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Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > Columns & Features > BlogBeat > I Used to Love America: How a Racist Jail System Changed Me

I Used to Love America: How a Racist Jail System Changed Me

By Christine Alegre
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

 

I used to love America, I believed in the “American dream.” I am the child of Peruvian immigrants who came to America seeking a better life and who, for the most part, found it.

I was born here and remember singing with pride the songs of our country, of freedom, liberty and equality. At 15 I still waved at the police, grateful they were here to protect me. Not until my own experience in the system did my perception change.

Peruvian-American author Christine Alegre

One month before my 16th birthday, I went to jail, trialed as an adult facing life without the possibility of parole. I was hurled into the system, my first encounter, facing charges for a crime I had not committed. I was given a gang enhancement even though I lived in the suburbs and had no affiliations. My color was affiliation enough.

In the system I learned, always one for reading and observation. I got to see the role the system played, how it was not a system of “rehabilitation” as it claimed. Instead, what I witnessed was the perpetuation of segregation and the emotional wounds that were left untreated. During the 2½ years I was incarcerated, I went from juvenile hall to women’s county. I spent my 18thbirthday incarcerated, and saw many of my peers do the same. Our formative years formed within the confines of a stagnant system.

I saw the circumstances of those around me. I truly understood their reality for the first time. I saw how America had warped the realities of black children and warped the way I had always perceived them. We all have choices, we just don’t all have the same ones, or as many.

I met children whose parents taught them to steal food so the family could eat, those same children now being trialed as adults for robbery or burglary — choices they made when they were too young to they were making them. Jail was the first time I saw the issues of racism and classism in America. With both my parents being from Peru, which is a multiracial country, I was taught that Peruvians come in many shades but that we are all one. While my family is Peruvian, we can trace our roots to Japan, Brazil and Africa.

But jail stripped me of my culture when I was no longer able to identify as a proud Peruvian American. I had two choices: Mexican or black. Sticking to what I knew, I identified as a black woman. The politics and control placed over brown-skinned people and Mexicans in jail is tremendous, tracing its origins back to racist foundations. I was not accepted as being “Mexican,” constantly being challenged based on my associations; the system only fed this divide, allowing it to fester within the confines of prison.

I soon realized that the America I loved — plentiful, safe, full of opportunity — did not belong to everyone. That maybe it didn’t even truly exist. It was hard at first to share this sentiment with others, especially my parents. Taught to believe that anyone can make it here in America, they could not understand why some chose not to try. How the choices made that led to violence, prison and ultimately death could be taken. To explain to someone who feels that they came here with nothing and made something, that in fact they were better off than many who had been here was indefinitely difficult.

My family came to U.S. in the ’70s, and by the time I was born in 1991 my parents were well assimilated to American culture. My parents were never on government assistance, which for a while they prided themselves on. They did, however, receive a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan, loans that historically were denied to black Americans. In Syracuse, New York, there was a study done between 1996 and 2000. Of 2,169 FHA loans, only 29 (1.3 percent) went to people living in predominantly minority neighborhoods. My parents were given jobs and treated fairly reasonably based on the fact that they were not seen as the enemy. Which begged the question then, who was the enemy?

Black America has always been under attack, and what we see in the media today is the repercussions of a racism-forever mentality, as G.C. Wallace put it in 1963: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” America never let go of its racist roots. Slavery built us, and prisons create an underclass of black and brown color. Black children are overwhelmingly seen as threats, and the names speak for themselves — from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.

Our juvenile halls are filled with black children whose families are still reeling from the repercussions of slavery and segregation, and from modern-day racism and biases that many people still choose to deny. We have all been pitted against the other, from race to race, to the mentality police have of “us” and “them.” Our government holds this same sentiment to be true. If it didn’t, how could they allow the people of Flint, Michigan, to live with poisoned water? This same hostile mentality is why the CIA formed operations like COINTELPRO, which criminalized our revolutionary leaders and assassinated them. How, then, do we change?

As broken as our system is, I got as close to justice as can be. After 2½ long years, I was acquitted and sent home with no record except memories to remind me of what had transpired. Memories I will never forget, and moments that still shape who I am today.

I believe in the revolution. I believe that if more people faced the harsh truth of what goes on behind prison walls and behind the boardrooms that construct these walls, they would not stand idly by and allow such an injustice to continue. This is a system that cannot be fixed; it must be dismantled. Just like our police cannot ever protect and serve us because historically speaking the police have always been here to protect the elite and their property (see Warren vs District of Columbia).

Solidarity is not just knowing something is wrong: It’s knowing why, and fighting fervently alongside others for what is right. Despite the growing sense of division in our country, now is not the time for hate, but for greater understanding. We must understand that as long there is division, no true progress can be made. If we want freedom, we must free ourselves. Deep down I still love my America. But, unfortunately, my America has not yet come to fruition. I fight for my dreams of America; I fight for all the people who believe in freedom, in change, in power and in love. Do not be afraid. Be mindful, be inquisitive and be bold.

Christine Alegre, 25, is from West Covina, California. When she’s not writing, she is a mentor with the Spirit Awakening Foundation in Los Angeles.

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