Erika Almiron, the daughter of Paraguayan parents, was in fourth grade at Holy Savior Catholic School in Norristown when a classmate told her, “Go back where you came from.”
The pain of that insult remains vivid about 30 years later.
Then and now, Almiron was a U.S. citizen, born in this country. Go back where she came from? That was South Philadelphia.
The racist, six-word trope carries a particular sting, an explicit suggestion that someone is not American, not part of the collective “us,” but instead belongs to an unwanted group of “others” who should or could be made to go.
It hit with new strength this week after President Donald Trump told four Democratic congresswomen of color that they should “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” In fact, all four are U.S. citizens, three of them born in this country.
“It’s been an experience my whole life, my parents experienced it,” said Almiron, 42, now well-known in Philadelphia as the executive director of the Latino activist group Juntos and a former candidate for City Council. “The person who says it, I think, feels powerless, and they’re trying to exert some kind of power.”
In more than half a dozen interviews on Monday, people of various ethnicities, races, and walks — government leaders, scientists, educators — said they’ve never forgotten the shock and distress of being tagged in this manner.
When Newtown Square financial consultant Manjinder Kaur saw Trump’s tweets, she was immediately thrown back to a moment as a 7-year-old girl on a playground in Lodi, N.J.
Kaur, age 3 when her family moved from India to the United States, was confronted by white adults who told her and her friends that their turn on the swings was over. When the children didn’t budge, one of the adults warned, “You need to go back to your own country.”
“It was so bizarre to me,” said Kaur, 29. “I felt like, ‘This is our country. I’m not really sure what you mean by that.’”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal knows how she felt.
“When you’re trying your hardest to fit in, it’s a message that you don’t belong here because of where you come from," said Grewal, who was born in Jersey City to Indian immigrant parents. "That cuts deeply.”
The nation’s first Sikh American attorney general has been the target of racist comments for wearing a turban. He finds he has been told to “go home” more frequently after world events such as the Iran hostage crisis, the Gulf War, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We have to be honest about one thing,” said Grewal, a Democrat. “It’s only told to people or said to people who are visibly different in some way.”
For those wounded, “go back” is a variant on a theme, a means to interrogate them about their origins and judge whether or not they fit a stereotyped notion of what a real American looks like.
Pearl Lee, a 29-year-old scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has had strangers tell her to go back to China. Or to Korea. Or Vietnam.
Lee — American-born, of Chinese descent, raised in the Netherlands — has been heckled even in Center City. She worries that Trump’s language will only encourage others.
“Just because our president said these things, it’s not OK,” she said. “Even though he might not be better than that, we as a people are.”
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that a group of progressive congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”
He wrote that it was “so interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”
Trump doubled down on the tweets Monday, saying “many people agree with me.”
The tweets were aimed at U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who were born in the United States, and at Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who came to this country as a refugee at age 12.
During a news conference Monday afternoon, the congresswomen described Trump’s comments as a distraction.
“Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid challenging and debating the policy,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “He does not know how to defend his policies, so what he does is attack us personally. That is what this is all about.”
Such treatment of people perceived to be different has been part of the United States almost from the time that the United States was invented. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin hated German immigrants. The Irish arrived in Philadelphia in the 1780s, and even six decades later were attacked by mobs during riots in 1844.
It can seem that not much has changed.
Jess Torres, a 19-year-old Temple University student, was born in New York and grew up in Upper Darby as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She’s frequently asked whether she speaks English, and has been told to “go home” more times than she can count.
“Ever since 2016 and the election, it’s been exacerbated,” she said. “If the president thinks this is OK, does it matter what we regular people think?”
Ellen Somekawa, the Japanese American executive director of FACTS charter school, doesn’t recall anyone telling her to go back where she came from. But she has close acquaintance with that statement’s racist cousin, “Where are you from?”
People seem to feel free to question her, even in the grocery store.
“People ask what they think is a very simple question, but my reaction is really complicated,” Somekawa said. “What am I going to say, and how edgy do I want to be? … It feels like it’s a way of saying, ‘You can’t be from here’ or 'You can’t be American.’”
Both of Somekawa’s parents were born in the U.S. And both were forced into internment camps with 110,000 other Japanese Americans during World War II. If Somekawa is “from” anywhere, it’s Minnesota, where she grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata.
The question can sting, she said, because its roots lie in the Chinese Exclusion Act and other legislation that blocked or limited Asian immigration for decades. Those laws didn’t change significantly until the mid-1960s.
“The assumption is that if you’re Asian,” she said, “you’re not ‘from here.’”
Almiron, of Juntos, has talked to many young people who have been targeted in the same way, told they didn’t belong and needed to go back to somewhere else.
“What we need to do is speak against it," she said, noting the Democratic congresswomen’s strong response. “I feel like the congresswomen are really showing their power in this moment.”