Forty years ago, when I was living in exile with my family in Amsterdam, my thoughts would often turn to the boys and girls back home in Chile, my small nieces and nephews so far away from us. I would worry how they might be coping with the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
One afternoon those concerns came into sharp relief. Nathalie, the 6-year-old sister of my wife, Angelica, had come from London to visit our small apartment a mile or so away from where Anne Frank had once dreamed of freedom in a Netherlands occupied by the Nazis. Frank’s diary does not mention if she ever played a game that children everywhere indulge in and that Nathalie was enthralled by: She liked to make believe she was the mommy and demanded that our son Rodrigo, who was her nephew, though four years older, be the daddy. The two kids hid inside their “house” (a sheet covering a table that served both as my desk and for our meals), pretending they were adults, and candidly repeated words they had overheard adults uttering.
Such innocence filled me with tenderness and yet also evoked a bizarre sense of dread because I could not help wondering about children like them entertaining themselves in a similar manner in our distant and dangerous Santiago. How would that game be twisted and corrupted if it was enacted by the sons and daughters of parents who were part of the resistance movement, hiding from General Pinochet’s secret police? What secret sorrows and dread would those youngsters express? What had they heard their father and mother discussing in the night when they thought their offspring were asleep, the words that hovered in the air while the children eavesdropped on a potential violent outcome to their existence? What to do if the men who had power over life and death came knocking at the door one dawn? How can they tell who is an enemy and who is a friend?
Those corrosive questions led me to write a story that explored how children might react when thrust into a situation of mortal peril that they can only vaguely understand as they play “waiting for the enemy.” The story was constructed from the perspective of a Chilean boy around Rodrigo’s age who, as he realizes the perils threatening him and his vulnerable family, is obliged to grow up much too fast. When Chile returned to democracy in 1990 and children could return to play the games that others of their age engage in elsewhere without a second thought, I felt relieved that I would never again have to write a story fraught with such daunting events.
And yet now, four decades later, the dire circumstances of Donald Trump’s accelerated deportation policies have compelled me to turn that story from Amsterdam into a screenplay for a short fictional film, where again a boy and his sister confront the daily possibility that their lives will be violently interrupted by strangers.
Inspired and moved by the experiences of undocumented families close to us, I have set the action not in a remote Chile troubled by tyranny or in contemporary Syria, Turkey Kashmir or Sudan but here, in familiar Durham, N.C., in the United States of America, where the “migra” is the enemy, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement who will wreak havoc on those lives.
The film has been directed by our son Rodrigo, who decided to cast it with kids from our own town who bring to their roles an intensity that is almost unbearable, given their fears for their own families and friends.
It has been strange to watch our own son work with these youngsters portraying the very games he played in exile, but also comforting for us to realize that the grief of his own life of loss and banishment have stood him in good stead, opening his heart to those whose voices are so frequently neglected and crushed, people who have no rights and no protection and whose voices need to be heard.
It is less comforting to realize that millions of children in this land of the free and home of the brave, which has been built on the premise of receiving the “huddled masses,” are living in terror. It is sobering to have to compare the country of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of Cesar Chavez and Susan B. Anthony, to a tyrannical regime in Chile that oppressed its own people.
And it is shameful that the United States should be mentioned in the same breath as so many other relentless governments around the world that today persecute minorities and immigrants and turn their backs on refugees like we once were when our family wandered the earth.
It is a shame that has only grown in recent days, as the Trump administration has released guidelines for tightening border security, heartlessly singling out for accelerated deportation children who, by the thousands, have made the hazardous trek from Central America to flee poverty and gang violence.
The little girl who plays the sister in our short feature naïvely pedals her dilapidated tricycle while reciting a nursery rhyme: “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children will burn.”
She is not old enough or mature enough to fully discern that she is speaking of her own home, that she could well be the one whose life will be turned to ashes if armed men arrest her family and remove them from the only country she has ever inhabited.
Can we really shut our eyes to that sort of fear? Can we really be willing to doom so many blameless children to an uprooted life? Is that how America wants to be known?
This column originally appeared in the New York Times.