if that was what my parents believed being American was. Much of what I learned about my heritage came from speaking to other people and hearing their experiences, and bit by bit of listening to my parents’ stories about our extended family as I grew older.


First winter in Paterson, New Jersey

It wouldn’t be until much later, and after several rebellious periods, that I learned the importance of storytelling. I learned of my parents' hardships, the trials and tribulations of other Hispanics, Asians, and many others who found it difficult to piece together their history. Even after I began to write poetry and stories to better grasp such complex feelings, it wasn’t until I conducted anthropological research at a Zen Buddhist Temple for university that I would learn the real value of those koans I had heard all my life. History didn’t stop in the Dominican Republic or in Guantanamo Bay, but continued through what my parents taught me and through my own experiences.


What drew me to Vietnamese Boat People was this love of storytelling. The need to answer the question “Where am I from?” Many stories are lost in diasporas, and the children of migrants often don’t get the chance to reconnect with their history until long after childhood. As an ambassador for Vietnamese Boat People, I want to help people connect with their family’s stories of migration. The healing process of uncovering these stories is an act of history-making that every refugee, immigrant, and child thereof should be empowered to take part in.


Storytelling can take on many forms and be essential in trying times. Not only in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon but right here, currently in the United States with the pain that encompasses so many struggles such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Having experienced so many different ways of being American, it is disheartening to think again of the ostracization that occurs in one's heart when you are denied your humanity. A part of me is frightened of the atrocities that have been legally sanctioned, another part knows that through understanding history, it possible to forge a more sensible tomorrow. For the black community, for everyone. I'd like to believe that day may come. Differences can be appreciated rather than be used as a tool for oppression.


“Where are you from” is not the easiest question to answer. Be it another country, the middle of the sea, at the peak of a history of slave labor or forced migration. Understanding the stories of what came before can be difficult, but the new story of reconciliation is one that can better our hearts indefinitely.


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