Commentary: A blatant double standard – one for Ukrainian refugees, one for Central Americans

I opened my computer to launch Zoom for my class on Latin American indigenous media. As I proceeded to roll, I noticed that my voice began to shake and my eyes turned red as I stared into the Zoom camera.

As I called out each student’s name, tears started rolling down my cheeks. I could tell that the students looked nervous and stressed. I quickly apologized and told them I had to cancel class that day.

My students never knew that my father’s family came from Ukraine. They assumed I was a queer Chicano professor, because that’s how I always identified in all my classes at the University of California, Riverside.

The night before, February 23, I watched a CNN reporter in Odessa talk about hearing Vladimir Putin’s army shelling the outskirts of the city. Odessa is where my father’s family is from. I grew up hearing stories about Odessa from my father, grandfather, and great-aunt during their years of exile from the Soviet Union in Los Angeles. I was in shock that night and disgusted by Putin when I heard on TV the explosions near kyiv, a city I took train trips to when teaching Spanish in Moscow for two years.

During this weekend, I observed how the Ukrainian refugee crisis worsened day by day. I read that Airbnb pays for thousands of refugees to stay in their rooms. Thousands of Europeans in dozens of countries have opened their doors to Ukrainians. I was encouraged but embarrassed at the same time. Media around the world, left, right and center, praised the courage of these refugees, and some journalists called them heroes.

An overwhelming majority of my students in my classes at UCR are Latino. Many of them are refugees from Latin America and a few are “dreamers”. I asked if any of them had noticed anything with this growing refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, and several were quick to point out the double standard.

A few weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, my class watched interviews about the forced sterilization of Latino refugees at a migrant detention center in Georgia. We discussed the Latino children fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who are held in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers to this day. The double standard in the media portrayal of Ukrainian refugees in Europe versus images of Haitian, Central American and Mexican migrants at the Mexican border was evident to everyone in my class.

I thought of the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine and the tens of thousands of refugees who had to flee their homes in Central America, Mexico and other parts of Latin America because of wars, dictatorships , gang wars and cartel terrorism. Refugees and migrants uprooted from their homes all experience trauma, whether they come from Latin America or Eastern Europe.

The images of people fleeing Ukraine shook me as I remembered my family’s story from Ukraine and Mexico, both sides leaving their home countries for a better life.

My undocumented grandfather, Candelario Muñoz, changed his name to Benjamin García when he crossed the Mexican border. He must have assumed the identity of a deceased relative in California when he brought my then-teenage mother to Compton.

My other grandfather, Sviatoslav, had a sister Neda, who taught me my first Russian words when I was a child. She was full of energy and recited Pushkin with such drama that it made me laugh like a child. Neda left Odessa as the Soviet Union became as oppressive as Russia is today under Putin. As she was dying of cancer, she said out loud in Russian, “Take me out of this hospital and throw my body into the Black Sea in front of Odessa. I want to go home.”

In the end, my Tiota Neda was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery surrounded by other Russian speakers and Armenians from the former Soviet Union. I cried more than once thinking of my grandfather Slava, my grandmother Alya and Neda. Moscow authorities took their homes and opened the graves of their relatives in the Odessa cemetery to disrespect their families. During all their years of exile in Los Angeles, they missed their old home.

Ukraine and Mexico came together to form my family in the Los Angeles border region. My Chicano-Mexican-Russian-Ukrainian border crossing identity pains me as I watch Putin’s war unfold as more waves of Latino and, most recently, Ukrainian refugees arrive at the Tijuana-U.S. border. United. My hope is that in the wake of this tragedy, future refugees arriving at the Mexican border, whether from Honduras or Ukraine, will be treated with the same dignity – which they all deserve.

Nikolai Ingistov-García is a professor of Spanish language and Latin American studies at UC Riverside.

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