On a recent warm evening, the three Brieva siblings gathered for a pizza dinner outside their mom’s home in north suburban Evanston.
Jena, 30, Nate, 26, and Chechi, 16, are at ease with each other, joking and laughing as they eat. But they’ve come together this night for a serious purpose: to talk to a WBEZ reporter about their memories of 9/11.
Because of their age differences, the siblings have very different recollections and viewpoints of the day terrorists attacked the U.S. and thousands lost their lives. Jena and Nate were in fifth grade and kindergarten, respectively, and Chechi was not even born yet.
Jena, now married and the mother of a baby daughter, recalls that before going to school that morning, the TV was on in the family’s home and a news station was replaying clips of planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
“I still feel like I don’t fully understand,” she said. “It was a defining moment and people lost family members they really cared about. And for New York especially, it’s really big and devastating.”
Nate said he has similar memories of 9/11, including the surge of patriotism afterward, which affected their family when their immigrant father enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“Our dad actually went and participated as a medic,” said Nate, who lives in Chicago and works as a photographer and videographer.
“He went to Texas for some time. He’s a Colombian man, he’s not even of this country. But he felt the passion and the pride associated with wanting to join the army and participate and defend the nation.”
For Chechi, born four years after 9/11, the attacks are far less tangible.
“I really only barely remember learning about it in school, and the moments of silence we had,” she said. “But, like, no one really took those seriously. We’d be, like, ‘Hmmm, 15 seconds is nothing,’ and just keep up talking.”
The memories of 9/11 are far more vivid and painful for the children’s mother, Liz Brieva, 57, who is now divorced from her husband. She recalls walking her elder two children to school shortly after the first reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center.
“I just remember thinking it must have been an accident, like, how could that have happened? And then I remember thinking we must be under attack,” she said.
She also recollects the cultural changes in America right after the attacks.
“I think right away airport security stepped up. And, targeting Muslims — that was one of our missteps,” she said.
Her observation aligns with data on how Muslims perceive their place in America: According to a 2017 study from the Pew Research Center, 75% of U.S. Muslims say there is discrimination against them. Fifty percent say that in recent years being Muslim in the U.S. has gotten more difficult.
The widely different 9/11 impressions of the Brieva family members are typical, according to Molly Andolina, an associate professor at DePaul University who studies political socialization.
Every year, she asks her students about their first political memory. That used to be 9/11, but less and less students remember it.
“They weren’t born yet,” Andolina said.
She said 9/11 “won’t fade necessarily for older generations, but it won’t be part of the lexicon and political memories of these younger generations because they did not experience it.”
People also have differing memories of life post-9/11, too, depending on their generation. An example in the Brieva family: Liz recalls the significant increase in security at airports, while Chechi grew up in a world where that has always been the case.
One thing all the Brievas agree on is that America today lacks the solidarity it had after the attacks 20 years ago.
“Our unity is split,” said Chechi. “We’ve seen this happen before. I’m just gonna relate it to the Civil War era a little bit.”
Her older brother Nate sees that division in people’s reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. It hasn’t unified the country the way 9/11 did.
“It’s kind of been this vague sense of an enemy,” he said. “So I think the vagueness of it allows for [a] difference of opinions and things of this nature.”
Liz laments that, until America’s recent pullout from Afghanistan, the country had been at war for most of her children’s lifetimes. Although they remember less about 9/11 than she does, their fresh eyes have helped shape her worldview.
“I am so old, and I am learning more now than I ever have in my life,” she said. “And a lot of it has to do with my kids and the way they see and make their way through the world.”
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.
This story has been updated with Chechi’s preferred gender pronouns.