Being Joyful Is Its Own Form of Protest
My friends and I were at a bar in Little Rock, Arkansas, the weekend after the election. Originally, we had come to Little Rock to visit our friend who attends medical school in the city. We didn’t expect our reunion weekend to follow the most devastating election of our lifetime.
Everyone in the group has immigrant parents, most of us with family from Mexico. We are writers, teachers, comedians, engineers and more. The election left us all shaken, saddened, nervous, angry- a range of feelings that were difficult to articulate at once. So, during the days leading up to this weekend, I felt anxious. I was unsure of how we would go on with the reunion after what had just happened. Should we spend the weekend grieving? Ranting? Protesting? Pretending none of this happened at all? I wasn’t sure what the appropriate response would be. And after a week of such intense emotion, I wasn’t even sure what my friends and I were capable of.
Our first night together in Little Rock, we decided to visit this bar. Not counting the kitchen staff, we were perhaps the only Latinxs there. A few beers in, we heard the news that Mexico had beat the United States in a World Cup qualifying match, so I asked the musician playing piano at the front of the bar if he could play a song in Spanish. He agreed to play “La Bamba” and “Guantanamera.”
As he played, we danced in our chairs. We “cheers”-ed our shots in Spanish (“Para arriba, para abajo, pa’ el centro, pa’ adentro”). We let out many Mexican-style gritos from the bottom of our stomachs.
Surprisingly, the musician cheered along with us. After playing our Spanish songs, he said into the microphone “In response to this election, I’d like to play this.” Then he played “We Won’t Back Down” by Bruce Springsteen.
Three songs in, we then got the two tables next to us to join us for a kareoke rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, just for fun. We belted out the lyrics, and headbanged during the part that everybody does. After finishing the song, a couple sitting at one of those tables told us “Thank you for the great company! You made our night!”
It occurred to me then, that out of all the people in this bar, we were the ones enjoying ourselves the most. In a bar in Arkansas, the Latinxs, the ones who had arguably lost more on this election night, were the ones having the most fun.
In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit wrote “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”
That night, our silly dancing, singing and laughing felt like it had that purpose. At a time when I felt my community was most disempowered, something felt very beautiful about seven immigrant kids gathering together, loudly and unapologetically, to enjoy each other’s company. Something felt very necessary about celebrating each other.
Though our election defined what our country thought of immigrants, that night (though not intentionally) became about defining who we were to ourselves: a group of young adults, children of immigrants, successful and joyful on our own terms. That in itself felt like its own form of protest.
As the aftermath of this election continues to unfold, I’m not sure what will happen to my community and to my country. And I’m not sure how exactly I’ll have to respond. But in the meantime, I want my activism to also include moments of joy, like those in Arkansas that night.
Poet Aja Monet said, “Everybody wants to get free but what is it gonna look like when we’re free? We must begin to practice that now.” I think that night in Arkansas was my first try. I look forward to continuing to practice.