Sunday, October 30, 2011

Defining American

Fall has arrived in Seattle, and I’m back in the classroom: my microcosm of immigration. I’ve been following the story of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist whose article in the New York Times Magazine on June 22, 2011 told of his illegal immigration to the United States at age 12. Despite telling his truth – a decision made because living the lie became harder than facing the consequences of telling the truth – Vargas has yet to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As he waits for ICE to knock down his door, he has dedicated himself to building a conversation around immigration reform in the United States. And as the Dream Act continues to flounder, Vargas asks us what it means to be American on his website: I’ve asked my student to read Vargas’s story and to meet his challenge by writing their own definitions of “American.” This is not an easy assignment. I decided I should try it myself…

I am not one who believes much in national borders: artificial lines drawn and redrawn in the dirt by warring parties throughout the ages. The word “American” is equally problematic. Used to define those holding the coveted U.S. passport, it is a misnomer I have struggled with since my early years in high school geography class when I questioned if Canadians and Mexicans were also called Americans. Later, during my ex-pat years in Latin America, I struggled to get my tongue around Estadunidense because I quickly learned that use of the word Americana was offensive to some. In Mexico, when still others reminded me that they too were Estadunidenses given that the legal name of Mexico is the Estados Unidos Mexicanos, I would smile and quote Gertrude Stein: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” At times I claimed Canadian citizenship just to avoid conflict as I continued to work both with and without documents on the southern side of the U.S. border.

In today’s world of political and economic crisis, of failed immigration reform, child deportations and apples rotting in the vast orchards of Eastern Washington, use of the word American becomes more than a mere question of semantics. Jose Antonio Vargas defines American “…as someone who works really hard. Someone who’s proud to be in this country and wants to contribute to society.” I am comfortable with this definition. This land that we claim as the United States of America was taken from the native people by hordes of immigrants from around the globe. What right do any of us children of immigrants have to slam the immigration door behind us? The reasons for immigrating to this land given by our parents, grandparents or the ancestors before them are no more valid than those given by today’s immigrants.

I know those reasons. I work with immigrants – both documented and undocumented. I listen to their stories, and I am present in their pain. Few immigrants leave home and loved ones, culture and language to face an uncertain future in a foreign land unless under extreme duress. There are no easy solutions to the huge immigration mess this country is experiencing, but building a wall won’t work and ripping families apart is immoral. Undocumented immigrants come from around the world, and yet the target continues to be on the backs of those from Mexico, and by extension all Latin Americans because we seem unable to distinguish between Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans. Interesting how easily we distinguish between Latinos and Canadians.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Choosing to Remember

Maureen would be 48 today. Her hair would be streaked with hints of gray. She’d be seeing life with the perspective of maturity, the patterns of her life well-established. Would Maureen be an empty-nester this autumn, her children off to college, her home a silent shell of the family life once contained within its walls? Would she have a career, the career in early childhood education she was studying for? Would she be working in a pre-school, now the experienced, wise teacher or director, now the funny, gentle soul that younger, inexperienced teachers turned to for advice and direction?

How do you imagine a sister’s life that was taken violently at 19? And how do you let go of the pain without forgetting, while still holding tight to those precious moments of childhood? I hold tight to the images of Maureen with bouncy, blond ringlets, Maureen in her Blue Birds uniform, Maureen, her blond hair now cropped short, soaking up the rays on a Mexican beach.

Violent death of a loved one cannot be forgotten, put aside, blocked without consequences – physical or emotional. My mother turned 87 two weeks before Maureen’s 48th. Though her physical health is remarkable, she no longer remembers that I was once her middle child, the middle of nine; that she once had a daughter who was viciously murdered. Perhaps that is the blessing of dementia, the silver lining – to lose the pain. But with it she has also lost the memories of joy and love, the experiences garnered in her long life.

I choose to remember – all of it. And on this day, I choose to celebrate my sister’s short life. We can choose to embrace life’s joys and gifts or sink into the mire of pain and regret. Though a memoirist, I don’t live in the past, but I do remember the past. I cherish the memories both glorious and horrific because they form the bulk of who I am. I choose to remember it all because I believe that by blocking this painful memory or that one, we also lose the neighboring memories of joy, of excitement, of that last trip to Puerto Vallarta together.

I am grateful to have known Maureen for the 19 years of her short life. Perhaps we’ll cross paths again someday. Perhaps we already have.