The Challenge of Identity in the Trump Era

Like it or not, trauma is simply an accepted part of everyday reality for Central American immigrant students. The traumas they face are myriad, from violence in their home countries to treacherous journeys northward, to suffering at the hands of Customs and Border Patrol and the challenge of reunifying with a long-lost parent who feels more like a stranger. But of all these painful traumas, perhaps the most ruinous is the trauma of maligned identity. 

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” 

“Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries come here?”

“These aren’t people. These are animals.” 

Since Trump’s inauguration in 2017, derogatory statements about Central American immigrants have become a common theme in official speeches, rallies, and Twitter diatribes. Indeed, it seems that denigrating the Central American identity has become a priority for the Trump administration, contributing to an overall climate of xenophobia, intolerance and racism. 

As a trauma-focused bilingual social worker in a large public high school in New York, I hoped that my students – most of whom are newcomers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – were in some way shielded from the politicization and demonization of their very being. But the more time I spent with them, the more I realized that they are profoundly observant. As a result of having grown up in trauma-saturated communities, these children are vigilant, always scanning the environment for potential threats to their survival. They have had to live like this, and such a defense mechanism is not easily deactivated once in a “safe” environment. So they are well-aware of the stereotypes they must confront.

“Trump is going to deport you all.”

“Go home, Mexican!” (“But, Miss, why do they call me Mexican? I’m from Ecuador!”) 

“Speak English here!” 

“Do the Latino cooks use the same bathrooms as us [clients]?” 

These are some of the comments that my students face here in New York, sometimes on a daily basis. And many say they’ve simply become accustomed to surviving them, as they’ve survived the many other challenges of being a Central American immigrant. 

While they are true survivors, they are not entirely bulletproof. They’re human, after all. I’ve observed the subtle – and not-so-subtle – ways in which such stereotypes and xenophobic attitudes affect these incredibly resilient children. The hesitation to speak Spanish, even when encouraged to do so. The reluctance to celebrate their cultural heritage. The internalized racism. The quickness to criticize their countrymen as backwards, uneducated, and delinquent while simultaneously praising supposedly evolved “Americanos.” Despite finally being in a “safe” country, Central American children in Trump’s America are being forced to develop a new survival mechanism: the erasure of their own identity. And the weight of being “less than” is profound for children and particularly adolescents, for whom identity development is a daunting task in the best of circumstances. 

Stripped of their sense of self and denied the opportunity to connect with their rich cultural heritage, Central American immigrant children may feel adrift, lost in an increasingly inhospitable climate of “other-ification.” Self-esteem plummets, as children feel increasingly distant from both their country of origin, and the dominant culture of their new country. While we know that an ongoing connection with our culture of origin serves to mitigate the challenges and stressors of acculturation, including discrimination, the opposite is true as well. Immigrants who are pressured to break from their culture of origin tend to report far greater psychological distress. When coupled with extensive exposure to trauma, the potential consequences of such distress are dire, particularly for children and adolescents.

So what can be done? As educators and clinicians, we find ourselves (at times uncomfortably) situated at the nexus of macro and micro, particularly with regards to the issue of identity. In moments when broader society fails to reflect the values of tolerance and social justice befitting a modern democracy, it is our job as educators to cocoon our students in inclusive, diversity-embracing schools. This is not an easy task, and it involves challenging conversations and honest evaluation. Some questions to ask include:

  • Do we make room for more than just the dominant narrative at this school? As a school, how do define “our community”?
  • Does our faculty/staff composition reflect our student body? If our student body is largely Honduran, do we have Spanish-speaking teachers? Clinicians? Lunch cashiers? Bus drivers?
  • Are protocols in place to respond to parent requests/meetings in the native language(s) of our students’ families? What cultural beliefs do our students and their families hold about educators/achievement/mental health providers?
  • Do English Language Learner students interact with native English speakers in our school? Is there an opportunity for storytelling? Storytelling by both groups of students can be an incredibly powerful tool for building community and challenging stereotypes. A fun technique to build empathy and understanding is allowing immigrant students to give “tours” of their hometown/neighborhood/soccer field etc. using the “Street View” function of Google Maps.
  • Do we remind immigrant students of the importance of making space for BOTH their culture of origin and their new connections to various aspects of American culture? Do we encourage them to share cultural traditions (holidays, folklore, dances, food, music, etc.) from their home country?

By doing so, we are reminding immigrant students that they are allowed to be proud of their rich heritage and their intricate, important identities. I was recently preparing to give a presentation on Central American immigrant students at a school in New York’s Hudson Valley. As I walked in, I bumped into a Guatemalan immigrant student I knew through my clinical work. I decided to ask him what he’d like me to convey to his teachers to help them really understand his reality. His reply was simple: “Miss,” he said, smiling. “Please tell them we still think it’s cool to be Latino.”

Stephanie Carnes is a social worker with expertise in trauma treatment and culturally competent practice. She works in a large public high school, where she provides individual therapy in both Spanish and English. She previously worked as the Lead Clinician in a federally-funded shelter program for unaccompanied children from Central America. She is the founder of Create Cultural Competence, LLC, a New York-based educational consultancy that helps school districts and community agencies develop a nuanced understanding of the student and client populations they serve, particularly recent immigrants. In addition to a Master’s degree in clinical social work, Stephanie holds a Master’s of Law degree in International Human Rights Law. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

We also have a podcast episode with Stephanie! Listen to Stephanie Carnes On Post-Traumatic Growth And Resilience: Cultural Competence And Creating Safe Environments For Central American Immigrant Children In Today’s U.S.


Photo by Joao Rafael/Unplash