I opened my computer to start Zoom for my class on Indigenous media in Latin America. As I proceeded to take roll, I noticed that my voice began to shake and my eyes were getting red as I looked at myself in the Zoom camera.

As I called each student’s name, tears started to stream down my cheeks. I could tell that the students looked nervous and stressed. I quickly apologized and told them I needed to cancel class for that day.

My students never knew that my father’s family was from Ukraine. They assumed I was a queer Chicano professor, because that’s how I always identified in all my classes at the University of California, Riverside.

The night before, on Feb. 23, I watched a CNN reporter in Odessa talk about hearing Vladimir Putin’s army bombing the outskirts of the city. Odessa is where my father’s family comes from. I grew up hearing stories about Odessa from my father, grandfather and great aunt during their years in exile from the Soviet Union in Los Angeles. I was in shock that night and disgusted with Putin as I heard on TV the explosions near Kyiv, a city that I would take train trips to when I taught Spanish in Moscow for two years.

Over the course of that weekend, I watched how the Ukrainian refugee crisis grew day by day. I read that Airbnb was paying for thousands of refugees to stay in their rooms. Thousands of Europeans in dozens of countries opened their doors to Ukrainians. I was encouraged but bothered at the same time. Media outlets all over the world from the left, right and center praised the courage of these refugees, and some reporters called them heroes.

An overwhelming majority of my students in my classes at UCR are Latino. Several of them are refugees from Latin America, and a few are “Dreamers.” I asked if any of them noticed anything with this growing refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, and several were quick to point out the double standard.


A few weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine started, my class watched interviews about the forced sterilization of Latina refugees at an immigration detention center in Georgia. We discussed the Latino children fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who are being held in U.S. Immigration and Custom

Enforcement detention centers to this day. The double standard in the media’s portrayal of the Ukrainian refugees in Europe compared with the images of Haitian, Central American and Mexican migrants at the Mexican border was obvious to everyone in my class.

I thought about the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine and the tens of thousands of refugees who have had to flee their homes in Central America, Mexico and other parts of Latin America because of wars, dictatorships, gang warfare and cartel terrorism. Refugees and migrants who are uprooted from their homes all go through trauma whether they come from Latinoamérica or Eastern Europe.

The images of people fleeing Ukraine shook me as I remembered my family’s histories from Ukraine and Mexico, with both sides leaving their homelands for a better life.

My undocumented grandfather Candelario Muñoz changed his name to Benjamin García when he crossed the Mexican border. He had to take on the identity of a deceased relative in California when he brought my mother, then a teenager, to Compton.

My other grandfather, Sviatoslav, had a sister Neda, who taught me my first Russian words as a child. She was full of energy and would recite Pushkin with so much drama that it would make me laugh as a child. Neda left Odesa as the Soviet Union was becoming as oppressive as Russia is under Putin today. As she was dying of cancer, she said out loud in Russian, “Take me out of this hospital and drop my body in the Black Sea in front of Odesa. I want to go home.”

In the end, my Tiota Neda was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery surrounded by other Russian speakers and Armenians from the former Soviet Union. I have cried more than once thinking of my grandfather Slava, my grandmother Alya and Neda. The authorities in Moscow took their homes and opened the tombs of their relatives in the cemetery in Odesa to disrespect their families. During all their years in exile in L.A., they missed their old home.

Ukraine and Mexico came together to form my family in the borderland of Los Angeles. My Chicano-Mexican-Russian-Ukrainian border-crossing identity hurts as I watch Putin’s war unfold while more waves of Latin American and, very recently, Ukrainian refugees arrive at the Tijuana-U.S. border. My hope is that out of this tragedy, future refugees that come to the Mexican border, whether they are from Honduras or Ukraine, are treated with equal dignity — which all of them deserve.

—Los Angeles Times

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