Who’s Afraid of a Comunista?

Sarah Mayorga

Comunista!, my dad exclaims as we are driving down US-1. 

We’re in Miami, Florida, where I grew up, and someone has cut him off in traffic. My whole family is in the car, a silver Toyota Previa minivan–yes, the one that looked like an egg. My mother is in the passenger seat; my older siblings, Oscar and Carla, are in the captain’s chairs; and my younger brothers, Luis and George, and I are in the last row. Luis repeats in a softer voice, comunista, mimicking my dad’s lower register. The three of us giggle to ourselves, laughing at the absurdity of Dad’s favorite insult. What does being a communist have to do with driving? Dad is so weird, I think, as I look out the window.

As I write in the author’s note of my book, Urban Specters: The Everyday Harms of Racial Capitalism, I didn’t think about capitalism much growing up (2023:xi). All I knew was that it was the moral alternative to the evils of communism. My parents emigrated from Nicaragua in the late 1970s, amidst the Sandinista Revolution. Growing up, the Sandinistas shadowed many discussions of politics in my home. But their role was straightforward–they were evil communists; end of story. At least for my dad. Even the Sandinistas’ signature color combo, black and red, were politicized at home. My dad couldn’t seem to help himself from commenting when anyone wore them, proclaiming the person in question a communist sympathizer. In jest, but nevertheless, the nuance was lost on me as a child. I avoided the combination for years–I was a good kid who didn’t want to be evil! And comunistas were the epitome of evil. Alongside–from my adolescent vantage point–Democrats, feminists, and pro-abortion advocates.

But my dad’s politics were not just about left and right, but how to view the world. Much of my upbringing was shaped by fear–love was under that fear, but fear was my dad’s primary mode of engagement with the world and how he expressed his love. I can make sense of this now–how living through a political revolution and tumultuous at-home situations shaped his outlook. Dad’s fear was born of a particular political and familial context. Yet it was something he brought with him and used to make sense of his life in new places.

In a serendipitous way, writing Urban Specters has helped me understand my upbringing better. 

Based on 117 interviews with residents of two working-class neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Ohio, I trace how residents talked about what was happening in their communities and the harms they faced, connecting these narratives to the political-economic realities of Cincinnati. Specifically, I identify three relations of racial capitalism–underdevelopment, private property, and policing–that produced residents’ experiences.

Despite the very different contexts of Urban Specters and my family history, there are uniting threads. Of how fear breeds isolation and exclusionary care in contexts where people feel their safety is at risk. And how this sense of precarity is a function of capitalism–not other people. For instance, residents described how they felt neglected at the hands of the city and how this neglect allowed “trash” to move into their neighborhood, leading to further neighborhood decline. These resident narratives partially recognized the workings of underdevelopment in Cincinnati, whereby the downtown neighborhood was developed at the expense of their own neighborhoods, yet residents also relied on antiblackness and the dehumanization of renters in weaving their stories. In this way, racism helped obscure and facilitate the workings of capitalist development and exploitation.

The dehumanization of the other is what defines the racial in racial capitalism. Dehumanization is the creation of moral differences to explain the status differences capitalism produces and to justify the inequality on which capitalism relies. It is foundational to how people under racial capitalism make sense of their world and it is necessary for its functioning. This is what I found in Cincinnati and it’s true of my own family. The dehumanization of those who thought differently from us–politically or religiously–helped reorient our attention away from the ways that we were implicated in systems of exploitation and dispossession in that same context. We rarely talked of our family’s whiteness, class, and political power. I used to think that my parents’ history in Nicaragua had very little to do with me. It felt too far away, in part, because the status they held there did not translate to much in the US besides “fun” facts I could share. But I now see a clearer inheritance–in the given that we would attend college, in our whiteness, and in my Manichean worldview.

As an adult, I have been working on using new ways of thinking and engaging with the world. Ones with more grey, more empathy (towards myself and others), and less fear. Perhaps this is the work of first- and second-gen kids, who are no longer in the life-and-death situations that their parents keep reliving. These new approaches have been painstaking to establish and are ongoing even after a decade-plus of work, but I have unequivocally improved my life. That’s perhaps a less acknowledged part of dehumanization: it hurts those who wield it too as it’s pretty difficult not to aim it at ourselves. Perhaps that’s why we hold onto it–to distract from how afraid we are that we may be rotten on the inside, just as we accuse others of being. But once we start to let go of this hierarchical black-and-white thinking that elevates some at the expense of others, our relationship with the world–and ourselves–changes.

And my work is also changed. I could not have written this version of Urban Specters without my own internal reckoning.

When scholars are asked how they came to study a subject, we often discuss the articles or books we read that sparked an interest. Or even personal circumstances that inspired particular research questions. With Urban Specters, I certainly have that story. How questions from my first book led me to this second project. But there is another story too–a deeply personal one that usually remains unspoken. Of how I had to heal the parts of me that were afraid of stepping out of line, that held onto black-and-white thinking, that were steeped in classist judgment, to get to a place where I could understand and write about racial capitalism and take the experiences of poor and working-class people seriously without pathology or paternalism.

And that is one thing I find useful about a racial capitalist framework: it can help us refuse both pathologizing and apologist approaches to working-class racism. In Urban Specters, I contextualize these ways of seeing the world and push beyond is this racism? to answer what does this racism accomplish? Who benefits, and who is harmed? These questions take individual experiences seriously while not stopping at ground-level stories, allowing me to thread the line between nuanced understanding and broader theorization.

After a recent talk with my dad about this essay and my new book, he sent me a WhatsApp message with a video of Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. He had mentioned her earlier, as evidence of how things can change, his own thinking included. He says he sees more grey in the world than he used to–a point that surprises me and on which I question him. He explains that in his youth he dismissed Sosa as a comunista. Indeed, my sister shared Sosa’s music with my dad years ago and he dismissed Sosa as such then. But now her song “Todo Cambia” (Everything Changes) is his “new best song.” Todo Cambia was written by Chilean musician, Julio Numhauser, while in exile after the military coup of Augusto Pinochet, but it was popularized by Sosa. It’s a beautiful song that speaks of change and the never-ending love one has for their country. Sosa originally recorded it in 1984–the year I was born.

Cambia, todo cambia (Changes, everything changes)

Cambia, todo cambia (Changes, everything changes)


Y lo que cambió ayer (And what changed yesterday)

Tendrá que cambiar mañana (Will have to change tomorrow)

Así como cambio yo (Just like I change)

En esta tierra lejana (In this foreign land)

Sí, todo cambia. And yet, the direction in which the world–and we–change is not a given. It is our responsibility to fight for a just future. That fight involves rejecting stories that dehumanize, exclude, and facilitate the exploitation of others. That includes stories we’ve heard since childhood or that are shared by people we care about. Change may be a given, but we cannot merely wait for it to come. 

I hope that one of the takeaways from Urban Specters is a deeper understanding of our current world via the stories of Cincinnati residents. While these stories reflect a specific time and place, they present a broader invitation for all of us to challenge our racial capitalist thinking and work collectively to protect one another from harm. And if that hope makes me a comunista? Well, okay.


Mayorga, Sarah. 2023. Urban Specters: The Everyday Harms of Racial Capitalism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.