On December 7, 2018, I left campus around 11 a.m. on my way to a supermarket in Astoria. There, I bought $150 worth of snacks for a Latinx networking event on campus. Soon after returning to Columbia, I left again at 3 p.m. to go ice-skating in Central Park. From 7 to 8 p.m., I checked out the famously lavish Christmas decorations around Rockefeller Center and Saks 5th Avenue. Back on campus once again, I decided to dress up in a suit and go enjoy myself at Kwanzaa Ball.
On that same day, seven-year-old Guatemalan immigrant Jakelin Caal Maquin was admitted to an intensive care unit in Texas. With a fever of 105.9 degrees and difficulty breathing, she had been taken from the U.S.-Mexico border by helicopter due to her critical health conditions. The trip to El Paso took around 90 minutes, less than half of what was planned, as the Department of Homeland Security’s original plan had been to take her to the city on land. Throughout that day and evening, Providence Children’s Hospital doctors tried to control Jakelin’s state, reviving her more than once as she experienced cardiac arrest. But it was to no avail. At 12:35 a.m. on December 8, Jakelin died from septic shock.
Atrocities like these always feel like a punch in the stomach for me. Whenever I read news of police violence resulting in the deaths of poor, young men back at home in Brazil, anger, unease, and a stinging feeling of helplessness take over my day. Our resigned acknowledgment of state negligence in third-world countries has tragically become commonplace. Although every individual death pokes and irritates a wound that may never close, I have become conditioned through time and experience to bear the weight of this shared pain. Back at home, we paint our banners, head out onto the streets, and shout for justice day after day. But we know that, as long as no profound change can be made, the next case will probably surface in a day or two.
It truly vexes me much more to learn of cases like Jakelin’s happening in the United States of America, and the reason for that goes back almost a century. After World War I, as the United States’ rose to economic superpower, American contemporary cultural production (especially the share of it that is exported to the four corners of the Earth) began pushing for a mythical notion of the United States. It was seen as the “lighthouse of the world”—a country where technological innovation, intellectual excellence, and law enforcement in defense of civil rights were unparalleled. Nine decades and innumerable internal and external conflicts later, this notion has eroded to its core. America is as flawed a democracy as any other. The government's failure to guarantee Jakelin’s physical integrity, when her own native land could not afford her that, gestures toward that very erosion.
As Columbia students—and, more broadly, elite university students—we may wonder what our role is in this state of affairs and whether we have a duty to help those we probably don’t even know. I want to argue here that we must care, but more than that, we must act on it. The privilege derived from an Ivy League diploma goes far beyond the opportunity of intellectual advancement—which, by itself, already gives us an advantage over the vast majority of the world’s population. With our Ivy League diploma, we gain access to a whole market of higher paying and less demanding job positions, a network of influential connections, and, at times, the possibility of continuing one’s studies.
What some of us are often oblivious to is that all of these privileges are made possible only through the hard work of those who eagerly accept, out of the necessity of survival, the low paying, highly demanding jobs we oftentimes snub—those who can rely neither on connections, nor on college diplomas, must exclusively rely on their bodies to feed vulnerable children like Jakelin. Our advantages, and the well-being they provide us, invariably stem from others’ sweat, blood, and tears.
As we sit in our libraries’ reading rooms—surrounded by millions of books on the histories of those who suffered to get us here—or in seminar classes in Hamilton as we discuss Plato’s idea of an intellectual elite in his Republic, it would do us well to remember how much control we have over our lives and how much influence we can have over the lives of those who interact with us outside of Columbia.
Our access to information and knowledge is the most powerful tool to change the future of our societies. The initiative to use this power for the common good is also an initiative to bridge the gaps between us and the people whose histories we study. On the other hand, arbitrarily choosing to ignore these gaps essentially means contributing to the system that let Jakelin die—an international, centuries-old system that oppresses, starves, and kills countless individuals every year.
As I walked home from Kwanzaa Ball on December 7, I saw several groups of well-dressed friends, casually strolling up and down College Walk. The bright lights on the trees served as background for spontaneous photoshoots. It was one of those moments in life when all preoccupations agree to back off for a minute. It was not until the next morning that I would realize, while reading the news, what a luxury these moments can be for a large part of the world’s population.
Author’s Note: I have received some comments on my previous column, naturally some positive and others not so much. Two stood out to me, though, as they categorically diagnosed the issue I exposed in my piece as paranoia. I have been thinking about this, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I did not back up my claim with as much evidence as some people might need. For this reason, in the spirit of trying to make it easier for everyone to understand my reasoning, I am including links to cases that may clarify: why I am wary of white men; what it means to be afraid of the police in New York City; how race itself is a cause of death back at home; and who perpetuates this deadly dynamic when they should be doing the exact opposite. I hope this helps.
Also, please do not diagnose anyone unless you are a trained mental health professional. It may sound odd to some people, but you do have to study for that.
Gabriel is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science, as well as Latin American and Caribbean studies. He contemplates a lot and tends to get overly self-reflective when faced with complex questions or enigmatic comments. If you want to test the veracity of this, DM him something very thorny @francog53. A Persistent Flaw runs alternate Thursdays.
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