I See You.
In the northern region of South Africa’s Natal Province, local tribes often greet one another with a single, three-syllable word: “Sowubona.”
To most English speakers, it’s the equivalent of saying “hello.” But the significance runs much deeper than that. In its purest translation, what sowubona really means is, “I see you.”
If you’re a member of one of these tribes, you would respond to the greeting with, “Sikhona.” Translation: “I am here.”
The order of the exchange is important. What it says, essentially, is this:
Until you see me, I do not exist.
In other words: When you see me, you bring me into existence.
You can see this dynamic played out in the movie Avatar where the two main characters—Neytiri, a member of the Na’vi tribe on the fictional planet of Pandora; and Jake, a Marine, who leaves his post to literally *become* one of the Na’vi—are standing face to face for the first time.
“I see you,” they say in turn. In that instant, each of them finally sees the other for who they truly are.
It’s a beautiful moment, and one I’ve thought a lot about in recent weeks. From Pride Month and the growing Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice and equality to the escalating COVID crisis and the recent Supreme Court Decision upholding DACA, millions of people are demanding to be seen. To be heard and understood. Not just for their politics, but for their humanity—their experiences, fears, hopes and dreams.
Which is why it’s so important, now more than ever, that we, the SHPE Familia make a concerted effort to really see our fellow Black and LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, and our Dreamers. To look them in the eye and acknowledge them for who they are—even if only metaphorically.
Even if you don’t have the money to donate to a specific cause; even if you are consumed with work and family and can’t attend a rally or protest; there are things that you—that all of us—can do to help. Here are the steps I’m taking. And I hope you do, too:
- PAUSE: Acknowledge this moment in our collective history as necessary and long-overdue.
- LISTEN: Seek out the voices and perspectives of others—including those in the Black, LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities—and actually listen to them.
- LEARN: Allow your assumptions and biases to be challenged; get comfortable with uncomfortable issues and discussions; and be open to different insights and new experiences.
- ACT: Use your newfound insights and knowledge to inform your decisions and actions.
- REPEAT: Pause. Listen. Learn. Act.
Acknowledging the experiences of other communities can also help us better understand our own Hispanic community. As many of you know, June is Immigrant Heritage Month here in the U.S. And while it didn’t receive nor has it received the attention it should, it can still serve as an important reminder of why sharing our stories—whether as Hispanics/Latinos or immigrants more broadly—is important to engendering understanding within our own and throughout other communities.
Even when we identify as “Hispanic” or “Latinx” this does not mean our experiences are the same—in the same way that the experiences of Black communities are bound to be different, depending on where they are. Some of our families have been here for generations; others, just a few years. Some of us grew up poor; others had everything they needed and wanted. We claim different countries; have different shades of skin; claim different sexual orientations and gender identities; speak with different accents; and hold different religions and politics.
So there’s a lot we can learn from each other—as Hispanics, and as human beings. But only if we truly open ourselves up to the perspectives and experiences of others. That we truly empathize with one another. To do that, we have to let down our guards—to peel away the facade we may have spent a lifetime building up.
In other words, we have to be willing to take off our proverbial masks.
In one of my first keynote speeches as the CEO of SHPE, I talked about one of the iconic symbols of Dio de los Muertos: La Catrina and the mask or face paint people often wear for Halloween. While the Catrina mask has become a cultural touchstone, I explained that, for others to truly see us, we have to be vulnerable—to remove the mask that many of us feel compelled to wear every day and allow ourselves to be seen for who we truly are.
These days, wearing a mask or face covering has taken on a whole new meaning. It’s become its own kind of solidarity—a way to protect not just ourselves, but those around us. But having to shield our faces from others, not being able to smile at a stranger on the street or in the grocery store, isn’t an easy thing to get used to.
Not only that; we’ve had to move our entire lives—how we work, how we interact with friends and loved ones—behind the digital mask of remote communication. At a time when we really need to feel connected, we’re more physically distant than we’ve ever been. And while it’s true that things like Zoom can bring people together (and more frequently), it’s still no substitute for hugging a friend or even a fellow SHPE member or breaking bread with people we care about.
So how do we meet this moment in our history? How do we make sure that these current limitations and restrictions don’t stop us from doing the necessary work of surely seeing one another—of seeing our mutual value and purpose?
The short answer: By embracing every interaction, be it six feet or six time zones apart, as an opportunity to really see one another. To PAUSE, LISTEN, LEARN, and ACT.
Whether the person we’re talking to is a family member or lifelong friend, someone we know on a deeply personal level or a stranger we’re meeting for the first time, it’s vital, in my humble opinion, to start seeing these everyday interactions as something more—a chance to honor the existence of the Other.
For our world to heal, we have to take off our proverbial masks, and be vulnerable. To actively listen to one another even when doing so makes us uncomfortable. That’s how mutual purpose and understanding is reached. That’s how trust is forged. That’s how we move forward—as a community, as a nation and as a species.
But first, we have to see one another, to open our eyes to the people right in front of us—family, friends, and strangers alike. We have to let ourselves be challenged and changed by the face of the Other. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. That’s how we foster a culture of mutual respect and trust, and ultimately love.
Only when I see you, can I myself be seen.
Raquel Tamez, SHPE CEO