[OPINION] The way of the conscious heart: Confronting racism, white supremacy, and hate crimes (Part 1 of 2)

“I confess that when I hear some speeches by someone responsible for public order or a government, I am reminded of Hitler’s speeches in 1934 and 1936. They are typical actions of Nazism, which with its persecutions of Jews, gypsies, people of homosexual orientation, represent a negative model ‘par excellence’ of a throwaway culture and a culture of hate. That’s what they did then and today these things are resurfacing. [We] need to be vigilant, both in civil and religious society to avoid any possible compromise…with such degeneration.” – Pope Francis, Nov. 15, 2019, as reported by Lauren M. Johnson, et.al of CNN.

“The prayer of the heart opens the eyes of our soul to the truth of ourselves as well as to the truth of God. The prayer of the heart challenges us to hide absolutely nothing.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, “The Way of the Heart,” 1981.

“Hate starts at every house,” Maura Brito said.

Instead of nursing her wounds of indignities, Maura purged them from her heart, by sharing her woes with friends. Her weapons against hate-inflicted wounds are love, forgiveness, prayers and conscientious service to others.

Maura, a Honduran, is a caregiver to Inga, a 93-year-old German survivor who persistently pointed out daily mistakes and deficiencies, like how this object does not belong to this space. “Can you not remember?”

During Inga’s teenage years, she lived in Germany, under Nazism, fed with daily radio broadcasts of hating others, other than Germans. Might that daily diet of hatred towards others affected her adult tendencies?

When Inga’s children would visit, Inga and Maura busily cook dishes for them to share and take home. On Maura’s birthday, Inga also made a special torte for her. But, Maura’s daily diet consisted of occasional thank you and heavy doses of daily pointing out mistakes.

One day, Inga’s son helped himself to groceries, taking them home without asking his mother. Maura was accused of taking them. She felt so angry and declared how she was raised to value honesty.

How was the truth finally revealed? Inga’s son fessed up to his dishonesty. Maura came close to quitting many times, but renews her positive spirit through prayers, forgiveness and projecting her wish to the Universe — that her quality caregiving be paid forward to her blind mom in Honduras.

The coronavirus pandemic transformed this negative default switch of Inga, realizing that 15 years of unilaterally pointing out mistakes, hyper scrutiny to most, she blurted out: “Please don’t leave me, Maura. I know you care about me.” Maura still takes care of Inga, wearing masks, and declined family invitations to preserve the health and safety of Inga, as herself. Of late, she asked friends to pray for Inga, to ease her suffering.

Grace starts at every house, spreading out to neighbors

98-year-old May struggled as a Holocaust Jewish survivor and waited for entry as a refugee in New York. She is quick to display gratitude and graciousness about the “thoughtful deeds” of anyone, including her caregivers, who are both Filipina immigrants. Michelle Dormitorio, May’s caregiver, commutes from Cerritos, a distance of 50 miles round trip.

During the pandemic, she changed her working hours including an overnight stay, to reduce her commute exposure to coronavirus, thereby protecting May’s health. Michelle did not go to family get togethers, to decrease her risk of acquiring the virus, a firewall she created to protect May.

When caregivers for the elderly were prioritized for vaccines, Michelle got hers. While May was in post-surgery and post-rehabilitation, Michelle stayed with her at the facility, making sure May was properly cared for: her meals, her medications, read to her and facilitated her grooming needs. One day when I visited her, her ice cream was lovingly served with strawberries cut to resemble a flower.

May, though a Holocaust survivor, normally expected in survivor studies to harbor bitterness and resentment, instead is generous, filled with love and overflowing appreciation. During neighbors’ visits, she would share how Michelle cares for her as family. May’s graciousness to others is legendary that her grandchildren’s visits last a week and neighbors do not miss a chance to celebrate her birthday. This year, even short hellos by her front window, flowers, and home-baked banana bread with her favorite chocolates were given. “C’mon come in,” she said with a smile, which we politely declined, to prevent viral transmission and a loving thank you card, penned by Michelle days after. (May handwrote all cards, until two years ago).

Grace and hatred grow legs in institutions

In the late 70s, Ralph, my Caucasian regional boss at a public state agency taught me financial literacy. As a new immigrant, I had no idea how to save. He encouraged me to save in the form of monthly deductions to treasury bonds. He told me that was a painless way of setting aside for my daughter’s college tuition. He consistently guided us with heartwarming stories.

During the national recession under the Reagan administration when the unemployment rate rose to 11%, we were restricted to using state-issued vehicles. It was a tight state budget, but it did not prevent us from creatively thinking of ways to be productive. We planned our inspections, one car was used and we got dropped off at different sites. We then took public buses to come back to the office. Our regional collective sacrifice was shared by Ralph, that when the recession lifted, and state vehicles were purchased, we were one of the very first regions to be issued state vehicles. We got a visit from the higher-ups who acknowledged our collective sacrifices to ensure the health mission was served, regardless of tight budgets.

We had a branch chief, with a quick temper, who cascaded blame downward. He often lied that he assumed his subordinates lied, too. It made for chaos, draining our energies, and staff suspicious of one another, thereby shielding him from being accountable to his staffers.

But even as he stayed indifferent to the point of cruelty and inflicting emotional harm — demanding we work more without proper staffing, fingerpointing and shaming folks in meetings — he was supportive of the industry.

He managed to influence a new agricultural practice of planting strawberries above ground, sitting on black ground cover, allowing for water and dirt to flow out, making the strawberries less susceptible to pathogen transmission. Portable toilets, hand washing stations were introduced. By holding industry meetings, he also initiated changes in state regulations for dietary supplements and other agricultural products susceptible to pathogens or disease-causing bacterial transmission.

One day, he was placed under a year’s suspension for abusing his public position and misusing state funds for the personal benefit of a staffer who was known to be favored with more state trips usually unavailable at her position of office secretary and ultimately got promoted to higher positions.

During his absence, his deputy, a Latino, assumed the chief’s role. It made for a lifting of some oppressive conditions — we were now being heard and our ideas actually considered.

I was motivated to work more, penned more reports, including one to a federal agency, which this Latino boss sent to this agency, as if penned by him. He did the ‘dishonesty’ openly by telling me he was going to Washington, D.C., invited to join a meeting based on the report I wrote. I felt a rush of goosebumps, almost an immediate rejection of what I just heard. He now works for that federal agency.

I persisted in speaking my truth, of health disparities, how we were egregiously understaffed, and that the next pandemic would leave us without proper responses. I was made a target of hyperscrutiny —my supervisor was no longer Ralph — but through some magic of internal reorganization, unbeknownst to the public, we got reorganized and a former colleague became my immediate supervisor. He asked me to fire an African American male supervisor who just got promoted. He told me to write him a derogatory performance evaluation, but I refused as it meant falsifying public records. Finally, to stop him, I said, he is free to write up the evaluation and sign it but I will not. I knew it would backfire if I complied with his instructions, which I asked him to put in writing. Refusing to write his instructions in writing, he stopped harassing me to do “the wrong thing.”

I hemorrhaged for three months, working in sustained hyper scrutiny, defending my staff, and my Kaiser physician wrote a note of excusing me from work for a week. A week that was too short, but long enough for my immediate supervisor to write me a negative evaluation that I abandoned my position and did not call in sick. Untrue, as I documented it with a doctor’s note, yet, he persisted in giving me a fabricated performance evaluation.

I got a lawyer who wrote that what they were doing, under the pretext of this, was actually unlawful acts of discrimination, and that got them angrier until I filed a grievance with the Office of Civil Rights. To resolve the grievance, I had mediation. I told them, “Gentlemen, how do you propose to make me whole, bringing me to ground zero when you have taken me 13 levels below ground zero with your acts of disparate treatment?” I was accompanied in mediation by Ester Soriano-Hewitt, the architect of the LA County Dispute Resolution Program. I asked to be left alone as a manager, to be respected to train my regional staff and a department-wide training on hate prevention and sensitivity training for all supervisors and upper management. No monies settlement.

I had an emotionally safe tenure in my last year prior to retirement. Like previous years, since 1992 to 2004, I used my role as middle manager to train and mentor all to be promotable, imparting skills to move up to higher levels of leadership, as well as the attitude of being inclusive of all — be women and Black, Asian, Latino, Caucasian, Middle Eastern individuals. This included resume writing and mock interview sessions privately held to upgrade their oral communication skills. Most have been promoted with the culture of “we are all learners, leaders, and teachers.” By practicing a culture of caring for one another, our regional staff thrived.

Karma has a way of completing the circle and extracting justice. I had another supervisor, another Caucasian male, as a result of “changing chairs,” internally. When I retired, he found himself being sued by an African American, let’s call her Mary for this article. Mary filed a federal discrimination lawsuit in the federal courts, alleging discrimination when she applied for a job with this state agency.

At that time, I led a regional hiring panel, which interviewed Mary, along with two Asian male supervisors. We asked merit-based hiring questions, took copious notes and made recommendations. Sacramento headquarters did the rest. Little did we know our notes would become public records in a Los Angeles federal trial court. I was already retired when I was called as a witness, testified under oath, and got cross-examined. I had a choice: tell the truth to defend the agency or not. I chose my conscience and to sleep with peace in my heart.

My husband questioned why I was going out of my way to defend the supervisor who harassed me to the point of incurring health and physical injuries when I could simply expose him. I told him that the truth is my life’s currency and reforms, not vengeance.

After that day’s trial, my former supervisor was teary-eyed and with two simple words, simply said, “Thank you.” At a Christmas party later that year, regional staffers invited the retired folks. I felt quite wholesome receiving their welcoming hugs.

Did hate persist in that agency? Of late, it took on another form: blatant physical harm to a Caucasian young female peace officer, who inflicted by a fellow male colleague, dared to speak the truth. This time, she received the support of witnesses who came forward as to what they witnessed. I hope in time, she prevails in getting justice and accountability, as hate simply persists, until love becomes the predominant culture.

Fr. Aris Martin reminded me that Mark 7:15, NIV: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them, continued on verse 21: ‘from within people, out of the hearts of people, come the evil thoughts, acts of sexual immorality, thefts, murders, acts of adultery.’”

Footnote: I am writing this to honor two civil rights leaders, decades-long friends, who have passed away years ago, teaching me the beauty of a life lived with inclusion and love: Ester Soriano-Hewitt and Raymond “Masai” Hewitt, whose death anniversaries are in March and April. Thank you for your sterling examples of morally aligned lives anchored in racial equality and inclusion. Raymond taught me about Martin Luther King while Ester taught me about democratic leadership skills and the farmworkers’ contributions to our civil rights. May you both rest in peace!

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 13 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

Prosy Abarquez Dela Cruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 13 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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