—The next to last time that I entered the United States was on September 21, 2001, ten days after the horrible and abominable terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers of New York. Those attacks had affected me deeply.
On that day the Miami International Airport had an almost eerie aspect, considering that as a “natural frontier” between the United States and Latin America it usually receives and dispatches the largest number of daily flights from the US to the region.
The basement area where the baggage claim is located was abandoned. Along with the Continental Airlines charter flight from Havana, there was only one American Eagle domestic flight arriving and that flight had arrived half empty, judging by the number of passengers waiting for their bags to emerge.
Three months later, after a period teaching classes in a Massachusetts University, I had set out to return to Miami from Logan Airport in Boston. The security measures had been still further reinforced and the order to remove your shoes and put them through the x-ray machine had been added to the normal security proceedings.
After passing through all the security checks with no problems, but before getting on the plane, an airport official came through the line separating out some of the passengers. He approached me courteously, signaled to me and asked me to step out of the line.
At that moment I realized that what all those in my group had in common was our condition of not being classifiable as “WASPs” [White Anglo Saxon Protestants]. Almost all of us were Hispanic – deep down, quite similar to the Arabs – although there were some Asians and two or three African Americans as well.
With the same courtesy, I asked him if that wasn’t an act of racial profiling. As he had evidently already been advised by his superiors, he limited himself to shrugging his shoulders and responding mechanically, “No sir, this is done at random. I apologize for any inconvenience that it may have caused you.”
Although it was all more sound than substance, at that moment I recalled two recent experiences. The first had taken place in the exclusive area of Lexington. After having left the house where I was staying for the weekend and gone outside several times to smoke, the owner – a famous North American intellectual – had received a telephone call informing him that there was a Hispanic male of suspicious aspect standing in the doorway of his house.
The professor from MIT, usually of a caustic humor, told the caller not to worry, it was only his gardener who was putting in some overtime hours in order to be able to visit his family in Chiapas.
The second incident was in Tower Records in Cambridge. My friend Janie, blonde and blue-eyed, was looking through the CDs while I stood behind her, watching what she picked up in her hands, but without speaking to her. A clerk came up to her and asked her if I was bothering her. She thanked him for the gesture but told him that there was no need to protect her from her husband.
The airport was the third time that I experienced something that a Cuban sociologist living in Chicago had written about: I am a “white” when I wake up in Havana, but I am “other” when I journey the thirty minutes through airspace to Miami, because I am no longer “white”. To exist is to be perceived, stated an English bishop who had the gall to declare objective reality inexistent – only here, the weight of it flattened me like an anvil.