Don’t rubbish the American Dream – it is alive and well and continuing to redefine itself into reality for yet another generation of immigrants.
David Gonzalez is a journalist – he calls himself a “street reporter” – with The New York Times. David is the son of Puerto Rico immigrants and grew up in the Bronx in the nineteen sixties and seventies. His parents, poor but hard-working, had one ambition for their children – a good education and a life, in material terms at least, on a level different from their own.
They fulfilled that ambition. David was put through good Catholic schools and went on to win a scholarship to Yale. When his teacher at Cardinal Hayes High School encouraged him to apply for a place in an Ivy League college David didn’t even know what an Ivy League college was – and he thought Yale was a place where they made locks. He graduated from Yale with a psychology degree and went on to take a masters degree in journalism at Columbia University. He then went to work for Newsweek and eventually ended up in The New York Times.
Last weekend David Gonzalez addressed a media conference at Cleraun University Centre in Dublin on the topic of “Cities in Transformation, or The Varieties of Ethnic Experience”. While his own experience was relevant it was not what he dwelt on. His focus was more contemporary but it still shows that the immigrant experience in a place like New York – while it can be terrifying and traumatic – still is what it always was, a place where dreams can come true.
He began the story a century and a half ago, looking a an ethnic group trying to make their homes there then. He described how they were portrayed in the newspapers of the day – the Dublin conference’s focus was on the ethical challenges facing media in reporting the world around us. “They were scorned as dangerous louts, suspected of being loyal to a foreign power which cloaked itself in odd raiment and practiced bizarre rituals. They were caricatured as monkeys and drunkards. They were…the Irish.
“To a New Yorker of the 21st century, such an assertion would be laughable. Since then the Irish have a long and proud history in our city. They are captains of industry, politicians, philanthropists and scholars. They are indisputably American, too.” He jumped forward to the 1990s and found that the same fears which greeted the waves of Irish who flooded into the United States in the mid 1800s still characterise the “welcome” accorded to today’s immigrants – but he also finds that the response of the Irish at that time is still working today and has paved the way for the numerous ethnic groups who succeeded them in the century and a half which followed right up to the present. “Excluded from the city’s institutions, they created their own, working through then Catholic Church to establish schools, hospitals and parishes that protected newcomers. They educated, fed and clothed those who could not do so for themselves.” It was a question of the time-honoured “corporal works of mercy” serving as a civic contribution – “and in doing so they set up a network of institutions that have continued to ease the plight of the stranger in a strange land.”
Sprawling cities attract immigrants and immigrants compound the sprawl. Whole communities fly below the radar and get lost until some tragedy turns the spotlight on them. Gonzalez cited the horrific social club fire in New York in the 1990s when 87 Hondurans from a region on the Caribbean coast perished. Later in the decade it was the discovery of a large African community from Mali when 9 members of an extended family died in a house fire.
But all this is the hard end of the story. The story eventually begins to turn good when the resilient humanity of the subject and the civilised institutions of the host city begin to interact with each other. No more than one hundred and fifty years ago, the stories of today’s immigrant communities adapting to and being embraced by this great iconic city make inspiring reading, and the patterns of progress are still remarkably similar.
For example, Gonzalez recounts how churches and church leaders still play a vital role in the process – sometimes as advocates for better housing conditions, sometimes stepping in as pacemakers when inter-ethnic strife breaks out. In the course of his “street reporting” he found a Pentecostal Christian group in a tiny commercial storefront working away with some of the city’s most vulnerable residents – former drug addicts, delinquents, single mothers and impoverished factory workers – helping them reclaim their lives.
And then there is the community group, expressing “citizen democracy at its most basic” and proving very effective at holding officials and politicians accountable. He tells the story of Astin Jacobo who lived in his own neighbourhood.
“I used to live in a community near the Bronx Zoo that had fallen on some very hard times. Arson fires – set by landlords to collect on their insurance policies – had devastated the community. Many families moved away. Many stayed, however, since they had no money and hence no choice. But within that group lay the seeds of the community’s very rebirth.
“Astin Jacabo – who became known simply as Jacob – had come to New York from the Dominican Republic, where he had been a professional baseball scout. He now was a school custodian, which meant he was the man who opened up the school gymnasium after school for basketball practice. He soon learned it the early 1970s that the young people, especially during the winter, did not want to go home.
“He asked them why, and learned that their homes were cold, with no heat. In some cases, their buildings were half-vacant. So he told them to bring their parents to the gym for a meeting next time. Jacob, it turned out, had also been involved with a nascent community group that was trying to rally residents into stemming the tide of destruction washing over their community.
“From those humble beginnings, he was able to start bringing neighbours together to discuss their common concerns. In one memorable meeting, he actually confronted the Mayor of New York, Edward I. Koch, calling him a liar for tolerating illegal garbage dumping on empty lots owned by the city. The mayor, perhaps stunned that someone would challenge him so publicly, wound up visiting the area and in time directed other agencies to help the local group clean up both the abandoned lot and housing stock.
“The lot became a ball field. The buildings were rebuilt. Still, in the early 1990s people did not want to go out on the streets at night because of drug dealing. It was then that Jacob had a brainwave from the old country: as a young man in the Dominican Republic, he remembered how neighbours used to come out to the ball field when their children played. The adults would hang out and socialize. They kept an eye on things.
“And that is how Jacob got the idea to put lights on the field. By persuading officials to install lights, he could hold games at night. In turn, he could get parents to go out and watch their kids play. With scores of people now on the streets, gathered at a well-lighted park – the bad guys would soon find some other place to go conduct their business.
“An old tradition gave birth to a new solution.”
If the liberal chattering classes look to these groups and movements for ground troops in the culture wars of the future they might be very disappointed – and for this disappointment they have probably to blame the background Christian music which accompanies this transformation. What is happening, Gonzalez says, also challenges the ideas the larger society has about people like them.
“While Latinos and other members of minority groups have usually been seen as politically liberal, these congregations shunned any formal political affiliation. If anything, they confounded political stereotypes – conservative on family value issues like gay marriage or abortion and liberal on social issues like housing, education and immigration.
“They also present a major source of change for the future. Outsiders, especially those who would consider themselves to be secular humanists, would view these Pentecostals as people looking for some imaginary reward in Heaven after a lifetime of earthly suffering. But the members of these congregations embraced the value of hard work and its rewards right here on earth. They did not diminish their ultimate reward as Christians. But they did not brook any talk about being doomed to suffer. Instead, they urged their children to go to school and become professionals, rather than toiling in factories or grocery stores.
“The idea that thousands of teenagers are being raised in this faith tradition has implications for the city even if they fall away from their church (which is admittedly common). We are talking about a generation of minority youths who will go on to college and become part of the city’s core work force, taking on the kinds of jobs in business and government that keep the city running. Raised in a tradition that made them feel empowered and not helpless, they represent a segment of the city that will see its influence felt.
“More than a century ago, immigrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came to New York with not just a sense of new beginnings but a sense of finality. The old country was left behind, perhaps forever. But in this age of global economies, easy transportation and instant communication, the immigrant experience is being redefined daily”
In other words, the details of the dream may change but the big dream remains intact, and can and does become a reality. To paraphrase Norman Maine’s words to Esther in A Star is Born, “Don’t settle for the little dream. Go for the big one.” Dream on America.
Michael Kirke, formerly of The Irish Press, is now a freelance writer and the director of Ely University Centre, 10 Hume Street, Dublin 2. His views can be responded to at email@example.com. Other writing can be found at www.mercatornet.com and www.positionpapers.ie .