Op Eds

If I Die in America: Immigrant Reflections on Gratitude

I came home from work one day in July to some alarming news: A gunman had opened fire and killed three people at Ateneo de Manila University, my parents’ alma mater and one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the Philippines.

According to police, the suspect had a long-running feud with one of his victims, an Ateneo parent and the former mayor of Lamitan, the suspect’s town. The dispute began in 2019, when the suspect’s unlicensed medical practice was shut down by the regional government. He blamed the mayor, publicly accusing her of corruption and drug trafficking — grave and highly political charges in the Philippines, where thousands of extrajudicial killings have taken place in recent years as part of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s blood-soaked war on drugs.

In short order, my thoughts drifted from my parents’ college to my own future alma mater. Like at Ateneo, many spaces on Harvard’s campus can be accessed by unauthorized persons with relative ease. Just last semester, a team of YouTubers snuck into at least two large lecture halls and would likely have gone unnoticed if not for the disruptive prank video they were filming. Surely, actors with less benign intentions could do worse.

But this op-ed is not about the security of Harvard’s campus. It is about how, at a university separated by thousands of miles but just a generation’s difference from where my parents studied, I am spared from encountering similar extrajudicial killings while pursuing my education — it is about, in other words, the privilege of security that comes with living in America.

Admittedly, American cities don’t exactly scream “security,” especially not at night, and especially not at night for women, and especially not at night for women who live in states where abortion has been banned or will be banned imminently. And neither does the southern border, where migrants sometimes die of heat exhaustion in sweltering tractor-trailers because of a legal migration system so dysfunctional that smuggling humans is, in some sense, the safest option.


What I mean to say is: Yes, there may be millions of Americans who have to live every day knowing that their lives could be taken away by a guy with a gun, for no reason other than the place they grew up, the color of their skin, or the clothes they wear, for no reason other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time, for absolutely no reason at all — but at least if I die in America, it won’t be because my neighbor thought I was on drugs and shot me dead because the president told him to.

Gratitude is a tricky concept to navigate. There are times when I look around at what’s going on in this country — the Supreme Court poised to strike down affirmative action, hundreds of elected Republican officials refusing to accept electoral defeat, state governors shipping immigrants around with no prior arrangements for housing or jobs — and decide I want no part of it.

It is also during these times that I am most acutely aware of the privilege this nation has given me. Because I was born in America, I have the luxury to choose whether I stay or leave. And, regardless of my choice, I have the luxury of living in a safe place. I have these privileges only because my parents made sacrifices to raise me in the kind of city that allows one to end up at Harvard. So I don’t know if I can look around at what’s going on in this country and still say that I like it here, but I also don’t know if I can look my parents in the eye and tell them that I don’t.

Like my own feelings, America’s politics of gratitude is deeply confused: about what gratitude actually looks like, what we should be grateful for, and to whom our gratitude is owed. Today, one is marked ungrateful (read: “anti-American”) for pointing out the ills of America’s institutions or holding opinions that diverge from red-white-and-blue tradition. But to defend tradition for tradition’s sake because of some unexamined belief in America’s greatness is empty gratitude. We cannot claim to be grateful for the genuine achievements of this country while censuring those who seek no more than to hold America to its highest ideals. True gratitude requires honesty, a willingness to confront the moments when America, though good, has failed to be great.

As a first-generation immigrant, I think the only tenable stance I can take is one of heavy, intense, and crushing gratitude. I find myself pinned under the weight of words like “If you don’t like it here, then leave,” pinned under the weight of dead bodies in the Philippines, pinned under the weight of the sacrifices my parents made so that our family could live here, pinned under the weight of the fact that this is all I have ever known. Don’t think for a second that my yearning for change comes from a place of ingratitude. As confusing and painful as it can be to think about sometimes, I am grateful to be an American. That gratitude — firmly rooted in the hope that this country can be great — is why we should all want America to become better.

Francis Immanuel N. Puente ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Adams House.