On an Insect, a Rock, and Maybe a Human Being

1

Half a cockroach lies twitching at one side of the shower. A season of thunderstorms has sweetened the building’s pipes, driving her kind inward and up. Periplaneta americana seems more elegant somehow in Colombia: an outcome, perhaps, of the more evenly temperate weather shaping its behaviour, cultivating stately indolence. On the rare occasion when one of her kind slips under my front door or emerges through the drains, only to be confounded by a lack of ready sustenance on the other side, there is an opportunity for conversation while I reach for the paper towel.

Born of no fault of their own, the result of a species-wide propulsion from at least the mid-Cretaceous on, none consciously carries its cocktail of E. coli, H. pylori, Salmonellas, Proteuses, Shigellas, and the like into human dwellings. “All it wants is more … life, and more abundantly,” as the poem goes. For my own comfort, I praise each for having come so far, lived so long, seen and smelled and tasted so much.

I make death swift. There is no frantic dash. Only if I part the paper after, peering into the sticky collapse of structure into disarray, do the senses reel: the affront of mess, the shock of corporeal dissolution. Studies tether heightened olfactory revulsion to support for xenophobic policy, and all our euphemisms for unwanted outsiders pull from reference to beings like this little one. Is it political, a kind of moralizing practice, to familiarize oneself with the look of disorder, the smells of death and decay?

I could halt, mid-shower, to collect her remains: too messy for a simple nudge down the drain. But the effort would be inefficient. While I wait, I puzzle over the shape of this one’s demise. She did not simply wind down, like so many clockwork beetles come to rest in the morning shadows of my balcony; she had been severed to bits. What apex insect had I missed doing such grizzly work? Though Rattus norvegicus exists on nearby streets and in meadows trailing up the mountainside, it never wanders this building’s halls, or leaves urine, feces, and gnawing from any nighttime visits while I and my neighbours sleep.

I wonder if a beetle might have done this, strong-jawed and determined, although all the specimens I’ve seen wander through my world are more intent on plant-life: crop pestilence species of the most elegant exoskeletal patterning, fated never to recognize the appeal of their own wings’ prominent designs.

I turn the water off and reach for the sliding glass door. Its far edge comes to rest right along the cockroach’s partition. Aha. The simplest explanation. I feel sorry for the clumsiness of death at my hand – then accusatory. “Why didn’t you move?” I ask her remnants, no longer twitching. Then I hear myself.

Few things lie solely in the domain of Homo sapiens sapiens.

Setting blame upon the victim is probably one.

2

Every rock, when dislodged, can reveal an underlying ecoystem of writhing worm- and insect-life – and create a new one, once left to rest on a different side. When I moved to Colombia in February 2018, I knew I wanted to reveal to myself the shape of my underlying ecosystem, but I had only a vague idea of the form my next would take. Which conceptualizations would finally wither? Which fresh ones would take hold?

At the cusp of first losing legal status last year, in the middle of pandemic, I was shaken and in ideological turmoil. I had never lived on the fringes of state-based precarity before, and all my ideas about it were shaped by the rigid institutionalism of Canada, the U.S., Britain – countries with ideologies I had sought to step away from in the first place, by moving into a different discourse altogether. I knew undocumented people in Canada. I also knew how hard it was for them to find any safety or security in that world. I knew how palpably reviled they often were, how targeted as “cheaters” in a system that misled far more.

I had had such plans to proceed into my new life with full anglo-Western due diligence. I had found a job where I was contributing to the local economy. I had been ready to commit for five years at a difficult company, to earn my residency with three work visas in a row. But my company misdirected me from the outset; when I told HR I was working toward residency, and needed to do due diligence every step of the way to achieve that end, HR still gave me inaccurate information about my obligations – and also failed to fulfill their own. It was a logical deception on their part; they didn’t believe me when I said I wanted to do what was necessary to live here forever, because no westerners ever stayed past a first visa. Furthermore, the only way to make their teaching salaries seem at all viable (before westerners inevitably leave, citing the ability to make more money in the Western world) was to fudge the shared mandatory monthly contributions, on both employee and employer’s part.

I only found out about this problem, then, when I went to apply for my second work visa. The company continued to put immense pressure on me to take on new clients for the five months when I was undocumented, and while I was trying to sort out why the government wasn’t accepting my visa requests. (But why not put pressure on me, to extract everything they could before I inevitably gave up and retreated to the “comfort” of the Western world, when they were charging my clients three times what I was paid?) Finally, the foreign affairs office denied me a visa outright – after having wiped from my record, in spiteful response to another part of the government ruling in my favour, of all signs that I had ever been a migrant in the first place. I had to leave the country for a week, return on a tourist permit, and wait out a six-month ban on applying for a new visa.

When that ban passed, I was ready to apply anew, but my application still has not been filed. The visa agency I have been using to help with these problems will only tell me that there is a new problem they’re trying to resolve. I suspect it has something to do with government delays, in retrieving an essential document during Colombia’s strikes and in the middle of COVID’s third local wave. Either way, I am past my last official tourist permit, in the grace-period created by our national health emergency.

And when I manifested symptoms of COVID two days after becoming undocumented?

Well, at that juncture, I felt ever so much more of my “ecosystem” of Western conceptions fall away.

I had never before experienced firsthand even this crumb of arbitrary legality, but what shook me most was realizing how much I had nevertheless been clinging to the notion of exceptionalism, my exceptionalism, even though I have been an explicit advocate for displaced persons and migrant rights for years. 68 million people are currently displaced around the globe – and of those, the second-highest national figure, 1.8 million, reside in Colombia. This is even a significant part of why I chose Colombia: because I wanted to learn from a social contract that has more fully naturalized this critical question of human rights and dignity into its tumultious cultural discourse about how to forge a better world.

(The first, with 3.6 million refugees, is Turkey. Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany round out the top five.)

Yet still, for all that overt advocacy, the rock’s initial ecosystem was not so easily dislodged.

Another Homo sapiens sapiens-ism:

Contentment in the lie that concern for the afflicted is enough.

3

As the Western world bears witness to Palestinian suffering – hundreds of civilians dying under Israel’s internationally backed human-rights-violating military initiatives; tens of thousands more being further displaced – I share word and visuals from what I am seeing and reading of Colombia’s nation-wide civilian mobilizations. Recent protest movements in North America (Indigenous groups resisting police and military invasion advanced by state governments serving private interests; Black Lives Matter taking to the streets against systemic and institutional racism) have to some extent cultivated greater understanding of these other worldly plights.

But still, for the most part, this compassion yet exists only within the parameters of Western comfort.

When I first mentioned Colombia’s strikes to many Canadians, I was given the brush-off, the dismissive “They can just vote out the president in the next election if they don’t like him.” This incuriosity, this eagerness to impose a self-assured view of other cultures’ issues at the drop of a hat, was palpable.

I was also told that Colombia “needed” to enact its initially proposed tax reform – a tax most deeply affecting middle- and lower-middle-class citizens – to shore up its international credit rating. Other Canadians then scoffed at my report of what happened after the first day of protests, when Bogotá saw some exploiting the strikes to loot – and protesters famously tracked down and returned big stolen items from any looters in the movement. It was difficult for many folks in Canada and the U.S. to believe that something more coherent was going on; that it wasn’t all just an excuse for looting and property destruction. The Colombian people – the 80% who were opposed to this new tax reform – just didn’t understand what was in their best interest. At least, that’s what many Canadians automatically believed.

The turning point came when the U.N. spoke out against police brutality and related human rights violations against Colombian protesters. That was when I started to see more sympathetic coverage in North American media, and some changed views among friends and family. Even then, though, there was great reluctance around imagining a different democratic ecosystem actually functioning. The abiding myth, the great Western contentment, is that as dire as things might be within our own socioeconomic paradigm – with all the crushing debt and diminished opportunities for whole generations, along with deepening entrenchment of plutocratic corruption – ours is still so clearly the best of all possible systems. Ergo, it’s not even worth considering learning from others in the world.

Here in Latin America, though, national protest days are often naturalized within the political process, and openly discussed in advance. In Colombia, a strike committee convenes to announce new dates, then meets with government to negotiate routes, safeties, and policy asks. Municipal services and national media broadcast key information to help everyday citizens navigate their communities on those days. Where protest groups and government disagree, things get more complicated – with riot police, and escalation from straightforward protest to sometimes violent standoffs with property damage and loss of life – but government concessions are drawn from the efforts.

In the wake of that supposedly quintessential tax reform, for instance, President Duque has accepted the resignation of key government figures involved in its initial formation, offered free tuition to all lower-strata students in post-secondary education next semester, and committed to investing in a workers-first reboot of the Colombian economy by subsidizing 25% of the minimum wage for youths from 18 to 28. There were other options, then – options that invite economic reboot in a way that stands to benefit more than just the upper-class in the middle of a pandemic that compelled most Colombians to focus more on intra-national economies of food, textile, and automotive manufacturing.

(Which is to say: Maintaining a robust international credit rating, for most Colombians, is not a key concern right now; and even if pension outcomes are tied to foreign investment, what few Colombians are even eligible to pay into this safety net saw their road to drawing pension massively destabilized in November 2019 – leading to national protests then, too.)

Likewise, cities and departments have seen other officials step down in the wake of police brutality allegations, which are being swiftly followed up by internal and third-party investigations in certain parts of the country. And the struggle of active, visible democratic action continues, with a new wave of national protests launching today.

4

But complacency can manifest in many ways, so while it was easy to be frustrated by folks dismissing and underestimating the nuance of Colombian protests (along with other hardships like the devastating impact of Israeli actions in Palestine), I was slower to pick up on the ways in which even advocacy for other struggles could still be a manifestation of ideological complacency.

How I was still being complacent.

When I first came to Colombia, I learned part of this lesson when I realized that most Colombians give very little thought to North America at all. I had expected some level of abiding anger for countries that are fully known to be exploitative, and responsible for a great deal of ongoing suffering in Latin and Central America. What I found instead was that, while professional-class Colombians all had stories of racism and prejudice they experienced on trips to the U.S. and Britain, most held these countries as vague aspirational goals – for future travel; for making money to send home – while focussing on the much more pressing struggles in their lives.

Which is as it should be. The fault was mine: In my desire to escape the failings of anglo-Western social contracts most affecting my life, I had gone into my move to Colombia expecting Colombians to centre their mental energy on the West, too.

Another part of the lesson then fell into place early last year, when I used an article about media representation issues in the U.S. and Canada for an English class with white-collar students here – and discovered that, far from being irked about media representation of Colombians in international film, my students all saw themselves as “cosmopolitan” for having watched U.S. films at all, whereas they were fairly sure (rightly so) that a significant portion of U.S. citizens did not ever watch content from around the world. Some of these students didn’t so much as have TVs in their extremely modest homes until their late teens; and so, general consensus among this group of programmers was that media representation issues in the U.S. were a kind of activism that only affluent cultures could afford.

When this year’s protest movements began, then, I was finally in a position to recognize how blandly complacent even many forms of Western endorsement for international struggle could be. Some family and friends absolutely support Palestine and Colombia, for instance… but in line with their understanding of what a fight against systemic oppression should entail. These folks would even grow critical when other populations weren’t more upset: They should be outraged! They should be trying to tear the whole government down! Why weren’t they trying to tear their whole government down?

Did they need a Westerner to come over and show them how it was done?

5

My anxiety over legal status belongs to this same vein of Western complacency, this supposed advocacy for the afflicted from a place of persistent ideological exceptionalism.

Yes, I have spoken out, openly and often, about the rising tide of environmental refugeeism: the resource wars and escalating state precarities that will drive violent displacement at staggering rates in the coming years. I used to do so on Patheos, but the company has made some changes that now strongly discourage writing on the “political”, and so I am in the process of finding another home for my humanist writings. (I do thank Patheos for being an excellent forum for learning how to write on these themes with confidence! I am a far more coherent essay-writer today than I was when I started there, apprehensive as I was about what sort of hostility I would meet among random commenters.)

But I have, at the same time, clung to the belief that I needed more long-term stability first, before I could do the work I wanted to build a better world.

This was my complacency.

This was a remnant of the old, underground ecosystem yet clinging to this dislodged fool of a rock.

When I directed that bit of nonsense chiding at the dead, severed cockroach, so fleeting, so industrious, having come so far in search of respite – “Why didn’t you move?” – I was manifesting a common human behaviour: throwing blame onto something else even when I already knew the true agent at fault.

There are many ways in which we do this, with respect to our ideologies and social contracts. Many ways, I’m sure, in which I still do this – and in which I simply have not yet realized the depth of my error.

But when it comes to migration, I know that personal deception lay in the tacit, persistent belief that if I did everything the “right” way, all would work out in the end. For years, this conviction operated in direct cognitive dissonance with the fact that millions of people move through the world trying to do the best they can every day – and receive no justice, none at all, for all their personal and communal striving.

I cannot cleave to both beliefs and still be the most coherent advocate possible for a better world.

So.

The paper towel is torn.

The conversation – with myself, ultimately – appeases.

You had a good run, little relentlessly propagating, disease-riddled belief.

I will learn to do better from the mess of you I now hold in my hands.


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