Connecticut Attorney General William Tong ’91 used to look through the window that divided the kitchen from the dining room at his parents’ Chinese restaurant. This window came to symbolize a barrier between himself and the people he served at the restaurant. According to Tong, he has spent his life trying to break that barrier and create a seat in the metaphorical dining room for himself and others.
The Andover community welcomed Tong back to campus last Friday for this year’s Youth From Every Quarter All School Meeting (ASM). Elected as the first Chinese-American Attorney General in the United States, Tong has been fighting for the rights of underprivileged communities.
“We cannot abandon people who need our help if they don’t have shelter, if they don’t have food, if they don’t have health care. It’s my job—it’s our job—to help them. War, poverty, homelessness, and a broken immigration system causes untold damage to real human beings, people who are suffering, and we have to confront what immigrants go through every day, their sacrifice, their suffering and their pain, with all the gifts and the privileges that we have,” said Tong in his speech.
LaShawn Springer, Director of the Community and Multicultural Development Office, explained that ASM was an opportunity for the Andover community to complicate the narrative within which the words “Youth From Every Quarter” have existed and reflect on what diversity means at Andover today.
“[This ASM] speaks to a capacity for change and our ability to look at wrong and think about a place of making it right; to think about who is missing and make space for them, not conditional space, but an unencumbered, free-to-be-oneself and live and thrive kind of space,” said Springer.
Tong expressed gratitude to his parents for their hard work to give him the “American Dream” but acknowledged that immigration structures today make it more difficult for many families to do the same.
“[My parents] fled war, hunger, poverty, homelessness, just to get to Hartford, Connecticut, of all places. I’m often reminded of the extraordinary sacrifices my parents made, how hard they worked, how hard I worked with them, to pay the tuition in this place, how they suffered, how my dad still has heart trouble from working seven days a week, 15 hours a day. My mom has chronic back pain from carrying five of us to term, on her feet, packing take-out orders in that Chinese restaurant,” said Tong.
During his talk, Tong shared the story of Miriam Martinez, a mother of two daughters who worked two jobs to support her family. She went to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for her annual visit and was told to leave her family and return to Guatemala. Tong, then a Connecticut State Representative, was asked to help Martinez and her family.
“[Martinez] had two teenage daughters, one of whom has diabetes, Brianna. She depends on her mom to give her insulin every day… I thought, because of my legal background, they were asking me to come down and give her some legal assistance. When I got there, I saw a gathering of clergy and other elected officials, and someone told me ICE [was] circling the block right now, threatening to raid Miriam’s apartment and come take her from her family,” said Tong.
He continued, “I gave [Martinez] a hug when I walked in. I happened to look down and I caught a glimpse of her ankle bracelet … I can’t tell you how chilling it is to see someone in your own community shackled like that and reduced to something less than human. That was a stark reminder to me on that day that that is not who we are. Yet, I’m very concerned about who we’re becoming. We live in a country now that bans people at our airports because of who they are, where they come from, the god they worship.”
Tong urged students to understand and recognize the immigrants in their lives. He suggested talking to employees at Paresky Commons or to Andover’s night custodians, like Paulino Ortega, whom Tong met during his time at Andover. This sentiment resonated with Zar Cordova-Potter ’20.
“I think we involve ourselves in politics a lot, but we’re not really sure what that means on a micro level. We think about things on a macro level in that we all hold opinions about what’s going on in the country, but [Tong is] right… It’s good to think about something on a level where we can actually confront it instead of just trying to comprehend [these] huge subjects,” said Cordova-Potter.