William D. Lopez is a clinical assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. He is also the author of Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid. The critically acclaimed work, set in Michigan’s Washtenaw County, details the terrible strain that immigration raids place on Latinx communities—and the families and friends who must deal with their extensive fallout. To help mark Hispanic Heritage Month, Mr. Lopez sat with us for an interview.
Do you do anything special to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?
In my house, not specifically. As a Latino, the father to two multi-racial Latino children and the child of an immigrant mother, I like to think the culture that shaped my life is something that is constantly in the foreground. In my house, we try to integrate cultural pride into the books we read, the movies we watch, and in the stories, we tell each other, 12 months of the year.
What do you think about the term Hispanic?
Ha, great question. When I was growing up in Texas, my mom, born in Mexico, used the term Mexican. I remember discussing when and who got to use “American.” As I grew older, I started referring to myself as Hispanic, then Latino. I haven’t adopted Latinx in every setting, but my daughter has! How we describe ourselves is part of an ongoing, constant discussion shaped by our collective resistance and creativity. It’s critical to keep refining the terms that define and sustain us. But, at the same time, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is going to use the same system and tools to oppress us regardless of how we qualify ourselves. So we also have to remember to work against the policies that target us no matter how we identify.
What’s your thumbnail description of Separated?
It is a book that chronicles the aftereffects from a single ICE raid in Washtenaw County. By following the ripple effects of what happens in the lives of those who’ve been affected by them, I wanted to force us to think about the broad impacts of how these raids affect not just the people caught up in them, but also their families and the communities they live in.
What motivated you to write it?
A good mix of anger and rage at the oppressive and violent systems that are operating in my community are probably good starting points. But anger and rage are not very sustainable. So, I’d say I’m also motivated by my love for the people I see dealing with state-sponsored oppression, and the creativity and resilience they show in the face of that. I wanted to show what people are able to achieve beyond merely surviving. This is story worth telling, and to be in position to be able to tell it is really an honor. I couldn’t imagine anything more rewarding as a career.
One reviewer of wrote: “Lopez's book is one of the most powerful examples to date of an academic using deep study and radical empathy to indict a profoundly evil system.” How does it feel to receive a review like that?
I loved that review. What I like about particularly is the phrase “radical empathy.” A lot of times as an academic, you are told that you have to be “objective” and remove emotion from your work. But we don’t function as strictly intellectual or emotional beings. The secret to moving forward as researchers and activists is finding the intersection of those two aspects of ourselves, to bring and merge both our empathy and emotion and our intellect. That’s how I approached this, so it feels great to hear that the story you’ve told is one that people are learning from.
What is one thing you would like for non-Hispanics to think about as we mark this month?
On the one hand, I would like the contributions of our broader culture to be in the foreground. Our music, our literature, our art. I’d like to see that all celebrated. On the other hand, I’d like for people to remind folks of the racial profiling that targets my community, and other communities. People need to be aware that forces are at work actively trying to remove large portions of a community whose culture we are celebrating. If we don’t reflect on that, I don’t think the purpose of this month is really being served. Don’t listen to our music and eat our food and remove our families.
Are there any points we didn’t talk about that you’d like to raise?
Yes. I’m very excited about the next generation of folks doing this work. They seem to automatically take a much more intersectional approach by pushing the boundaries of are what traditionally thought of as Latinx communities to create a future where there is even more Black and Brown solidarity.