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SALT LAKE CITY — When looking at racism in the country today, Gianfranco Fernandez-Ruiz, a poet and filmmaker in Utah, often remembers what poet Zora Neale Hurston once said: "If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it."
That's why he found himself at several Black lives matter rallies last summer and hopes to continue to give voice to the movement.
"We can't afford to be silent," he said. "But because we don't preserve what oppression is — what it means to the United States, and how it's biased, and how it takes control over certain factions pulling them against each other — we find ourselves ... falling into similar patterns."
He knows standing up against racism is important and can often lead to positive change. For him, art has become activism.
"Being able to share stories that are not about one protagonist, where it centers around the one individual, but where we focus on community as a whole, that to me is a start; let's look at how we're the same before we look at how we're different," he said about his films.
That's the other thing about films, he pointed out: there should be a point when historical films about racism set some 50 years ago stop being relevant in modern times, like the newly released biographical drama "Judas and The Black Messiah." The movie is set in the 1960s and details the assassination of 21-year-old leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton. Commentary about the film has circulated around its relevance to the Black lives matter movement as activists protest racism across the country today.
"How do we make this not a repeatable offense, so that we're not having this happen again to us in 30 years and watching a film that in 30 years comes out that's set in 2020, or 2019, or whatever it is, and we go: 'What a relevant film,'" Fernandez-Ruiz told KSL.com. "I don't ever want to say: 'What a relevant film' about a film that's 30 years ago ever again."
Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Fernandez-Ruiz has lived in Utah since 2016 after moving here for a job opportunity. Living in a predominantly white state wasn't easy for Fernandez-Ruiz and his two children at first. While he appreciated the importance of family values in Utah, he felt the lack of diversity created a challenging experience for someone used to the demographics of a place like Boston.
While Fernandez-Ruiz and his family have since come to love the Beehive State, the recent news of a school in North Ogden allowing parents to opt their children out of Black History Month activities in school deeply unsettled him.
"There's a lot of opportunity and experiences to be had here that I didn't have growing up myself, except for when we have to deal with closed-mindedness that becomes increasingly hard to deal with when you are the minority because the things that they're pushing back on are minority experiences," he said. After facing backlash, the school later removed the opt-out option.
To Fernandez-Ruiz, the attempted erasure of history has nothing to do with politics — it feels like a personal attack.
"When we hear something like Black history can be opted out of in a time where the rest of the country is trying to mobilize and make this thing a standard that Black history is American history, it terrifies me. It feels like an attack to me personally," he explained. "I want to break down that wall because, really, this has nothing to do with my political views as a person. I'm feeling like I am not counted as one of you, and that is a problem here in Utah. That's how it affects me."
As a parent of two young Black children, Fernandez-Ruiz worries about what kind of message it's sending to the younger generation if you can opt out of history.
"They can never escape being othered," he said. "So the minute that we are a little bit different in a place like Utah, there's, you know, funky things that happen."
Fernandez-Ruiz recalled a time he went skiing. He fell down in the same area a child had fallen, and after asking if the child was OK, they looked up to him and responded, "You're a chocolate guy!"
While it is a funny story he tells while laughing, he said it illustrates how little exposure children in less diverse areas have to other cultures and ethnicities.
"It's so innocent, but also at the same time somebody (isn't) teaching you enough," he said.
Education and removing political agendas from improving the human experience is crucial to moving toward an anti-racist future without repeating history, Fernandez-Ruiz said.
"What we're trying to do is preserve ourselves and trying to not feel denigrated by this oppressive history and find a common ground where this thing isn't happening again," he said. "And we can see that when we slip away from this when we make a political and politicized agenda; all of a sudden, we fall into the same patterns."