Nov. 11, 2009

Stared Down by neo-Nazis, She Battled Back with Love

By Douglas McGill

The McGill Report

AUSTIN, MN – When Giselle Stern Hernández finished writing her one-woman show, “The Deportee’s Wife,” not in her wildest dreams did she imagine she’d one day perform it for neo-Nazis. 

That would have been like a sick joke or an awful nightmare.

After all, Stern Hernández is the daughter of a Polish Jewish father and a Mexican mother – and her play tells of her struggle to bring her Mexican husband back into the U.S. after he was deported to Mexico. 

Yet when Stern Hernández took the stage last Thursday at the Riverland Community College here, she found herself standing before a crowd of 120 people – including four neo-Nazis.

Sitting about ten feet ahead of her in the theater’s front-row-center seats were two men and two younger companions wearing black stadium jackets and T-shirts emblazoned with symbols of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a group that advocates the deportation, “peacefully or by force,” of all people in the U.S. except citizens of “pure White blood.”

Bullhorn Rants

Stern Hernández delivered her lines while looking almost directly into the eyes of Sam Johnson, the NSM’s “Unit Leader” in Austin and the organizer in recent months of several attention-getting rallies opposing liberal immigration reform. 

Burly and bald-headed, Johnson is known throughout southern Minnesota for his bullhorn rants at public rallies, his racist outbursts and for wearing swastikas.

In a typical appearance last July, he disrupted a pro-immigration event in Albert Lea by standing close to Mexican migrant workers while shrieking, spittle-mouthed: “You think America’s going to let you get away with this? Not a chance! You don’t belong here, this is our country! Stop taking food out of our children's mouths! Go home! Good-bye! You’re illegal, get out!”

As the minutes ticked by before her show started, Stern Hernández paced around stiffly backstage, sipping bottled water, frozen with fear. Nervous aides came by periodically, providing her with updates. 

“It didn’t hit my body until someone came and told me they are really here, sitting front row center,” Stern Hernández said. “I opened the door to the stage a few times to take a peek and I saw them sitting there. They are big guys and I’m up there by myself. If they wanted to tackle me they easily could.”

Extreme Example 

She took deep breaths and steadied herself by recalling a solemn vow she’d made while writing “The Deportee’s Wife,” which dramatizes the need for progressive U.S. immigration reform.

“I promised myself that I would start entering spaces that were a little more unfriendly,” Stern Hernández said. “This was an extreme example of that, but it’s all about walking the talk. It’s a part of my role.” 

So at 7 p.m. sharp she strode to center stage and delivered the play’s first line: “I wasn’t really listening for many years.” She told the story of meeting her husband, Mexican-born Roberto, and falling in love with him because he “smiled with integrity and he laughed honestly.”

She confessed in her monologue to sometimes less-than-noble motivations for hooking up with Roberto: “I loved having an undocumented boyfriend. I thought it made me look edgy, cosmopolitan.” At the same time she admitted that back then, “Mexico to me was a scary, dirty country my mother had had the good sense to leave.” 

Her play recounts how in 2001 Roberto, married to her but without a valid visa, was during a single shattering day discovered, deported back to Mexico, and barred from re-entering the U.S. for 20 years.

Automatic Pilot 

The couple’s ensuing Kafkaesque struggles with the U.S. Immigration Service to win permanent residency for Roberto – while at the same time trying to save their marriage from a system straining with its every fiber to break them apart — is the play’s gripping theme.

Her mind racing and her heart beating, Stern Hernández was on automatic pilot for the first 15 minutes of the show, she said. 

She was just mouthing the words as her mind raced, trying to decide whether to catch the gaze of the neo-Nazis in the front row, staring at her intensely.

She was even calculating the odds of her survival. 

“I was wondering ‘Are they going to jump me? Do they have a gun?’ Their body postures were scary. They wanted me to see their T-shirts and they were very open in their postures, as if they could jump up any time.”

But then, suddenly, something changed.

In an instant she saw the men sitting in the front row not as neo-Nazis but rather as human beings, perhaps suffering ones like herself. 

Soft Eyes 

“At that point I got my control back,” Stern Hernández said. “I said to myself ‘I’m going to start looking at them, and I’m going to look at them with love in my eyes.’ I looked at them with soft eyes for the rest of the show and it was a conscious decision, very purposeful.”

Whatever happened, it did the trick. The show ended without a hitch. That included the Q&A at the end of the show, when Stern Hernández sat on stage and answered questions audience members had written on cards. 

Kirsten Lindbloom, the chairwoman of the Austin Human Rights Commission, which brought Stern Hernández to Austin, said “The Deportee’s Wife” fulfilled the commission’s goal to offer a “soft voice” forum for discussing charged immigration issues in public.

“This year we’ve had four rallies which are loud, where people are standing with bullhorns yelling at each other, and people are getting arrested,” Lindbloom said. “As a commission we are not willing to be in discussion at that level.” The show last Thursday was co-sponsored by the The Advocates for Human Rights.

Immigration is a major issue in Austin because several large employers in town rely heavily on immigrant labor – mainly Hormel Foods, which is based in Austin, but also Quality Pork and Weyerhaeuser.  

Swastika Patches

The non-white population of the Austin Public School District has doubled in the past eight years, to 31.8 percent this year from 15.2 percent in 2001, Lindbloom says. Young families account for most of that increase, and one elementary school already has a majority of non-white children, she said.

Long a site of anti-immigration activity, 2009 was an especially busy year in Austin with Johnson and other neo-Nazis, garbed in all-black paramilitary fatigues and swastika shoulder patches, staging multiple rallies there and throughout southeast Minnesota.

The rallies have captured widespread attention in the blogosphere; inspired local newspaper editorials decrying Johnson and the NSM; and sparked a debate between bloggers and newspaper journalists over how to responsibly write about racist provocateurs like Johnson and the NSM.

The progressive Minnesota blog Bluestem Prairie published a three-part series documenting the NSM’s activities, as well as quotes from a 90-minute interview with Johnson in which he asserted that “minorities should not be citizens,” that “white people are better than black people in terms of intelligence,” and that the Talmud is a “filthy” document that advocates sexually abusing gentile girls.

During the Q&A at the end of “The Deportee’s Wife,” one or two of the questions sounded as if they’d been written by the men in the front row.

Greater Hopes

One of those questions was: “Is this play an attempt to gain sympathy for your Marxist ideals and to push for open borders?”

To which Stern Hernández replied: “I’m not here to change anyone’s feelings. People come feeling one way and leave feeling that way. I’m here to make people think. I want you to feel uncomfortable.”

The next day though, after an early morning run, Stern Hernández admitted to harboring higher hopes for her art.

“I was thinking ‘You may pretend to not be listening, but something of what I’m saying will make you think of me and Roberto in the future. It’s going to bump up against everything you know and believe in. It’s a love story. So if you love someone or ever loved someone, you know.”

What else was she thinking on her morning run?

“I’m happy to be alive and to be here. I was always told that my physical safety was not at risk. But it’s different when you are on stage, and Roberto was so far away.”

Copyright @ 2009 The McGill Report