A University Professor Comes to the GTA to Flee Donald Trump's America
The promise is the same during almost every contentious U.S. election.
The threat is mostly hollow and for obvious reasons--uprooting one’s life and family and moving to another country (even a neighbouring one) isn’t easy. Also, time heals all wounds and the grumblings lessen (albeit not a lot) as life goes on.
But Trump’s election changed the discussion in the U.S. and some Americans are actually making good on their promise to move north of the border--including University of Toronto--Mississauga (UTM) assistant professor Jerry Flores.
“It was a long and protracted experience,” says Flores, who currently works in the university’s sociology department. “I never felt like I connected with the American education system. I remember a teacher telling me not to be so dumb, saying ‘I’m not street smart like you, but at least I’m not dumb.’”
It’s interesting that Flores became an academic. Growing up in a predominantly Mexican neighbourhood in Pasadena, California, the son of Mexican immigrants had difficulty navigating the American education system in his youth.
“The American education wasn’t working for me. I dropped out of high school and ended up at alternative school. I went back and graduated and then went to university. I learned more about the language of oppression and social justice,” he says, adding that his more caucasian-presenting brother fared better at school.
“My brother went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and he’s very successful. My brother is light-skinned. I was put in dummy classes. I’m a dark-skinned Latino man.”
Flores’ experiences with racism and discrimination compelled him to examine prejudice more closely and even consider a career in law.
“I learned about prisons and the prison system. A lot of my family members were being locked up. I wanted to be a lawyer, but then I decided to be a community college professor and I started understanding what it was to be an academic.”
Flores went on to a earn a Ph.D in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014. That same year, he accepted a position as an assistant professor in the University of Washington Tacoma’s social work and criminal justice program.
As an academic, Flores’ areas of interest include studies of gender and crime (he recently published his first book titled Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration). Flores has also published articles in a wide range of journals, including Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society, Feminist Criminology, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk and the Association of Mexican American Educators Journal.
In 2016, he had three academic job opportunities available to him (UTM, Rutgers and the University of California Riverside), but jumped at the opportunity to move to Canada with his wife, Angie, and their three young children when Donald Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election.
“Election night happened and I was trying to decide where to go. Toronto always seemed like the best fit, but I could take a job in L.A. and live next to my mom. But I said, ‘do I really want to stay at this university in L.A.? It was familiar, I could eat Mexican all the time, see my mom. But the best thing for us was to leave.”
For Flores, accepting a job offer from UTM was easy. Flores had always enjoyed visiting Canada and even got married in B.C. in 2011.
“Living in Toronto, the kids can live in a cosmopolitan and diverse place. The U.S. is very segregated. It gets old, being the only one of you all the time,” he says.
When the family arrived in Canada in June 2017, they rented a house in Cooksville and immediately began immersing themselves in “all things Canadian.”
“We got here right before the big celebration for Canada 150,” he says.
Flores has always had his sights set on Toronto and the GTA.
“I actually wanted to come to Toronto to get married. Angie and I were both students, we didn’t have a lot of money and we wanted to go somewhere to get married. Angie wanted to do some outdoor stuff, and Vancouver had the best combination of city and outdoor stuff.”
And although Flores’ says that Canada isn’t perfect, he finds it more welcoming than the U.S.
“Even on campus [in the U.S.], I would go to the library and people would ask for my student ID even though I was wearing a suit. I remember one time I went out with a few buddies and a woman asked me if my name was ‘Jorge.’”
“It was a lot of micro-aggression. I remember one time at work, I was teaching a graduate seminar and I had this young woman come up to me and asked if I needed help. She asked what I was doing there, saying I wasn’t supposed to be there. It didn’t cross her mind that I worked there or could teach in a class.”
The election, Flores feared, would excuse and even enshrine racism into the national dialogue. With Trump’s hardline stance on immigration and his insistence that a wall be built between Mexico and the U.S., Flores wasn’t eager to see how events would unfold in the deeply divided country.
“The election caused an upswing in aggression, but there’s a constant barrage of microaggressions that wear on you over time,” he says. “There are thousands of homeless people in L.A. who look like me. There’s blatant disregard for human life. I know Canada isn’t perfect, I know there are issues. For me, I think that Toronto and Canada is a better fit. It’s not quite as bad.”
But even though Flores wasn’t entirely surprised by the outcome of the 2016 election, to say he was disappointed is an understatement.
“I feel like I could have predicted what was going to happen. When it happened, I wasn’t surprised, but I was sort of in shock. I asked ‘how is this possible?’ Of all the talk we have in the U.S. about democracy, there are laws that skew the ability of working class people and people of colour to vote,” he says.
“Ex convicts cannot vote in some states. There’s gerrymandering to marginalize voter populations. It’s racism. I was in shock and a little frightened. I felt like I had to pack up the kids and go. I was so, so disappointed. When Barack Obama was president, white Americans felt like their privilege was over, but then this happened. It was an overwhelming feeling of dread and guilt. We are in a super privileged position to be able to come to Canada, lots of people want to but can’t.”
While Flores’ hasn’t been in Mississauga for too long, he says he’s enjoying the experience so far (and isn’t even terribly bothered by the inclement weather).
“I actually really like Cooksville, I’m a fan of the urban ambiance. As for why we chose Mississauga, it just happened by chance. The house we’re renting borders a park and is close to my son’s school.”
His family, he says, treated the move with a mixture of pride and sadness.
“First my family was extremely proud and happy and excited that I could achieve my dream and work at a prominent university. But there was also disappointment and sadness that they couldn’t see our kids as much. They were upset when we moved to Washington, so you can imagine when we moved across the continent.”
But although Canada is definitely imperfect and not at all immune to raucous debates about race and who does and does not “belong” in Canada, Flores says he feels the country (or at least the GTA) trends more towards diversity--and by extension, inclusivity.
“I split my time between UTM and the St. George [campus in Toronto) and I feel like I can blend in. No one is passive aggressively rude to me. No one has asked if I work here or made snarky remarks. Toronto and Mississauga are special cities. Everyone comes from somewhere else. Police haven’t bothered me or pulled me over. I used to get nervous in the U.S., I sometimes still get nervous around campus security.”
Flores also says the community has welcomed him with open arms.
“I received so many emails welcoming me. I’d never received emails like that back in the U.S., nor do I think I would. This is a more welcoming and tolerant place. It’s not perfect, but I’m happy here. I grew up in a neighbourhood where everyone was Mexican, it’s so segregated. Everyone looked exactly like me. My son is in a class with people from all over the world. As an outsider, I don’t take it for granted. You don’t see that in too many places.”
As for whether or not Flores will consider heading south should Trump lose the presidency in 2020, he says Canada will likely remain his forever home.
“I’ve already told people I will not leave Canada, I want to stay here. I want my kids to go to U of T, I know they’ll be happier here. One of the most challenging parts is finding a place that fits for you. This is where I want to be.”
When asked if he thinks the situation in U.S. will improve, Flores says he isn’t terribly optimistic.
“If you read the news, you have tax reform and discussions about building a completely useless but symbolic wall on the border. I see things going downhill. The stock market is doing well, yes, but who benefits? Reforming the tax code only helps certain people. Cutting taxes means cutting services.
“Why are we completely okay with having hundreds of thousands of homeless people? I don’t miss the feeling of anger when I go back, of feeling like an outsider. I see things getting worse for the people who are the most vulnerable. I don’t think see things getting better.”