Commentary: Moving beyond making history … with Vice President Kamala Harris

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo wave upon her arrival at Guatemalan Air Force Central Command in Guatemala City June 7, 2021 Photo: Reuters /Carlos Barria

On the world stage, this country’s history comes into clearer perspective. Cast against the backdrop of populations whose stories and artifacts date back millennia, one broken glass ceiling in a new-build democracy looks rather modest. And so when Kamala Harris stepped on foreign ground for the first time as vice president, the sight was both momentous and anti-climactic.

During the first stop on her two-country tour, Harris stood alongside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei during a news conference and fielded questions on migration, corruption and the significance of her groundbreaking role in the Biden administration. The discussion of history brought a smile to her face and she expounded on her pride in representing her country abroad and reiterated the importance not only of opening doors, but also of keeping them open so that others can walk through them, too.

“I welcome showing anyone, whatever your race or gender, that you may be the first to do anything, but make sure you’re not the last,” Harris said as she stood at a lectern in Guatemala City under the tented ceiling of the Patio de La Paz. “Let’s pave a path where we create an opportunity for others to become the first in their family or their community to do those things that perhaps others didn’t think they were capable of but God has given them that capacity to achieve, and with a little help, they will.”

Her response was precise and encouraging, but also familiar. Yes, yes, making history is wonderful, but that’s not the end goal. As with so many men and women who have been the first to reach a lofty perch, the symbolism bears consideration. But there’s also a moment when everyone’s neck begins to ache from the strain of looking admiringly up and it’s time to turn one’s gaze from the glory to the grit.

If there is a singular moment that speaks to Harris’s brief time in Guatemala, it was not her arrival when this country’s first Madame Vice President was greeted with an honor guard. It was not seeing this Black and Indian American woman participating in a ceremonial wave from a balcony at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura. It was not the well-publicized time she spent celebrating female entrepreneurs in Guatemala – and later in Mexico. Her most striking public act was the stern manner in which she looked directly into the cameras and warned those considering illegal journeys to the U.S. border against doing so.

“I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” Harris said. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur. But we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration. And I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

This was not glittering symbolism, but rather a steely-eyed description of the administration’s border policy, one that sits in the middle of the seemingly unsolvable issue of migration, which is now part of Harris’s portfolio of problems to solve. The wonder has given way to the slow slog through a problem that has stymied multiple administrations.

In watching Harris in Guatemala and Mexico, the history of her presence looms large in the way the United States is viewed globally. It speaks of possibilities for future generations. And yet, in the moment – in the perfectly choreographed instances when the public catches glimpses of her in the midst of other dignitaries and leading the American delegation – it means next to nothing. All that matters are the policies and the aid and the agreements. That’s both the dream and the reality of these historical occasions. They’re forever in the making and tremendously important, and then when they finally arrive we’re left with little more than . . . a person trying to get the job done. That’s as it always has been and as it will be when another barrier falls.

Staring into the bright glow of Harris – this political marvel – it has been hard making out the person that she is, although it has been relatively easy to see what she is not. She is not the maternal co-star in an administration led by a paternal president who displays unending patience for this country’s tantrums and tears. She is not the open book of favorite sayings, family stories, soul-searching reveries and self-deprecating humor. She is not the lady boss of Seventh Avenue’s designer fashion dreams – although she may well be the one who will hammer home the message that it’s hard to go wrong by keeping a simple dark suit in daily rotation.

This trip, however, offered a reminder of what first thrust her into the national consciousness: her willingness to speak in no-nonsense terms, her flinty gaze, the hint of impatience in her tone. They were in evidence when she spoke of entrenched corruption in Guatemala as that country’s president looked on.

“I can tell you, from my work on this issue years ago: Follow the money. The underlying reason for so much of what we are seeing, in terms of this level and type of corruption, is about profit,” Harris said. “It is about profit without concern for the damage it creates to real human life, to families, to children, to communities.”

Harris was not smiling. Or waving. Or politely listening to aspirations of carefully selected local citizens. The historic vice president had shed the sheen of symbolism. She was simply a woman faced with an unenviable job that so many men before her had been unable to solve.

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