WLRN Listeners Recall The Moment They Were Told To 'Go Back' Where They Came From

Jul 24, 2019

One week ago, President Trump said in a tweet that four Democratic freshman Congresswomen "go back" and "help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." All of the representatives are U.S. citizens. Three were born here. 

Democrats widely criticized the tweets. Republicans mostly stayed silent. Trump denied the comments were racist.

The president's remarks struck a chord with rhetoric scholars, who say these comments have roots in racist ideologies. They argue that statements like this are aimed at taking  the ownership of the country away from non-white and non-Christian people. 

According to federal law, telling someone to go back where they came from can also be a form of punishable harassment if it occurs in a workplace. 

"Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities," the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states on its website. The examples include comments that suggest that immigrants or people of color should leave the U.S.

WLRN asked our listeners to share their stories of a time when they were told to “go back” to their country. Dozens of you responded. Here are a few stories that you told us. 

Olga Gonzalez remembered a teacher she had in middle school when she lived in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. 

"She would just stand in front of the class, and just say, 'ah, you little Hispanic a-holes, y'all gotta go back to where you came from,'" Gonzalez recalled her saying. 

Many in the class, she said, were from Cuba, Central and South America and Haiti. 

"It was just like, 'oh my god, you know?' How do you process that as a 12, 13-year-old, first generation immigrant, you don't know, you're like, 'oh, I'm a second class citizen if I'm even considered one at all,'" she said.

Carlos Aguilar came to the U.S. when he was four years old. His family was in the process of moving into a new neighborhood in New York, one day they came home to a message written on the front door stoop calling them an ethnic slur and telling them to "go home."  

They were the only Hispanic family in a neighborhood of second and third generation immigrants from Europe. 

"It was hurtful, you always felt you’re not really an American," he said. "It made me want to show that I can actually be more part of America."

Aguilar said it's been a while since he's heard a comment like president's, "obviously it's racist, but it's just meant to divide us even further."

Many of these "go back" comments can linger for years especially if heard in childhood.

That was the case for Bernadette Guerra in Miami. She was seven years old when she and her mother were told to go back where they came from. She was born in Miami. Her mother is Puerto Rican.

A woman at a store's check out line told them not to speak Spanish. 

“It was the first time I ever heard something like that,” said Guerra, who is now 28. “My mom asked the woman in English what was wrong with speaking Spanish. The woman told me and my mom that we were disgusting. We just stood there in shock. I felt completely helpless because it didn't matter whether I spoke English or not, this woman did not want us around.” 

That also happened to Naomi Cobb in Miami. She’s of Bahamian descent and had an accent growing up. She said people would be frustrated talking to her and tell her: “You need to go back where you came from.”

In high school, she heard "go back to Africa" when her school would play other schools in football. She's heard people making jungle sounds at her while doing civil rights work in Palm Beach. And after she came out as gay and moved to Wilton Manors, her neighbor told her "all [n-word] need to go back to Africa." 

For Cobb, a 65-year-old Boynton Beach resident, the silence from the Republican party after Trump's comments was scarier than the president himself.

"It says to me that there are others who feel the same way," she said.

Juan Peña is a second generation American living in Davie. He told WLRN that every time he comments on Fox News' Facebook page, he's told to "go back to Mexico" and that "ICE is coming" for him.

Carlene Williams said she was told to "go back" while standing at a bus stop in the Bronx in 1981. She was 17.

"There were about four guys in an open back truck that shouted 'go home [n-word].' I was so shocked. I said nothing, but acted as if I didn't see them ... they sped off," she texted WLRN. "This has left an indelible mark in my life." 

Karina Trullá-Mualem in Plantation is a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Venezuela. She was once told to go back to her country by an acquaintance on Facebook after she posted about President Trump. I'm already here, she wrote back. 

"I normally don't block people who think different than me. That's the beauty of freedom of speech," she texted WLRN. "But I draw the line at racism and bigotry.”