“Send them back! Send them back!” So shout the stony-hearted xenophobes in response to the unprecedented wave of Central American children entering the United States without documentation. The irony of this hateful war cry in a nation first forged by immigrants is breathtaking. Were such things screamed from the shore at Plymouth Rock?
Historical memory, never America’s strong suit, has become seriously eroded in recent years, due in large part to what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting.” In a provocative essay (http://truth-out.org/news/item/24550-data-storms-and-the-tyranny-of-manufactured-forgetting), Giroux traces the sources and consequences of “the emergence of a profoundly anti-democratice culture of manufactured ignorance and social indifference.” He begins with a resonant epigraph from a book about history and memory by Yose Hayim Yerushalmi:
For in the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and declining consciousness of the past, but of the aggressive [assault on] whatever memory remains, the deliberate distortion of the historical record, the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness.
While solutions to the current humanitarian crisis on our southern border may not be entirely clear, perhaps we should begin by remembering that we are all pilgrims and refugees in this life, that welcoming the stranger is a biblical imperative, and that everything is gift before it is possession, including “native” soil. So as an aid to memory and perspective, we might listen to some voices from the immigrant experience. An excellent collection may be found in Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan; Penguin 1994). Here are a few of my own favorites, from a florilegium I once compiled for a celebration of cultural diversity in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
Carlos Bulosan came from the Phillippines to settle in Seattle, becoming active in the labor movement. In his book, America is in the Heart, he wrote:
America is the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job, the illiterate immigrant… All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate – We are America!
Armenian-born Gregory Djanikian emigrated to the United States as a child. His poem, “In the Elementary School Choir,” describes the experience of absorbing a new culture at a young age:
“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.
But now it was “My country ’tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart…
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.
Wing Tek Lum, born in Hawaii of Chinese-American parents, resolves the melting pot vs. salad bowl debate with a distinctively Chinese meal. The biblical image of the redeemed gathered for a sacred feast is clearly echoed in “Chinese Hot Pot,” which is not surprising for a poet who attended New York’s eminent Union Seminary.
My dream of America
is like da bin louh
with people of all persuasions and tastes
sitting down around a common pot
chopsticks and basket scoops here and there
some cooking squid and others beef
some tofu and watercress
all in one broth
like a stew that really isn’t
as each one chooses what she wishes to eat
only that the pot and fire are shared
along with the good company
and the sweet soup
spooned out at the end of the meal.
God forbid that the shouting mob at the border (and in Congress and the right-wing echo chamber) should have their way in the end, reducing the refreshing tributaries from other cultures to a trickle, condemning America to the parched national sameness described by Annie Proulx in Accordion Crimes, where a Polish immigrant is forced to conclude that “to be foreign, … not to be American, was a terrible thing and all that could be done about it was to change one’s name and talk about baseball.”
May we all recover our immigrant memory and our sojourner mind, and celebrate the inclusive richness praised by Native American Joy Harjo in “Remember:”
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe
and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.