Community Gathering

This photo shows a New York City billboard of Ellis Island children covering the side of a building

I’m actually not sure which generations of my family were immigrants—my great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, I’d presume. There are mysteries on both sides: My maternal grandmother’s family has many gaps from her illegitimacy; my paternal grandfather’s gaps stem from his estrangement with my father.

The bottom line is most of us, as Americans, are immigrants.

What I know of my lineage: My mother’s father’s family emigrated from Danzig, now Gdansk, a then-disputed territory on the border of Germany and Poland. Because of this inconclusive geography, I don’t know if my ancestors considered themselves German or Polish, and throughout my upbringing, both heritages were mentioned. These Eastern European relatives settled outside Pittsburgh, with many descendants still there.

My father’s mother’s predecessors came from County Clare in Ireland. Growing up, I never heard her mention her Irish heritage, although some email exchanges before my first trip there revealed said county. When I asked for a specific town within County Clare, she said she didn’t know.

My mother’s mother—New York City, full stop. Her father may have been Welsh. Her mother—no one knows. Thomas and Andersen were the last names. UK? Ireland? It wasn’t discussed.

My father’s father—Italy. Where in Italy? Excellent question. Throughout the years, I heard Naples, Rome, Sicily. While studying abroad in Rome, I found a street near my apartment in Trastevere—Viale Cesare Pascarella. Good enough for me, in the absence of other concrete signposts. Rome it would be. My grandfather passed away a few years back, and I never had the opportunity to ask and find out for myself. Such is the dynamic of respecting the parental relationship and the boundaries that have been long drawn.

These origins, and many customs, have long been lost. However, two things were kept, with varying degrees of success: food and religion.

Nana’s food: My father’s mother liked to cook. She was an Irish cook, first and foremost, with a specialty for roast pork, potatoes, sheet cakes. She did adapt to her first husband’s cuisine, however, and made a decent red sauce. (Sauce was the term, never gravy.) When I think back to meals around her New Jersey table, though, adaptations of what was readily available were frequent features: small white potatoes, brimming with salt, out of a can. Red Jell-o, both cherry and strawberry, sometimes with banana or pineapple, sometimes not. (Young me preferred not.) Pickled beets and onions. So maybe not so Irish after all…

Grandpa’s food: My mother’s father gravitated toward hearty Polish dishes. Potato soup. Pork and sauerkraut. Bread and roast meats. I was at his bedside, giving him a rundown of all the food I had eaten on a trip to Poland, when he passed away. The last words he may have heard were my descriptions of pierogies, kielbasa, and piwo w sokiem.

Religion: All sides were Catholic, although at the end of their lives, most grandparents were lapsed. To my knowledge, none of their children or grandchildren are practicing. In fact, of all the grandkids, only one was confirmed. (Me.)

I don’t know why my ancestors emigrated from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland.

I don’t know if they were good, decent people.

I don’t know if they were demonized.

I don’t know if they worked hard.

I don’t know who they were.

I can only look back two or three generations, and the gaps are still vast.

And with that blank slate, I look at my new fellow Americans, coming in from all over, for a myriad of reasons, and I know—you too could be my family.

You belong here, too.

Ellis Island children billboard photo courtesy June Marie via Flickr Creative Commons

Same as it Ever Was: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

This photo shows a vista in Topanga Canyon, California

Welcome to Same as it Ever Was, a series in which I’ll review books, movies, and music from the archives that are still timely and relevant, shedding light (for better or worse) on present-day political, cultural, and sociological issues. Let’s kick things off with T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, set in Topanga Canyon/LA County, published in 1995.

Does the following passage sound familiar?

Safety. Self-protection. Prudence. You lock your car, don’t you? Your front door?” A cluck of the tongue, a shift from one hip to the other, blue eyes, solid as stone. “Delaney, believe me, I know how you feel…but this society isn’t what it was–and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

The borders. Delaney took an involuntary step backwards, all those dark disordered faces rising up from the streetcorners and freeway on-ramps to mob his brain, all of them crying out their human wants through mouths of rotten teeth. “That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”

“Not in the least–it’s a question of national sovereignty. Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined–and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us. They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills–all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machinery that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost.” He dropped his hand in dismissal. “It’s old news.”  …

“Look, Delaney,” Jack went on, cool, reasonable, his voice in full song now, “it’s a simple equation, so much in, so much out. The illegals in San Diego County contributed seventy million in tax revenues and at the same time they used up two hundred and forty million in services–welfare, emergency care, schooling and the like. You want to pay for that? And for the crime that comes with it?”

T.C. Boyle has always been an astute observer of what Vogue called “the need for control, the increasing helplessness of white males.” But with The Tortilla Curtain, he almost takes on the role of soothsayer. Written 21 years ago, this conversation (and other similar points throughout the book) could have informed so many stories that drove the 2016 Presidential election, both overtly and under the surface: the President-elect’s first speech, demonizing Mexican immigrants, as he announced his candidacy. The ongoing marginalization of minorities. The hidden economy that preys on illegal immigrant labor. The disregard for the environment, to our ongoing peril.

When I finished the book, I suspected Boyle had intended to create a modern-day version of Candide, Voltaire’s immortal satire/tragicomedy, in which the hero is subjected to increasingly over-the-top disasters in his recklessly optimistic pursuit of a better life. Indeed, Boyle’s Mexican protagonists, Candido and America, are named so-on-the-nose that the reader has little reason to doubt they’re stand-ins for much larger statements. But, despite Boyle’s possible intent, can The Tortilla Curtain be considered a tragicomedy today, knowing how little progress we have made in more than 20 years? And is it now to be interpreted as an out-and-out tragedy, given the now-legitimate policies of our president-elect? Without giving plot points away, this story starts and ends with violence, one man-made, one natural. Given how little we’ve learned, I’m pessimistic (perhaps like Boyle and Voltaire) that we may still find ourselves on the same trajectory.

I do have a few nitpicky points for this book review: The four main characters in The Tortilla Curtain tend to surreptitiously cross paths frequently, in ways that took me out of the story. (LA is a big place, no? How do these four people always tend to find themselves at the same intersections, grocery stores, etc., always at the same time?) The villain is seemingly without motive and at times cartoony, an evil presence who wreaks havoc with all four protagonists (and also happens to be an illegal immigrant). Instead, I would have loved Boyle to depict a conflicted INS agent as the malevolent presence in this book, a by-the-rules person just doing his/her job, with all the gray area and compromises that requires.

But perhaps that’s for another book–after all, given how little has changed, it seems we’re due for a sequel.

Photo courtesy DrumsKickAss via Flickr Creative Commons