We the People: Voices of the Immigrant Experience

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

Artist: Shepard Fairey / Photographer: Ridwan Adhami

At the beginning of this century, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago asked me to compile texts of the immigrant experience for a public reading in celebration of America’s rich diversity. In this shameful time of immigration bans and brutal deportations, may these voices remind us of our common origins as strangers and sojourners. In a country beset with what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting,” remembering is a crucial act of resistance.

 

Sing to me, call me home in languages I do not yet
understand, to childhoods I have not yet experienced,
to loves that have not yet touched me.
Fill me with the details of our lives.
Filling up, emptying out
and diving in.
It is the holy spirit of existence, the flesh, the blood,
the naked truth that will not be covered.
Tell me everything, all the details – flesh, blood, bone.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

From Asia, you crossed a bridge of land,
now called the Bering Strait, now swallowed
in water. No human steps to follow,
you slowly found your way on pathless grounds…
Travelers lost in time – walking, chanting, dancing –
tracks on mapless earth, no man-made lines,
no borders. Arriving not in ships, with no supplies,
waving no flags, claiming nothing, naming
no piece of dirt for wealthy lords of earth.
You did not come to own; you came to live.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz

 

America is also 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!

– Carlos Bulosan

 

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
in east Chicago…
She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself…She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands
and in the palms of their children’s hands.

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town…
crying for the lost beauty of her own life.

– Joy Harjo

 

I am not any of the faces
you have put on me america

every mask has slipped
i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me
the tones have nearly

made me deaf
this dark skin, both of us have tried to bleach…

– Safiya Henderson-Holmes

 

I know now that I once longed to be white.
How? you ask.
Let me tell you the ways.

when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.

when I was growing up, my sisters
with fair skin got praised
for their beauty and I fell
further, crushed between high walls.

when I was growing up, I read magazines
and saw blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips,
and to be elevated, to become
a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear
imaginary pale skin.

when I was growing up, I was proud
of my English, my grammar, my spelling,
fitting into the group of smart children,
smart Chinese children, fitting in,
belonging, getting in line.

– Nellie Wong

 

These men died with the wrong names,
Na’aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley
of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam,
Sine Hussin died without relatives and
because they cut away his last name
at Ellis Island, there was no way to trace
him back even to Lebanon, and Im’a Brahim
had no other name than mother of Brahim
even my own father lost his, went from
Hussein Hamode Subh’ to Sam Hamod.
There is something lost in the blood,
something lost down to the bone
in these small changes. A man in a
dark blue suit at Ellis Island says, with
tiredness and authority, “You only need two
names in America” and suddenly – as cleanly
as the air, you’ve lost
your name. At first, it’s hardly
even noticeable – and it’s easier, you move
about as an American – but looking back
the loss of your name
cuts away some other part,
something unspeakable is lost.

– Sam Hamod

 

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin…
Of course, the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950’s
obsessed with some bombshell blonde
transliterated “Mei Ling” to Marilyn…
and there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic
white woman, swollen with gin and Nembutal.

– Marilyn Chin

 

“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.

– Gregory Djanikian

 

If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city. Teach me about mad British kings so I will understand the American penchant for iconoclasm. Teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know that tragedies created the country that will create me.

– Richard Rodriguez

 

Names will change
faces will change
but not much else
the President will still be white
and male
and wasp
still speak with forked tongue…
still uphold the laws of dead white men
still dream about big white monuments
and big white memorials
ain’t nothin’ changed
ain’t nothin’ changed at all.

– Lamont B. Steptoe

 

My dream of America
is like dà bính lòuh
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.

– Wing Tek Lum

 

today
we will not be invisible nor silent
as the pilgrims of yesterday continue their war of attrition
forever trying, but never succeeding
in their battle to rid the americas of us
convincing others and ourselves
that we have been assimilated and eliminated,

but we remember who we are

we are the spirit of endurance that lives
in the cities and reservations of north america
and in the barrios and countryside of Nicaragua, Chile
Guatemala, El Salvador

and in all the earth and rivers of the americas.

– Victoria Lena Manyarrows

 

We are a beautiful people
with African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers and sisters. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family.
We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?

– Amiri Baraka

 

Living on borders, and in margins,
keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity,
is like trying to swim in a new element…
There is an exhilaration in being a participant
in the further evolution of humankind.

– Gloria E. Anzaldúa

 

We are connected to one another in time and by blood. Each of us is so related, we’re practically the same person living infinite versions of the great human adventure.

– Maxine Hong Kingston

 

When both of us look backward…we see and are devoted to telling about the lines of people that we see stretching back, breaking, surviving, somehow, somehow, and incredibly, culminating in someone who can tell a story.    (Louise Erdrich)

I am a woman who wants to go home but never figured out where it is or why to go there…I have lost the words to chant my bloodline.    (Lisa Harris)

We are the sum of all our ancestors. Some speak louder than others but they all remain present, alive in our very blood and bone.      (Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall)

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93, and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for ‘wherabouts unknown.’         (Etheridge Knight)

 

When the census taker, a woman of African descent…came to my door, I looked into the face of my sister….She did not ask me my racial background but checked off the box next to Black American/African American/Afro-Cuban American/Black African….

I met her eyes and said, “I’m not Black; I’m Other, Mixed, Black and White.” …She did not smile, smirk, or frown, but checked the box marked “Other,” and lifted her eyes quickly to mine again. I wanted to see her erase “Black.” She did not do so in my presence….

I had been focused on my personal freedom, on my right to define who I am, on my responsibility to my sense of self. The dignity of the census taker was not a part of my mental equation…

She thanked me. But the price of my self-definition had been the wall I felt I’d built between us before I ever closed the door.         (Sarah Willie)

 

I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return…I am not european. Europe lives in me,  but I have no home there. I am new. History made me….I was born at the crossroads and I am whole.       (Sarah Willie)

 

Auntie Raylene, an accomplished chanter and dancer, told us about the necessity of remembering and honoring where we come from….During the question-and-answer session, a worried West African immigrant brother asked her, “But…what if our parents and grandparents refuse to tell us anything? They don’t want to talk about the old days. They are afraid. Or they don’t remember.”

She looked at him with great love and said, “Then you go back further, to the source,” and her hand swept back with assurance to the beginning of time, to the birth of life.

– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall

 

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth….

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.
Remember.

– Joy Harjo

 

Related post:   Remember

We the People art images are available here as free downloads. The texts are drawn from several wonderful collections: UA:Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry , ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan (Penguin,1994)… N: Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity, eds. Becky Thompson, Sangeeta Tyagi (Routledge, 1995) … and another anthology which has vanished from my library and my memory, though I have traced original sources for most of its selections. In order: Hall (N 241), Sáenz (Calendar of Dust), Bulosan (http://bulosan.org/in-his-words), Harjo (UA 29-30), Henderson-Holmes (UA 60), Wong (UA 55), Hamod (UA130), Chin (UA 134), Djanikian (UA 215), Rodriguez (source unknown), Steptoe (UA 250), Lum (UA 322-23), Manyarrows (UA 330), Baraka (UA 155), Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), Kingston & Erdrich (third anthology), Harris (N xv), Hall (N 241ff.), Knight (The Essential Etheridge Knight), Willie (N 276, 278), Hall (241ff.), Harjo (She Had Some Horses)

Remember

“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.
Remember.