|Across Continents, Across Time: Literary and Film Resources for an Immigration Curriculum.
|By Professor Emeritus of English at LaGuardia Community College, Brian Gallagher|
|Brian Gallagher's essay sections:|
Cultural and Family
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of literary works and films that deal significantly with immigration to the United States. Below is a very short but useful list of works that would, I believe, both enlighten and engage students—and provide many talking points. There are short excerpts from the literary works (except where I reproduce whole poems) and descriptions of sequences that might be excerpted from films. I have used a number of these works with community college students with considerable success. With one exception, works have only been listed under one category, although, as noted, they often have sections that fall into other categories. That exception is the film, The Godfather, Part II—I use it as an example of how a single work might be used across all the categories. (It is also, I can assure you, a work that will grab and hold students’ attention.)
Selections are arranged chronologically in terms of period depicted within each section. Given is the setting in which these works will be used; I have skewed the selections towards New York City.
If you want historical and sociological background to compare and contrast the “classic period” of immigration, 1880-1924 (1907 was the peak year, with 1.2 million immigrants), with present-day immigration, I suggest a look at Nancy Foner’s superb From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
See Google Books for large excerpts of the book:
From Ellis Island to JFK
By Nancy Foner
Needless to say, I have not, in twenty-three selections, been able to represent all immigrant groups, although I do have representatives from varied places: Africa and Europe and Asia and Latin America. I have tried to use selections that represent not only the specifics of one group experience but also the commonalities across groups.
Note: to keep this list to manageable proportions I have made the excerpts from literary works relatively short—you may want to go back to the source (almost all of which are, as indicated, available via the Internet) and flesh out the excerpt for classroom use.
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This poem is possibly the most famous poem in the United States, since it appears on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty and its conclusion is quoted in public with almost numbing regularity. However, despite some stilted diction, unfamiliar vocabulary and a few points that need to be glossed, the entire poem is worth studying:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome: her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Of course, the most essential question to ask is whether the sense of cultural welcome embodied in these lines was real:
Needless to say, the sentiments of the poem blend with the imagery of the Statue, as the last line makes explicit: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Notice how this last line blends the actual iconography of the statue (“I lift my lamp”) with a non-corporeal, symbolic image (“beside the golden door”).
I can think of several useful writing exercises that might grow out of a discussion of this poem:
1) Have students re-write the poem, as “The New Colossus,” to reflect present-day realities for immigrants.
Structurally, the poem is a sonnet in the Italian (or Petrarchan) form, consisting of an octave (eight lines) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet (six lines) rhyming cdecde. It is written in the most common form of line in English language poetry, iambic pentameter, i.e., typically each foot is two beats with the accent on the second syllable, as “I lift/my lamp/ beside /the gol/den/ door. I do not think it necessary for students to imitate these features, although they might enjoy doing so.
2) Have students write an essay (or maybe a poem) from the point of view of an immigrant several years after he or she has sailed into New York harbor past the Statue.
3) After you have discussed the poem and thoroughly clarified its language and poetic devices, have students write a letter to a friend explaining the poem and its significance. Perhaps you can use excerpts from How the Other Half Lives (see below) to qualify its welcoming optimism.
For those who want a bit more information on Lazarus and her background—she was an insider in New York society of her time because her family was wealthy and well-known, but also something of an outsider because she was Jewish—there is a short, informative recent essay: Christopher Benfey, “The Convert,” New York Review of Books, 15 Feb. 2007, pp. 49-51.
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Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (see section III), Riis’ work was one of the most effective reformist texts in American literature. Several years after its publication, “Mulberry Bend,” which Riis termed the “foul core of New York’s slums,” was torn down and a number of laws were passed that somewhat bettered living conditions for New York City’s poor.
I list this work here because it raises an issue very closely allied with access, namely, acceptance. Almost from the beginning of European settlement of the “New World,” immigrant groups faced discrimination from established residents. It was one thing to gain access to the U.S., but quite another to be seen and treated as an equal, both legally (e.g., Jim Crow laws) and socially (Jewish “quotas”).
Riis is, of course, an extreme example of the “Progressive” reformers’ disdain for the immigrant groups whose lot they were genuinely, often effectively, working to improve. (Obviously, parallels can be drawn between Riis and present-day commentators, like Lou Dobbs, railing against immigration.) The gist of Riis’s text is that “we”—Progressives and their allies among the citizenry—have to help these people precisely because these people cannot help themselves. The Jew (chapter 10) has a “low intellectual status” and belongs to a people for whom “Money is their God.” The Italian (chapter 5) “is content to live in a pig-sty and submits to robbery at the hands of the rent-collector without murmur,” but at least he is less trouble than the “contentious” and brawling Irish. However, Riis saves his most damming remarks for the Chinese (chapter 9):
Stealth and secretiveness are as much a part of the Chinaman in New York as the cat-like tread of his felt shoes. His business, as his domestic life, shuns the light, less because there is anything to conceal than because that is the way of the man. . . . He is by nature as clean as the cat, which he resembles in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused. . . . Granted, that the Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population, that they serve no useful purpose here, whatever they may have done elsewhere in other days, yet to this it is a sufficient answer that they are here, and that, having let them in, we must make the best of it.
Riis’ remarks can be related specifically to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration restriction directed against any specific immigrant group.
There are two oddities about Riis’ text that may be worth discussing. First, he is relatively benign in discussing African-Americans (chapter 13)—while he resorts to a number of common stereotypes (e.g., their “natural love of ease”), he also gives them a number of positive traits: loyalty, patriotism, cleanliness, all making them “immensely the superior of the lowest of the whites, the Italians and the Polish Jews.” (Remember, though, that the black population of New York—which then comprised only Manhattan—was barely over 1%, much lower than that of major European groups, seemingly coming in endless waves.) Second, Riis was himself an immigrant, though from a country, Denmark, which had a very small share in U.S. immigration—is this a case of “pulling the ladder up behind him?”
A word on Riis’ photographs (which are particularly useful in illustrating the appalling conditions under which most immigrants lived): because he could not find a satisfactory photographer to accompany him on his rounds of the slums, Riis taught himself photography and in the process became one of the most important photographers in American history. The photographs contained in this edition are startling, more startling even than his text, and show empathy often absent in his prose. The photographs, most of which required the use of cumbersome and dangerous flash equipment, alternate between spontaneous shots (like “five cents a spot”) and carefully posed ensembles (like “Bohemian cigar makers at work in their tenement”). These photographs are well worth analyzing and discussing with students—they certainly show the dreadful living conditions under which most New Yorkers—more like four-fifths than the “other half”—lived circa 1890. However, be aware that these photographs were not included in the original edition because the technology of photographic reproduction at the time was too limited—instead they were turned into line drawings, several examples of which are also included. His photographs were published in post-1900 editions.
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One of the key independent films of the growing independent film movement of the 1970s, Hester Street depicts the varied ways, around 1900, many Jewish immigrants raised in the closed world of the shtetl (a Jewish town or village in Eastern Europe) dealt with the new, pressing realities of American life. Jake (formerly Yankel), the husband, has preceded his wife to America, and when the film opens he is already a fair way towards becoming a classic American wise guy: “I’m an American, a Yankee, that’s what I am.” At first, his wife, Gitl, is almost pathologically timid, clinging to her Old World ways and dress and her native language, Yiddish. Gradually, though, she finds her way towards independence—for example, when she slyly interrupts one of Jake’s boasting “routines” on his Americaness: “Yankel, where in America is the gentiles, huh?” (In 1900, the Lower East Side of New York was the most densely populated area on earth and the Jewish area the most densely populated of all the ethnic enclaves, so it was possible—indeed, almost impossible not to—to live day-to-day life within a cultural “ghetto.”) We also see her learn the language of her new country and find a middle ground between cultural-religious traditions and the realities of her new environment; eventually, she divorces Jake and is about to marry Bernstein, their self-effacing boarder who is a devoted religious scholar.
I have listed this film under “Access,” because it contains a fine, short scene (Chapter 4 on the DVD) set in Ellis Island, when Jake, forgetting about the bold, assimilationist girlfriend, Mamie, he has acquired in America, goes to meet his arriving wife and son. In contrast with the young Vito in The Godfather, Part II, Jake and his family meet an amused scorn rather than indifference on the part of immigration officials. “For what purpose are you bringing this woman in?” asks the inspector, repeating his question more insistently. (The particular use of the word purpose raises a number of discussable issues.) Jake, thrown by this seemingly irrational question, can only stammer, “For the purpose that she’s my wife,” a reply that earns him another smirk. Then Jake, sensing the insult, blusters, “This woman is my wife and that’s all.” When the inspector asks to see the marriage certificate, Gitl hands over a document written in Hebrew, which the puzzled inspector turns this way and that, literally trying to figure which side is up. Finally, he returns it without a word and passes them through. The whole interchange raises questions about the kind of humiliation immigrants are often made to feel, as well as questions about misunderstandings caused by differences in language and the difficulty of producing documents which conform to, and are accepted by, the American legal system
The opening of the sequence gives a fine—and very discussable—
example of film as a visual storytelling medium. After Jake mounts a grand staircase (with, I believe, the 1970s “Tweed Courthouse,” the present Board of Education headquarters, standing in for Ellis Island), he enters a room crowded with immigrants. However, before he can locate his family, the film gives us a shot of his son, Yossele (whom he soon re-names “Joey”), with long, blonde sidelocks, then of Gitl, in her enormous wig and dowdy black dress—the shot sequence suggests that Jake has already become so assimilated that his own wife and child, in their Russian Jewish habiliments, do not immediately appear familiar to him. This sense of estrangement runs both ways, for Gitl’s first comment is a startled “My god, he shaved off his beard,” the use of the third person further emphasizing Jake’s estrangement from the old ways.
This relatively short film (97 minutes) might well be worth showing in its entirety over several classes, for it contains many touchstones of the immigrant experience: the restaurant scene (Chapter 1, second sequence) where a group of partially assimilated immigrants make fun of a “greenhorn” just off the boat for everything from his old-fashioned clothing to his naïveté about American ways; the scene in the garment shop (Chapter 2), where the boss mocks Bernstein, the Hebrew scholar (“Some country America, huh? The peddler becomes the boss, and the yeshiva bucher sits by the sewing machine.”); the scene (Chapter 12) in which Gitl finally rebels against Jake’s duplicity and bullying with a bit of American bravado (“You and your Polish whore can jump out of your skins”), after which Jake is berated by his humorously scatological neighbor, Mrs. Kavansky, the epitome of that streak of Jewish humor that has made such an impact on American cultural life (“You can’t pee up my back and make me think it’s rain.”); and the closing scene (Chapter 15), in overhead shots, of the two new couples, Jake evidently having let himself in for another bad experience in marrying the bossy Mamie, while Gitl and Bernstein are seemingly headed for a better balanced relationship.
Another point worth discussing might be the film’s period music, brilliantly arranged by the major American composer, William Bolcom. To what extent does it reflect the mixing of the Jewish immigrant experience and the larger American experience of the time? What sort of music is associated with which characters? How does the music lead us to interpret the events depicted?
Two factual points: 1. Although the film was made more than three-quarters of a century after its setting (1896), it is based upon a story published at that time, Yekl, by Abraham Cahan, the long-time editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and author of one of the most significant novels about an immigrant, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). 2. Interestingly, the street scenes—Chapter 6 is a particularly fine depiction of vivid street life, as Jake takes his son out walking—were not shot on the Lower East Side, but on Morton Street, between 7th Avenue and Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village. Apparently, this street could more easily be “dressed” to look like seventy-five years earlier than the real buildings of that time which had survived.
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The Godfather, Part II, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (Paramount Pictures, 1974).
Readily available on DVD, see http://www.amazon.com
The second sequence of the film (Disk 1, Chapter 3) vividly depicts the arrival of twelve-year-old Vito Andolini at Ellis Island in 1902, smuggled out of his native Sicilian town after the local mafia boss, Don Ciccio, has killed all the other members of his family and has men hunting down Vito. The sequence contains many traveling shots, the camera sometimes tracking young Vito walking along the deck, other times just moving on its own—but in every shot the movement is right to left to provide flow and continuity. Thus, we see a ship crowded with immigrants from many lands, all hopefully, and with some wonder, gazing at the Statue of Liberty. That sense of hope is soon dispelled by the rather heartless and indifferent processing of immigrants. Vito loses his last name, when a brusque customs official misunderstands him and substitutes instead the name of his village (Corleone) for his last name. Like other immigrants, Vito is poked, prodded along and inspected for various diseases—treated, in essence, with little human dignity. Vito, diagnosed with smallpox, is “sentenced” to three months confinement on the island. The final shot of the sequence has the young boy sitting alone in a room, the Statue of Liberty visible in far distance through the window, singing softly to himself. The sequence was shot on location, chiefly in a refurbished section of the Great Hall on Ellis Island. (Indeed, the film was perhaps the most influential force behind the creation of the grand immigration museum on the island.)
Some hints on how the sequence might be used:
1. Besides following Vito’s story, with its “typical” immigrant experience, you can also pause the film at numerous points to study other details, for Coppola’s mise-èn-scene (what is included within the frame and how it is arranged) is very rich. For instance, you can focus on the variegated crowd of immigrants, the metals bars “herding” them through processing, the peripheral misunderstandings that mark other encounters between bewildered immigrants and unsympathetic officials, and the ever-present echoing babble of the huge crowd...
2. You may want to begin the film at the very end of the previous sequence, where a donkey moves right to left across the Sicilian town at dawn, with Vito hidden in one of its baskets. Then there is a dissolve (where one shot fades slowly away as another fades in at the same time), here used as a way of linking the two locales, and experiences, thematically.
3. Later in the film there is another sequence (Disk 2, Chapter 7) you might want to show—Vito, now a powerful American gangster (as opposed to the powerless boy we saw earlier), returns to his native Sicilian town and murders the now decrepit Don Ciccio. The sequence raises all sorts of interesting issues, not the least of which is the immigrant’s possible need for some “revenge” for, or at least some coming to terms with, oppression suffered in the native country.
4. If you want to extend analysis of this sequence, you might show a portion of Chaplin’s 1917 short, The Immigrant, which clearly inspired Coppola. In Chaplin’s film there is a Stieglitz-like group shot of immigrants gazing reverently up at the Statue of Liberty, followed by a shot of them being rudely shoved to the end of the deck and roped in—a wonderful visual summary of the conflict between hope and fear that runs through the immigrant experience.
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Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine. New York: Grove Press, 1989.
See the following web site for autobiographical essay by the author: http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers/mukherjee.htm
Jasmine is an elegantly written, yet highly accessible, story (Mukherjee favors short, direct sentences and parallel phrasing) of a young Indian woman’s illegal immigration and entry into American life and culture. The novel encompasses with easy grace both the horrors of immigration (Jasmine must kill a rapist to save herself) and its wry humor (her partner in Iowa is Bud, a kindly, middle-aged, decidedly Lutheran banker from an old farming family). In a sense, the immigration theme is doubled, for Jasmine and Bud soon adopt an adolescent orphan from Vietnam, Du.
The novel is structured as something of a mystery, beginning in the near-present, in Iowa. By this point, Bud has been permanently paralyzed, although we only learn how this happened 150 pages later. Nor do we learn how Jasmine ended up in Iowa until we trace her life back to girlhood and adolescence in Punjab (the northernmost region of India, adjacent to Pakistan), a life which ended with the assassination of her husband, by a Sikh fanatic, when she was seventeen. We then follow her through the tortures of immigration, and see her seemingly settle into a permanent relationship with a winsome young Columbia physics professor, Taylor, in New York City—only to flee suddenly to Iowa, chosen for its inaccessibility, when her husband’s assassin shows up in New York (an assassin who had actually been trying to kill her, not her husband).
Like many immigrants, Jasmine encounters prejudice and is the victim of American violence—BUT, unlike many, she also encounters cultural fascination about her and, more importantly, genuine good will. Her survival, even prospering, in America is not depicted as a mere matter of luck, but rather as the result of her ability to overcome the permanent effects of evil by cleaving to the good in people—or rather, her ability to find good people among the indifferent, bad and downright evil people she encounters in the United States.
This is a work which would fit neatly into all three categories (though its treatment of immigrant economic issues is a bit scanty), but I list it here under “Access” because it contains, in chapters 15 and 16, a brilliant capsule portrait of the shadow world of illegal immigration:
There are national airlines flying the world that do not appear in any directory. There are charters who’ve lost their way and now just fly, improvising crews and destinations. They serve no food, no beverages. Their crews often look abused. There is a shadow world of aircraft permanently aloft that share air lanes and radio frequencies with Pan Am and Air-India, portaging people who coexist with tourists and businessmen.
The passengers in this transport system are unseen and unknown by the official system; they are the straggling camp followers of legal immigrants:
We are the outcasts and deportees, strange pilgrims visiting outlandish shrines, landing at the end of tarmacs, ferried in old army trucks where we are roughly handled and taken to roped-off corners of waiting rooms where surly, barely wakened customs guards await their bribes. We are dressed in shreds of national costumes, out of season, the wilted plumage of international vagabondage.
Typically (and symbolically), Jasmine’s own journey is indirect, as she zigzags her way around the world en route to the U.S.:
I phantom my way through three continents. The small airports in the Middle East lit by oil fires and gas flares, the waiting rooms in Sudan with locusts banging on the glass, landing always in the smaller cities, the disused airfields.
Finally, she reaches the last leg of her journey, hidden in a shrimp boat bound for the Florida coast:
On the trawler out of Europe we slept in tiered bunks. In the New World, on a shrimper out of Grand Cayman called ‘The Gulf Shuttle,’ four of us bound for the Gulf Coast of Florida slept under the tarp. You learn to roll with the waves and hold the vomit in.
The writing in these chapters is particularly vivid—and captures the suffering and desperation of some immigrants so intent on beginning life anew they willrisk great hardship, illness, even death to get to a new country.
Most of the questions and issues raised by these passages are, I think, obvious, but I would suggest at least one question that might be so obvious that it could easily be overlooked, namely, should the United States have immigration quotas at all?
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Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. See the following site for a readers group study guide for the novel. http://www.randomhouse.com/vintage/read/puerto
See the author’s personal web site, where she answers frequently asked questions. http://www.esmeraldasantiago.com/FAQ/faq.html
Puerto Ricans are in a unique position as “immigrants”: they have been United States citizens since 1917 (although not many came to the U.S. mainland until the 1940s), making access no more than a formality. However, because of differences in language, culture and history, in coming to the U.S. they undergo many of the same dislocations and prejudices faced by other immigrant groups.
Santiago’s clearly written and accessible memoir is very much bi-cultural, for she spent the first thirteen years of her life in Puerto Rico, the rest in the United States (graduating from Harvard University). As a young girl in Puerto Rico, she clearly experienced the United States as a very near, but also a puzzlingly “foreign,” presence:
“Ignacio Sepúlveda said Eekeh Aysenhouerr [a phonetic spelling of Ike Eisenhower] is an imperialist. He said all ‘gringos’ are.
Papi looked around as if someone were hiding behind a bush and listening in. “I don’t want you repeating those words to anybody. . .”
“I know that Papi. . . . I just want to know what it means. Are ‘gringos’ the same as ‘Americanos’?”
“You should never call an ‘Americano’ a ‘gringo.’ It’s a very bad insult.”
“It just is. . . . ”
[Papi] “We call them ‘gringos,’ they call us spiks.”
“What does that mean?”
“. . . . There are many Puerto Ricans in New York, and when someone asks them a question they say, ‘I don’t spik inglish’ instead of ‘I don’t speak English.’ They make fun of our accent.” (“The American Invasion of Macún”)
Because they were U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans could also suddenly remove to the U.S. mainland, as the young narrator discovers both to her surprise and to her rather selfish delight:
“I can’t bring Margie [the narrator’s half-sister] to see you because she’s moved to ‘Neuva York.”
Mami took in a breath. “When?”
He lifted his arms over his head, stretched up, and floated them slowly to his lips, where they stayed as if he were posing for a picture. Mami watched him for a while then took her sewing inside the house.
“You didn’t say she was leaving,” I whined, and it seemed that Papi finally realized that all our talk about Margie was not just my natural curiosity but something more. He turned sad eyes on me, kneeled, and hugged me. As he grieved on my shoulder, I wanted nothing more than for Papi to go on losing people he loved so that he’d always turn to me, so that I alone could bring him comfort. (“Fighting Naked”)
The later sections of the book convey well the sense of loss and longing a thirteen-year-old girl experiences on first arriving from Puerto Rico, a place that contrasts markedly in terms of both security and sense of community with her new home:
After we came to Brooklyn, all our time was spent indoors. We lived cooped up because our neighborhood was filled with “gente mala,” bad people. . . . I couldn’t imagine why neighbors would harm me or my sisters and brothers. But I couldn’t imagine how they could help us if we needed them. We lived separated by thick doors with several bolts. . . .
“I can’t depend on anyone,” Mami often told us, and we knew that to be true. ‘El Bosso’ could lay her off at any minute. The welfare workers never believed a strong-looking woman like Mami couldn’t find work. . . . There was an extended family, Mami’s aunts, uncles, and cousins, who dropped in and out of our lives with warm clothes, advice, and warnings. But Mami was too proud to ask them for more than they volunteered. . . . “(“You Don’t Want to Know”)
Not to get too technical, but this is actually a form dissolve—i.e., the essential shape (and here movement)of the second shot paralleling the first. More common in film is the form cut, where we go directly from shot to shot (usually linking one sequence to the next) via a reproduction in the second shot of the essential shape of the first shot. Such devices help create both rhythm and thematic continuity in visual storytelling.
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II. CULTURAL AND FAMILY RELATIONS
Gangs of New York, dir. Martin Scorsese (Miramax Films, 2002).
Readily available on DVD: See
Martin Scorsese’s long film—set in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, and centering on the conflict between the xenophobic, vicious anti-immigrant Nativists (led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, frighteningly enacted by Daniel Day-Lewis) and the newly arrived Irish—was, I believe, unfairly scored by historians and others for its historical inaccuracies. True, the film has its anachronisms. For instance, the Irish-inhabited “Old Brewery”—New York’s most notoriously over crowded (1,000), unsafe (a murder a night) and unsanitary slum dwelling—was torn down in 1852, but Scorsese’s story shows its continued existence through the 1860s, when most of the film’s narrative takes place. Still, I think this a valid piece of artistic license (and not really a great anachronism), since it is thematically linked with events of the Civil War decade, most especially the “Draft Riots” of 1863, in which Irish-American slum dwellers, maddened by being subject to the draft when rich New Yorkers could simply buy their way out of service, beat, maimed and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of New York’s most vulnerable citizens: African-Americans. (See Disk 2, Chapters 10-11.) Similarly, the opening sequence (Disk 1, Chapter 1), in which a gang of Irish-American immigrants emerges from extensive underground caves to confront the Nativist gangs in 1846, was criticized for making the caves far too extensive, when, I think, the key point of the sequence was not literal but symbolic: here was a repressed group coming into the light to confront its tormentors, a sequence which raises the important question of the degree to which overt violence must necessarily accompany immigrant acceptance, even limited acceptance, in the new society.
Scorsese’s film is, in the best sense, “operatic” (rather than strictly historical), redolent with powerful images of mid-nineteenth-century immigrant slum life and the violent confrontations they spawned. The “Five Points” neighborhood was brilliantly re-created, at Italy’s Cinecittà studios, for the film, and the Old Brewery is almost a character itself: gigantic, seething, violent, rat-infested and vitally grim (compare with Riis, above). The setting gives a strong sense of how immigrant neighborhoods were then, and how different their squalor was from well-appointed neighborhoods of the rich. See especially Disk 1, Chapter 7 and Disk 2, Chapter 10—the latter suggests it is also part of the strategy of the rich and powerful to keep immigrant groups at each other’s throats.
The film is full of very analyzable examples of immigrant culture in mid-nineteenth-century New York: its often cruel entertainments (like the bare-knuckled boxing match—Disk 1, Chapter 10); the annoying everpresent unrealistic, censorious Protestant reformers in Catholic immigrant neighborhoods (see Disk 1, Chapter 9); the battling of rival fire companies, a battling which often resulted in fires getting out of control (Disk 1, Chapter 4); and how the Catholic Church (a large church is, symbolically as well as literally, under construction in the film) often served as a rallying cultural point for groups trying to push their way into American society (see especially Disk 2, Chapter 7.)
Criminality in the immigrant community and the general corruption of the times are other major, linked subjects of the film. (See especially Disk 1, Chapter 6, which draws directly on Herbert’s Asbury’s description in his 1928 Gangs of New York for a description of the violent early gangs, like the Dead Rabbits, and their criminal modus operandi.) Indeed, the whole issue of “gang warfare” across the New York centuries—how it has and has not changed over the last century and a half—could be a fruitful topic for discussion, although it might require showing the better part of the film. (If you want to explore this topic, I also suggest Luc Sante’s Low Life [Vintage, 1992], which draws heavily on Asbury and several other classic studies of New York crime.)
You might want to discuss the depiction of other immigrant groups in the film, most especially Chinese-Americans, who appear most prominently on the fringes of the narrative. (See, for instance, Disk 2, Chapter 5.) And, as noted, there are also the African-American victims of the Draft Riots. (Perhaps to mitigate the racism of the riots a bit, the film put—rather unrealistically I would say—an African-American member in the gang led by the main character, Amsterdam Vallon [Leonardo DiCaprio].)
The very last sequence in the film (Disk 2, Chapter 12) proves a poignant reminder of the how immigrant memories fade over time. From a graveyard in Brooklyn Heights, we see what is now Lower Manhattan burning in the aftermath of the Draft Riots—then there are four slow dissolves to shots from exactly the same vantage point—first New York c. 1890 (the Brooklyn Bridge has now appeared), then New York c. 1920, then New York c. 1950, then New York in the present (a shot in which the Twin Towers appear, reminding us how very rapid change in the city has been). With each succeeding shot, the graveyard sinks further and further into the ground, until it has disappeared, “all mightily swept away” as Amsterdam’s voice-over says, along with any memories of the immigrants buried there.
If you want to address economic issues beyond criminality, you might look at some of the sequences (e.g., Disk 1, Chapter 7) where Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) is shown working as a maid in a very wealthy household, for Irish women constituted an overwhelming majority of domestic servants in nineteenth-century New York. Or you might want to discuss how art influences how we “see” history. Although they are from three decades later, Scorsese draws on Jacob Riis’ photographs in staging a number of shots of New York slum life—see, for instance, Disk 2, Chapter 5 for an exact recall of Riis’ “Bandits’ Roost.”
Overall, this film is, I think, strong stuff (although a bit softened by a love story that doesn’t quite fit)—and, as such, might well capture and hold students’ attention. Indeed, you might want to begin by asking students what they think New York immigrant life was like 150 years ago, then “show” them more or less how it was, analyzing what they got right and what wrong, as well as talk about how present experience inevitably shapes our understanding of past experience.
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The Godfather, Part II, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (Paramount Pictures, 1974).
Readily available on DVD: see
After the opening sequences, described in section I, the film alternates between two time periods. In the late 1910s, we see Vito Corleone as, at first, an honest young man struggling under the burdens of poverty on the Lower East Side, then gradually (and very successfully) turning to crime out of sheer economic necessity. In the late 1950s, we see the Corleone family, now run by Vito’s son, Michael, trying to establish itself in its new home, Nevada, and get control of a number of casinos, while simultaneously avoiding federal indictment by an aggressive Senate committee.
The sequences from the 1910s, shot on a magnificently detailed and authentic set of the Lower East Side, provide bountiful instances of immigrant cultural traditions—for example, the emotion-laden religious procession, accompanied by blaring, mournful brass players, that is intercut with a sequence in which Vito, the rising gangster on the street, stalks and murders the street’s older, insouciant, strutting Don Fanucci (Disk 1, Chapter 16). Earlier there are sequences set in the barren, dark tenement apartment in which Vito and his young family live—here the real griminess, the sense of claustrophobia, the sheer unhealthiness of living so close together is readily apparent (as opposed to the rather scrubbed and stagy tenement apartment found in earlier Hollywood films—e.g., City for Conquest, 1940). This tenement interior can be contrasted with the sequence (disk 1, chapter 9) in which Vito and a confederate break into a brownstone, a handsome and spacious house, beautifully furnished, to steal a ring.
There is also a fine, evocative sequence in which Vito, still innocent, accompanies a friend to a crude theatrical performance in his immigrant neighborhood (Disk 1, Chapter 8). In it, a Neapolitan immigrant denounces the “tramp” wife he took in America and bitterly laments deserting his beloved “mama”. (Lots of discussion points about male-female relations in immigrant cultures, to say nothing of the persistence of the mother-whore paradigm in many cultures.) Then he receives a letter telling him of his mother’s death. As Vito and friend exit, he is singing a last, mournful song about his mother before he will put a gun to his head and end his miserable American existence in his squalid tenement room.
The 1950s sequences deal with another kind of immigration—internal immigration. The scene (Disk 1, Chapter 5) between the corrupt, WASPish Nevada Senator Geary, who is trying to extort huge bribes to get the Corleones gaming licenses, and Michael Corleone is a classic example of the kind of discrimination immigrants face into the second and third generation. Try this question: why do we almost cheer when Michael—whom we know to be the head of a ruthless, murderous enterprise—coolly and lethally puts in his place the scornful, racist Geary (“I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come to this clean country in your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits . . .“)?
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Claude McKay, “The Tropics in New York,” Selected Poems of Claude McKay (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1953) and in a number of anthologies of African-American poetry. See the following web site for McKay’s narrating an excerpt from this poem and information on purchasing a Smithsonian Institution recording of African American poetry.
The Jamaican-born novelist and poet, Claude McKay (1890-1948), came to the U.S. in 1912 and was a key player in the early years (1920-25) of the Harlem Renaissance, that remarkable outpouring of African-American literature, art, theater et al. that virtually overnight made Harlem—which was a mainly white community before 1915—the capital of black America. The following poem, in which the mind of the persona (the speaker, not to be fully equated with the author) is taken back to his homeland by gazing on tropical fruits he has purchased in New York, captures well the immigrant’s nostalgia and hunger for “the old, familiar ways”:
The Tropics in New York
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,
Set in the window, bringing memories
Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
In benediction over nun-like hills,
My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
After discussion, this poem might serve as a fine inspiration, even a model, for immigrant students to write poems or impressionistic essays about their native lands. Thematically, the longing for home in the poem might be balanced with poems that reflect the dislocation many immigrants feel moving from a rural environment to a megalopolis. McKay’s “The Desolate City” suggests that a symbiotic relationship exists between urban life and spiritual decay: “My spirit is a pestilential city,/With misery triumphant everywhere.” Conversely, the city is not without its compensatory, if momentary, pleasures, as in McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer”: “Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes/And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway.”
[A Long Way from Home], McKay’s autobiography cites:
W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which “shook me like an earthquake.” This book is available online from Google books
and from Project Gutenberg:
However, Du Bois was extremely critical of McKay’s novel Home from Harlem.
Frank Harris, who launched him into the literary world, works from Project Gutenberg
Max Eastman (1883-1969) Archive: He and his sister Clara served as mentors in New York.
As a young man McKay was influenced by Walter Jekyll’s Jamaica Song and Story—peasant field-and-yard songs and African folk tales. Jekyll was his mentor while growing up in Jamaica, both intellectually and financially. McKay was strongly influenced by his older brother U. Theo, a noted teacher and intellect.
Radical orator and writer Hubert Harrison befriended McKay—excerpts of his writings are available on Google.
Writers that were very important to McKay were D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman.
Edward Carpenter Web Sites:
The Intermediate Sex by Edward Carpenter
Walt Whitman Archive:
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Federico Garcia Lorca, “Murder,” Poet in New York, Spanish originals, with translations by Ben Belitt. New York: Grove Press, 1955.
See the following link for biographical information about the author:
and a link to a series of youtube short pieces:
Besides the typical immigrant, who came to the United States intending to settle here permanently (although, in fact, many returned to their homeland, more so a hundred years ago than now), there have also been many “short-term” immigrants, often writers and intellectuals, who have come here for a year or two to get a sense of American society. (One such visit, by Alexis de Tocqueville, produced one of the great works of political science, Democracy in America.) Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936, murdered by Franco’s fascists) is one of the great Spanish writers of the twentieth century. He spent 1929-30 in New York and saw the country settle uneasily into the Depression. Many of the poems in this volume are too long and too enigmatic to be used with students, but here is an atypically short poem, which catches, in charged poetic language, the sense of danger lurking in the streets of New York:
(Riverside Drive: Two Voices At Dawn)
“A slash on the cheek
A thorn-point to harass a stalk.
A pinprick to dive
till it touches the root of a cry.
And the sea moves no more.”
“What happened? What happened?”
“It was this way.”
“Stand aside! Was it this way?”
“Yes, this way.
Only a heart going out.”
“Heaven help me!”
Besides discussing the form and content of the poem, you might want to use it to open up issues of language and translation, both literal and cultural translation. For instance, notice how the translator has often reversed the word order and slightly expanded the text, trying to make it sound fluent in English:
(Dos Voices de Madrugada en Riverside Drive)
--Una grieta en la mejilla.
¡Eso es todo!
Una uña que aprieta el tallo.
Un alfiler que bucea
hasta encontrar las raicillas del grito.
Y el mar deja de moverse.
--¿Cómo, cómo fué?
--¡Déjame! ¿De esa manera?
El corazón salió solo.
--¡Ay, ay de mí!
For those teachers who really want to challenge their students, there are several poems in the volume that could be used if given sufficient study-discussion time: “Landscape of the Vomiting Multitudes (Coney Island Dusk),” “Christmas on the Hudson,” “Unsleeping City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne),” and “Dawn,” the last of which begins:
Dawn in New York bears
four pillars of slime
and a storm of black pigeons
that dabble dead water.
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Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1951.
See the following web site for a reader’s guide to this work:
See the web site below for an interview with the author:
Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) was one of the most influential American literary critics of the twentieth century—and also an autobiographer of great power and sensuous recall. Together, his three main autobiographical volumes—A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew—constitute one of the major American intellectual autobiographies of the last century.
Kazin grew up in Brownsville, a Jewish enclave, far out in Brooklyn, created by real estate developers when the Jewish Lower East Side overflowed with people. (See Riis, above.) His family, like virtually all others in the neighborhood, was poor; his father was a house painter and his mother a dressmaker-housewife who never learned English. After getting a B.A. at City College, he earned an M.A. at Columbia University—and by then was already publishing book reviews in leading periodicals. By the age of twenty-seven, he had published his long, much acclaimed first book, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, an amazingly comprehensive and accomplished study for so young a writer. However, he struggled for nearly a decade to publish a second literary study—but he eventually realized, like many American-born children of immigrants, that he first had to come to terms with his upbringing. A Walker in the City was the result.
Perhaps the most effective section to use with students is the opening, which captures the dual consciousness of many children of immigrants: they may move into the larger American society, but they are also forever marked by their hermetic, mono-ethnic upbringing and its strong reflection of life in “the old country.” After a decade of living elsewhere, the author still cannot feel he truly belongs anywhere but Brownsville:
Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.
This experience of still belonging to a world of poverty and provinciality is hardly uplifting, however compelling it might be:
Actually I did not go very far; it was enough that I could leave Brownsville. . . . It is always the old women in their shapeless housedresses and ritual wigs I see first; they give Brownville back to me. . . . I sense again the old foreboding that all my life would be like this. ‘Urime Yidin. Alfred, what do you want of us poor Jews?’
The early hopelessness burns at my face like a fog the minute I get off the subway. I can smell it in the air. . . . Everything seems so small here now, old, mashed-in, more rundown even than I remember it, but with a heartbreaking familiarity at each door that makes me wonder if I can take in anything new, so strongly do I feel in Brownsville that I am walking in my sleep.
There are many other sections, most of them self-contained, in A Walker in the City that might also be used with students, like the section in which the young Alfred tries to reason out how the stereotypes of Jews as canny, calculating business types got created when all the Jews he knows are the opposite:
It puzzled me greatly when I came to read in books that Jews are a shrewd people particularly given to commerce and banking, for all the Jews I knew had managed to be an exception to that rule. I grew up with the belief that the natural condition of a Jew was to be a propertyless worker like my painter father and dressmaker mother and dressmaker uncles and cousins in Brownsville—workers, kin to all the workers of the world, dependent entirely on the work of their hands. All happiness in our house was measured by the length of a job. (“From the Subway to the Synagogue”)
A Walker in the City is one of the strongest demonstrations that effects of growing up in an immigrant community continue on into the first American-born generation—and beyond. Also, see Christ in Concrete and Salt of the Earth, below, in this regard.
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Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Vintage Books, 1977 (and subsequent editions)
See the web site below for an excerpted reading of this memoir.
Kingston’s fierce and lyrical memoir was a revelation—here was a work which flew in the face of the stereotype of the quiet, compliant, passive Chinese-American woman, and it drew such strength from Chinese oral tradition: “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen. Even if she had to rage across all China, a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family” (chapter 2). [Incidentally, the last sentence calls to mind Michael Corleone’s most common defense of his actions.]
The book is also very funny, enlighteningly so, when it deals with the matter of cultural tradition and the miscommunication between foreign-born parents and their American-born children (chapter 1):
The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways—always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The Chinese I know hide their names: sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?
Kingston’s work gave renewed meaning to immigrant traditions brought from the native land—made those traditions fabulous and empowering, not just sustaining—even as it suggested how those traditions inevitably become hybrid in the new culture.
Kingston is also very good at portraying immigrant mistrust of the new society, and behavior that results in a distorted (often harmful) portrait of the immigrant community, as in this summary of the elders’ survival strategies (chapter 5):
Lie to Americans. Tell them you were born during the San Francisco earthquake. Tell them your birth certificate and your parents were burned up in the fire. Don’t report crimes; tell them we have no crimes and no poverty. Give a new name every time you get arrested; the ghosts [white people] won’t recognize you. Pay the new immigrants twenty-five cents an hour and say we have no unemployment. And, of course, tell them we’re against Communism. Ghosts have no memory anyway and poor eyesight. And the Han people won’t be pinned down.
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Gregory Orfalea, “The Chandelier,” in Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land, rev. ed., ed. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea Books, 2002. This story was originally published in TriQuarterly 61 (Fall 1984).
See the link below for an interview with Orfalea:
In the present, the main character, Mukhlis, an elderly Lebanese-born Arab-American, is living in California, where he “has made a small fortune in real estate.” However, the story suggests his success has come at the cost of sacrificing something of his ties with his immigrant community. “No one in California has ever heard him sing,” but in New York, as a young immigrant, Mukhlis was the singing voice of a community:
Sitting among immigrants from the First World War, Mukhlis was asked to fill the gaps in all the hearts over the strange Atlantic, which in Arabic is called “The Sea of Darkness,” Please, Mukhlis, sing the praise to the night! Sing of the moon and its white dress! Huddled on the stoops in Brooklyn, they asked for the song of the two lovers separated by a river. The one of the nine months of pregnancy, in which Mukhlis stuffed a pillow under his shirt. Sing, cousin Mukhlis, for we are tired of the dress factories, we are tired of the fish market. Sing the Old Land on the Mediterranean!
And sing he did. His voice was effortless and sweet.
Nowadays he has turned conservative and somewhat bitter: “No one wants to work, and so the devil has his pick of the young people.” And when anyone brings up the present sufferings of his much troubled native land, he refuses to discuss them: “His usual response to any mention of the latest atrocity in Lebanon is: ‘How is your dog?’ or ‘The apricots are too thick on the boughs this year. They need to be snapped off’.” Ironically, then, using privileges of age and wealth, he forces his great-nephew to listen to a very long story about his own trials and tribulations in Lebanon during World War I, beginning:
“I was the oldest of us [his siblings] in Lebanon when we lived in the mountain, but when the World War started I was still a young boy. They cut off Beirut harbor in 1914. You see, the Germans were allied with the Turks who had hold over all the Arab lands. And so the Germans became our masters for a time. When it was all we could do to steer clear of the Turks! The Allies blockaded Beirut harbor, and for four years there was no food to be had in Mount Lebanon.”
Orfalea’a story points to several traits that are developed by some long-term immigrants in America: they become dissociated from the native land, even become uninterested in such a “long ago” place; they fixate on their own memories, even to some extent tyrannize others with their vision of the “Old Land;” they reject present-day realities because they are so hard to square with memories. (A Lebanon suffering under Germans and Turks seems an impossibly lost time.)
Still, Orfalea’s fiction raises some very important questions:
Indirectly, this story also raises several other questions:
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Jessica Hagedorn, “Filipino Boogie” in Danger and Beauty. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
See the following link for an interview with Hagedorn:
The Filipina-American poet and memoirist Jessica Hagedorn writes the kind of free form, associational poetry—alternating very short and medium-length lines—that can inspire students to write poetry of their own (although her effects are more difficult than they look). Often, her theme is the distaste (or disgust?) experienced by immigrant children when emblems of the new culture are imposed on them, in many cases by relatives intent on “Americanizing” their children:
Under a ceiling-high Christmas tree
I pose in my Japanese kimono
My mother hands me
a Dale Evans cowgirl skirt
and baby cowgirl boots
Mommy and daddy split
No one else is home
I take some rusty scissors
and cut the skirt up in little pieces
(don’t give me no bullshit fringe,
Mommy and daddy split
No one else is home
I take my baby cowgirl boots
and flush them down the toilet
(don’t hand me no bullshit fringe,
This poetic fragment raises a number of questions. When does assimilation become accommodation? Is “tolerance” merely a one-way process—i.e., are immigrants “tolerated” only as long as they adopt, or try to adopt, American ways? Why are some immigrant parents so anxious for their children to shed their immigrant past? Has becoming “American” meant, to some significant degree, becoming “white.” Is such still the case? Is Americanization a process of homogenization? To what extent, for their psychic survival, must immigrants resist Americanization?
This poem can also be analyzed in terms of its techniques. The use of profanity and repetition certainly are obvious talking points, but there are subtler poetic devices at work too. For instance, note the key usage of the word “fringe.” Literally, it suggests the trimming on a cowgirl skirt, but symbolically it suggests the attempt to turn immigrants into “fringe” Americans, forever doomed to remain on the borders of a national cultural identity. Also note the use of tone—both angry and colloquial. Who exactly, we might ask, is the speaker angry at? How does this colloquial, slangy tone contrast with that of more conventional poetic diction (like “The Tropics in New York,” above)—what effect does this tone produce?
Content could also be discussed. For example, what emblematic “American” things might immigrant parents give their children nowadays? Is “Japanese kimono” (l.3) more authentic dress just because it is Asian, even though it is not specifically Philippine? Does the sheer act of consumption, buying the skirt and boots, have symbolic value in American culture?
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David Mura, “The Colors of Desire,” The Colors of Desire. New York, Anchor Books, 1995.
See the following the author’s personal web site: http://www.davidmura.com/index.htm
and this site for Mura’s personal music choices: http://www.bprlive.org/2008/01/10/shuffled-david-mura/
and for more about Mura: http://www.discovernikkei.org/wiki/index.php/David_Mura
The longish title poem of this collection is, like much of the poetry of David Mura, haunted by—and still angry about—the confinement of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. We first see his father, a bewildered adolescent, caught up in the American dilemma about race in the segregated South:
Who cannot but recall
how my father, as a teenager, clutched his weekend pass,
passed through the rifle towers and gates
of the Jerome, Arkansas, camp, and, in 1942,
stepped on a bus to find white riders
motioning, “Sit here, son,” and in the rows beyond,
half a dozen black faces, waving him back,
“Us colored folks got to stick together,”
How did he know where to sit?
The poet himself, as a boy of six, confronts the anti-immigrant biases that still linger in 1950s America, when a bigot, in Chicago, confronts his father, a confrontation that he, the boy, escapes by slipping into a dream-like state:
“Hey, you a Jap?
You from Tokyo? You a Jap? A Chink?”
I stop, I look up, I don’t know him,
my arm yanks forward, and suddenly,
the sidewalk’s rolling, buckling, like lava melting,
and I know my father will explode,
shouts, fists, I know his temper.
I’m in that dream where nothing happens—
The ignition grinds, the man’s face presses
the windshield, and father stares ahead,
fingers rigid on the wheel . . .
That evening, the inherent violence of the incident, as it often does, is translated into actual domestic violence, the boy beating his younger brother, his father thrashing him:
That night in my bedroom, moths,
like fingertips, peck the screen;
from the living room, the muffled t.v.
As I imagine Shane stepping into the dusty street,
in the next bed, my younger brother starts
to taunt—‘you can’t hurt me, you can’t hurt me’ . . .
Who can explain where this chant began?
Or why, when father throws the door open,
shouts stalking chaos erupted in his house,
he swoops on his son with the same swift motion
that the son, like an animal, like a scared and angry little boy,
fell on his brother, beating him in the dark?
Ultimately, Mura suggests that the violence of the internment led to repressed memory, something not spoken, but also something necessary for the younger generation (his) to imagine:
Where is 1944,
its snows sweeping down Heart Mountain,
to vanish on my mother’s black bobbing head,
as she scurries towards the cramped cracked barracks
where her mother’s throat coughs through the night,
and her father sits beside her on the bed?
The dim bulb flickers as my mother enters.
Her face is flushed, her cheeks cold. She
bows, unwraps her scarf, pours the steaming
kettle in the tea pot; offers her mother a sip.
And none of them knows she will never
talk of this moment, that, years later,
I will have to imagine it, again and again,
just as I have tried to imagine the lives
of all those who have entered these lines . . .
Mura’s poem raises a number of difficult, but important, questions:
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Edwidge Danticat. The Dew Breaker. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. See the following link for an interview with the author: http://www.wamu.org/programs/kn/04/04/06.php#2658
Danticat’s work is, to my mind, one of the finest collections of short fiction yet published in the United States in this new century. This set of interconnected stories—background characters in one story become central characters in another—are also arranged in reverse order chronologically, running from the present back to 1967 (although the final section of the last story takes us back to the present), an intriguing arrangement that suggests the complex origins of the situation we encounter in the first story, “The Book of the Dead.”
The narrator here is an aspiring sculpture, Ka, who is delivering a statue to the popular Haitian tv actress, Gabrielle Fonteneau, in Florida. The sale was arranged by a friend, perhaps in hope of moving Ka beyond the narrow confines of her career to date: “I’m really not an artist, not the way I’d like to be. I’m more of an obsessive wood-carver with a single subject thus far—my father.” Her father is with her, but is acting peculiarly, first disappearing, then taking the statue and dumping it in a lake: “’I don’t deserve my statue,’ my father says.” Suddenly, after all these years, the truth comes out: her father was never in prison, was never persecuted during the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti: “You see, Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey.” At first, Ka misunderstands, so he has to tell her straight out, “I was never in prison,” but instead worked as a lethal, cold assassin for the brutal regime. The “blunt, ropelike scar that runs. . . down to the corner of his mouth” is not a perpetual reminder of his suffering in prison, but rather for him a reminder of his murderous past: “This man who cut my face, I shot and killed him, like I killed many people.” Ka struggles to grasp this new reality, to reshape the image of this man she thought she had known for about a quarter-century:
And just so I will be absolutely certain of what I’d heard, I ask my father, “And those nightmares you were always having, what were they?”
“Of what I,” he says, “your father, did to others.”
This story reverses the typical immigrant tale of escaping oppression, poverty and hardship in the native land, if often only to encounter new forms of the same things in the United States. This immigrant, who can only survive in the Haitian-American community, is fleeing from the responsibility of his actions—and must live ever fearful of being exposed by one of his former victims or their relatives. (In a later story, we encounter a seamstress half-crazed by her conviction that he is living in an abandoned house down the block.) Even his wife, Anne, was only told of the full extent of his murderous past after Ka’s birth.
Maddeningly, for Ka, her very religious mother has over the years worked out a “miracle” scenario that transforms the murderer (whom we see at his violent worst, as “The Dew Breaker,” in the last story) into a “saved” soul. Worst yet, she implicates Ka in the act: “’You and me, we save him. When I meet him, it made him stop hurt the people. This is how I see it. He is a seed thrown in rock. You, me, we make him take root.’”
Needless to say, some immigrants come with shady, if not literally criminal, pasts. To what extent, this story asks, can America be a land of redemption? To what extent must all immigrants, for good or ill, construct a cover story about their emigrant past? Can the “Dew Breaker” be forgiven as merely the brutal enforcer of a brutal regime? If so, what is owed his victims? Is he really “saved”? How would you, the individual reader, feel if you were in Ka’s place? Would revenge, which another story hints might occur, be justified at this late date (nearly forty years later)? Altogether, the story asks difficult questions that arise when, suddenly, the immigrant is uncovered as victimizer, not victim.
(Incidentally, Danticat is a product of the New York City school system, having migrated from Haiti at twelve and graduated from Clara Barton High School. Remarkably, she writes, with great authority and power in English, chronologically her third language after French and Haitian Creole)
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III. ECONOMIC ISSUES
Upton Sinclair. The Jungle. Pub. 1905; there have been many subsequent editions. See the following web site for an online copy: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/140
Although the most famous of the “muckraking” novels of the turn of the twentieth century, Upton Sinclair’s expose of the horrors of the Chicago meat-packing industry, both for workers and consumers, is also useful for its dramatization of the variety of ways in which immigrants are economically exploited. Centering on the plight of a group of Lithuanian immigrants, the novel is straightforwardly written and provides many vivid descriptions, which can be readily excerpted, of the highly dangerous, filthy, underpaid labor immigrants must perform to survive. (See chapters 4, 9, 13 etc.) Indeed, the novel immediately led to a partial reform of the industry. The Jungle also has a number of set pieces depicting how immigrants easily fall prey to myriad schemes that deprive them of the little income they have—as in this description of a “new house” mortgage scheme (chapter 6):
In the first place as to the house they had bought, it was not new at all, as they had supposed; it was about fifteen years old, and there was nothing new upon it but the paint, which was so bad that it needed to be put on new every year or two. The house was one of a whole row that was built by the company that existed to make money by swindling poor people. The family had paid fifteen hundred dollars for it, and it had not cost the builders five hundred, when it was new—Grandmother Majauszkienne knew that because her son belonged to a political organization with a contractor who put up just such houses. They used the very flimsiest and cheapest materials; they built the houses a dozen at a time, and they cared about nothing at all except the outside shine. The family could take her word, for she had been through it all. . . . Cheap as the houses were they were sold with the idea that the people who had bought them would not be able to pay for them. When they failed—if it were only by a single month—they would lose the house and all that they had paid on it, and then the company would sell it over again.
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The Godfather, Part II, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (Paramount Pictures, 1974).
The story of the young Vito Corleone’s turn to crime is, of course, filled with all sorts of obvious economic issues. The scene (Disk 1, Chapter 15) where Vito and his wife are distraught over their inability to provide medical help for their ill son (Fredo) encapsulates the hard choice immigrant families must sometimes make to survive: criminality or calamity. Also, the seeming ease of Vito’s burgeoning criminal enterprises makes it clear why he would find such a life not only rewarding but also exciting and even pleasurable.
However, lurking behind the surface economic issues is an allied, perhaps more intriguing issue: power. Vito’s recourse to thievery and violence has been the means of raising his status, from that of struggling immigrant (just one of tens of thousands in the neighborhood) to that of a respected, sought-after and obeyed figure. At first, he is even something of a Robin Hood. For instance, see the sequence (Disk 1, chapter 15), which always provides a good but indicative laugh, where Vito, just beginning to get a reputation, importunes an (Italian) landlord not to evict a widow with a troublesome dog. At first, the landlord rebuffs him, insisting that he can get more money from a new tenant, but after asking around the neighborhood about Vito, the landlord returns a quivering, fumbling mass of reconciliation—he tells Vito she can stay, and he lowers her rent. Clearly, Vito has, to borrow the famous phrase from the first film in the series, implicitly made him “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
The issue of how money, power and criminality are intrinsically linked—a realization immigrants must come to—is one of the key themes of the film and its most scathing attack on “the American dream” of wealth and success. The scenes set in Havana just before the Cuban Revolution (Disk 1, Chapter 12), make the connections most explicit. When the overboss of organized crime in the U.S., Hyman Roth (a figure based on Meyer Lansky), boasts, “Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” he is conflating, with more than some justification, “legitimate” and criminal enterprises.
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Pietro di Donato. Christ in Concrete. 1939; rpt. New York: New American Library, 2004.
See the following link for an analysis of the novel:
Like Paul, the young hero of this novel, Pietro di Donato (1911-92) was forced by his father’s death to go to work as a bricklayer at age twelve. His searing portrait, written with an angry lyricism, is one of the most significant portraits of the immigrant working class in American literature—perhaps the most significant written by a member of that class.
In section I, chapter 2, we hear the father, Geremio, state a common parental immigrant theme—I do backbreaking, dangerous work precisely so my children can rise economically and socially in the world: “I tell you, son of Geremio shall never lay bricks! Paulie mine will study from books—he will be the great builder! This very moment I can see him . . . How proud he!” Notice that, tellingly, Geremio’s horizon is limited by his experience—his goal for Paul is that of “great builder,” whether as an architect or developer is not specified. Geremio thus sees his son as, in a word, a “boss,” though “great builder” implies a boss different from the kind of bosses who daily harass Geremio on the job, pushing him to work ever faster, ignoring proper safety procedures—all in the mad pursuit of profits in an age of furious building (the 1920s).
Soon after—and the novel suggests inevitably—Geremio is killed in the collapse of a half-completed building. His viscerally described death agonies are contrasted with the callous, dismissive comment of a police officer (a representative of established powers) from whom Paul has begged information about his father: “What?—oh yeah—the wop is under the wrappin’ paper out in the courtyard!” (II, 1)
There are a number of passages that vividly depict the Italian immigrant culture: 1) the opening of II, 6, a mixture of pieties and survival fears running through the confused mind of the widow, Annunziata; 2) the section in III, 4, where a gang of neighborhood toughs taunt and beat a Jewish boy (”Killdejewbastard! Killum!”), whom Paul will later befriend, thereby expanding his cultural horizons and vision of life; 3) and the long chapter (IV, 11) depicting an Italian immigrant wedding (which can be effectively contrasted with the immigrant wedding which opens The Jungle.
If you want to keep the focus on economic issues, vis-à-vis
immigration, you can look at the opening of V, 1, where the narrative skips ahead three years to chart the sudden collapse of the building boom:
The building boom lay back—and disappeared.
Builders stopped giving out plans to contractors, building owners lost their holdings, building-loan corporations liquidated, the active world of Job shrunk and overnight men were wandering the streets trowel on hip and lunch beneath arm in futile search of wall.
“—Yesterday it was not safe to walk the streets with mortar whitened shoes, and today, to lay bricks is like winning the lottery!”
“They say the American Bourse [stock market] has collapsed . . . “
The paesanos desperately put in a little work on the remaining buildings under construction, and whatever work was obtained they had to “kick back.”
Besides raising issues of the danger, exploitation and lack of job security (last hired, first fired) often experienced by immigrant workers, di Donato also captures the feeling of immigrant workers that they have betrayed their cultural heritage by adopting the false values of an ultra-capitalist America, combined with their longing to return to the native land. Here is the lament of Paul’s weary godfather, Nazone:
“Godson, I implore you; you must help me get work—work that I may go to my wife and children in Abruzzi. The career of a builder in this land is done. This land has become a soil that has contradicted itself, a country of Babel where Christians are beginning to wander about in hungry distress cursing each other in strange tongues, ripping their hearts, and possessing no longer even fingernails with which to scratch their desperation. Godson, you must find work for me—that I may return to the beautiful Italia—where I will be content to live and die with a mouthful of bread each day . . . near my family and that dear earth that gave me birth.
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Salt of the Earth (Independent Productions/International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Works, 1954—distributed by Alpha Video.)
See the following link for commentary about the film:
See the following link to view the film:
This is a unique film: produced by a union, made by a number of film makers and actors blacklisted in Hollywood, and mingling professional and amateur actors, the latter being persons who actually participated in the successful strike depicted in the film. It was, not surprisingly, banned by the U.S. government, although, given our national revisionist ways, selected for the National Film Registry in 1992.
The main thrust of the film, which can be admittedly didactic (a fact counterbalanced by its vivid location shooting and its careful anatomy of a strike action), is to urge the importance of worker solidarity, particularly across gender lines. (The women of the community successfully take up the picket line when the mine owners get an injunction against the miners picketing.) However, the film also raises important issue about immigration, how immigrant groups continue to be treated as outsiders, and are exploited thereby, even when they have been in the United States for generations. (The main character, Esperanza—her symbolic name means “hope”—tells us in voice-over that her grandfather raised cattle on this land before the Anglos took over, changing the town’s name from San Marco to Zinc Town.) The resulting “doubleness” is perhaps most evidently symbolized by the fact that Ramon, Esperanza’s husband, alternately refers to himself and the community as “Mexican” and “Mexican-American.”
To understand the setting of the movie in historical context, some facts about New Mexico are very helpful. First, some Spanish-speaking New Mexicans can trace their ancestry back to original settlement of the colony in the late sixteenth century. Second, by 1953 a large majority of them came from families that had lived in the state for at least several generations, making the bosses’ derisive cry of “go back where you came from” absurd. Third, until about 1800, New Mexico, long part of Mexico, had no cultural contact with the United States, and for the next half-century only the minimal trading contact provided by the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. But in 1848, as a result of the Mexican-American War, New Mexico suddenly became American property. Fourth, the whites who moved in afterwards fought to keep “territorial” status, because that meant governing officials would be appointed by Washington, not elected by the overwhelmingly Hispanic population. Thus, New Mexico only became a state in 1912. Fifth, it is today still the most Hispanic state in the nation percentage-wise.
We can see how this dynamic plays out economically in several sequences. One of the miners’ complaints (chapter 1) is that while Anglo miners always work in pairs, Mexican-American workers always work singly, a much more dangerous procedure. The same sequence also raises the “reasons” why the mining company cannot afford “equality” for all its workers. The film is full of the stereotypes—rather baldly expressed to be sure—that white bosses use to keep the Mexican-American workers in wage slavery: they are “like children in many ways” (Chapter 3). Any insistence on workers’ rights and privileges is countered with racism (that is “no way to talk to a white man”) and often accompanied by a beating (Chapter 3). It is also part of the owners’ strategy to pit one group against another—e.g., we learn that Anglo miners are kept in line by the assurance that at least they have “more” than Mexican-American workers (Chapter 4).
One issue lurks behind the whole film—namely, that the land being mined was obviously “stolen” from the original Mexican-American inhabitants, much in the way, centuries before, this same land was “stolen” from its Native American inhabitants, Pueblo Indians and Navajos. Here is a good place to discuss several very tricky issues connected with immigration. To what extent do immigrants have a “right” to land already occupied by someone else? Is it just that early-arriving immigrants get to claim large swatches of land as their property and so profit mightily from subsequent waves of immigration? What characterizes, legally and morally, land that is “stolen” from earlier inhabitants? Is land restitution—see the many cases of Native American claims—a viable social strategy?
Another point that the film makes is that the women’s demand for adequate sanitation—the company town has no plumbing—needs to be seen as a vital part of the union’s demands, for the psychic economy of the community goes well beyond issues that are strictly work-related. At first, many of the men, caught up in a sexist work/home dichotomy, scorn these women’s demands as unnecessary “add-ons,” but, like Ramon, most come to see the sanitation demands as a crucial part of the whole labor effort (Chapter 6).
Factual point: although the film is liberally scattered with dialogue in Spanish, most of the dialogue is in English, obviously so the film would reach a larger U.S. audience. We should understand, however, that most of the time the characters would be speaking Spanish, their first language even after a long family history in the United States—it is just this continued flowering of New Mexican Spanish that allows the Anglos to classify them as “Mexican” and, thus, non-white.
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Alamo Bay, dir. Louis Malle (Tri-Star Pictures, 1985—distributed by Columbia Pictures).
See the following link for a review of the movie:
Since this film is only presently available on videotape, I have, where appropriate, referred by timing to the approximate place in the film where a section begins.
This is a text that might profitably be read in two ways, first “with the grain” (following the interpretative narrative leads in the film), then “against the grain” (dissecting some of the economic issues that the film suppresses or elides.)
As an opening title tells us, “This story [of recent Vietnamese immigrants] is inspired by a series of incidents which took place on the Gulf Coast of Texas between 1979 and 1981.” We see this burgeoning immigrant community in conflict with the established redneck shrimp fishing community. The Vietnamese have secured a number of jobs in the town’s small processing plant, but when they try to do a share of the fishing, the locals are enraged—they scream at and curse the Vietnamese, sabotage their lines and eventually resort to organized violence, under the aegis of the Ku Klux Klan, to drive the Vietnamese away. Most eventually leave for Houston, and the several who stay on, supported by a white woman (Glory) who inherited the processing plant when her father died, get attacked and one is killed. It is only when Glory shoots the leader of the nativist violence (Shang) when he refuses to stop beating the main Vietnamese character (Dinh) that the madness narratively stops—a final title tells us that “today” 15,000 Vietnamese refugees work in the Gulf fishing industry.
The local community, for the most part, exhibits a terrifyingly vicious fear of outsiders, of any sort of “otherness” represented by foreigners. Early in the film (9:10) there is a long shot of a trailer—through the window we see a group of Vietnamese and hear them chanting what apparently is some sort of prayer in their native tongue—however, when we cut inside, we see the Vietnamese blessing themselves at the prayer’s conclusion, so they are obviously Christian. BUT they are Catholics, a fact which feeds into the long-standing anti-Catholicism of the white residents (complaints about the Vietnamese being the “Pope’s agents,” sent to “infiltrate” the community.) What might seem to work as a unifier of the two communities, Christianity, instead further estranges them.
Throughout the film, we see the Vietnamese, almost always sympathetically, trying to adjust to American ways—e.g., at 31:10 they are, comically, trying to learn to play baseball. We see them dutifully worshipping at mass, only to be interrupted by Shang, who hauls in several dozen buoys he has cut from their shrimp traps (thereby making them unrecoverable), telling them to “shove them up the Pope’s ass.” (52:00) And we feel a sense of dread when a flotilla of boats, with “White Power” signs and men in KKK robes, starts running down the Vietnamese boats and firing at their inhabitants (104:00). This is surely not the America of hope many Vietnamese thought they were fleeing to after America brought war to their native land. Needless to say, there are many issues of immigrant expectations vs. immigrant realities to discuss here.
The large majority in Alamo Bay’s white community are, of course, morally hopeless: ignorant, racist, violent, vicious and xenophobic. However, I would argue that the moral squalor of the white community obscures a very real economic issue in the narrative: how does any society adjust to the influx of immigrant workers whose labor undercuts the labor of the native population? We see the native fishermen as already living on the fringes, most of them housed in trailers themselves (or shabby houses), but the new immigrants are willing to sleep (10:45) fifteen to a trailer. And the film gives hints that Wally, the seemingly benign owner of the processing plant, has hired Vietnamese at low wages to increase his profit, relatively small as that is. (In passing, he mentions that he has taken them on because his supply of Mexican workers has dried up.) The film has several sequences—e.g., starting at 11:00—brilliantly detailing the work in the shrimp fishing industry. (Not surprisingly, Malle also made a number of documentary films.) These sequences make it clear why the immigrants can do the work—it is hard, demanding physical labor, but not labor that requires great skill. There are even hints that the Vietnamese fishermen are violating some unspoken fairness rules of the fishing industry—e.g., in running their boats up and scooping the shrimp from areas after native boats have scouted and staked them out. And throughout there is the difficult question of just who “owns” the produce of the Gulf waters. (For instance, one might imagine an alternate film in which the small fishermen were “heroes” struggling against a big fishing combine, headquartered elsewhere, using large trawlers to scoop the ground clean of shrimp within a few years.) All these economic issues, largely buried by the drive of the film’s narrative confrontations, are usefully available for reading the film “against the grain” and raising a number of issues, including the exploitation of immigrant labor (see also, The Jungle, above), and about how a society does, and should, adjust to immigrant labor.
If you want to balance Alamo Bay with a much more subjective (and sometimes humorous) view of the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience, I suggest Bich Minh Nguyen’s recent Stealing Buddha’s Dinner (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).See the following web site for an interview with the author: http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=715868
The memoir is interesting in particular because the author grew up so bi-culturally in the heartland of America—she was brought to the United States at the age of eight months, but was surrounded by an extended family most of whom grew to adulthood in Vietnam and immersed in a large Vietnamese-American community, for she was one of four thousand Vietnamese resettled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after the fall of Saigon. The concluding chapter, in which, as an adult, she returns to Vietnam, a country of which she has no direct memories, is particularly fine.
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Cristina García, Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
See the following link for the publisher’s reader’s guide and an interview with the author: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display
García’s novel is an interesting depiction of immigration because it divides its narrative among many points of view (making it perhaps too difficult for students to handle as a whole), some of whom remain in Cuba and some of whom come to the United States. The three central characters—Celia Del Pinto and her daughters, Lourdes and Felicia—represent three distinctly different reactions to the Cuban Revolution. Celia remains a lifelong, enthusiastic proponent of the Revolution and is particularly devoted to “El Líder” (Fidel Castro), partly because the Revolution largely erased the class prejudice she encountered as a young woman. Celia devotedly serves on the night coastal watch, gladly participates in cooperative farming even as she approaches seventy, and generally tries, with only limited success, to pass her Revolutionary enthusiasm on to her children and grandchildren. By contrast, Lourdes, who moves to the U.S., is vehemently anti-Castro, given to rants against the “murderous” regime when she encounters seeming public indifference to Castro’s “crimes.” Felicia, who remains in Cuba, is too busy coping with her growing madness (all the woman in the family, even the now stable Celia, have had bouts of madness) to even consider life from a political angle.
For our purposes, the sections dealing with Lourdes are the most useful, for she represents a certain type of immigrant, one who gets so caught up in the whirl of making a living in the new culture (she opens a bakery) that economic success becomes an all-consuming goal.
The next day, Lourdes works extraconscientiously, determined to prove to herself that her business acumen, at least, is intact. She sails back and forth behind the bakery counter, explaining the ingredients in her cakes and pies to her clients. “We use only real butter,” she says in her accented English. “Not margarine, like the place down the block.”
After her customers make their selections, Lourdes leans toward them. “Any special occasions coming up?” she whispers, as if she were selling hot watches from a raincoat. If they answer yes—and it’s always a musical yes to Lourdes’s ears—she launches into her advanced-order sales pitch.
By two o’clock. . . Lourdes has cash deposits on seven birthday cakes (including one peanut-butter and-banana-flavored layer cake topped with a marzipan Elvis). . . (“A Grove of Lemons”—“Lourdes Puente”)
Eventually, Lourdes’ business success gives her comical dreams grandeur that essentially reshape her memories of her native country and lead her to identify with the greedy dreams of American capitalism:
Lourdes felt a spiritual link to American moguls, to the immortality of men like Irénée du Pont, whose Varadero Beach mansion on the north coast of Cuba she had once visited. She envisioned a chain of Yankee Doodle Bakeries stretching across America to St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles, her apple pies and cupcakes on main streets and in suburban shopping malls everywhere.
Each store would bear her name, her legacy: LOURDES PUENTE, PROPRIETOR. (“A Matrix Light—1977”)
Lourdes also tends to find in American culture better versions of everything Cuban. If baseball was a Cuban passion—even Castro was scouted by American teams and to this day Cuban baseball is very high quality—American baseball is bigger, better, more compelling:
Years later, when her father was in New York, baseball became their obsession. During the Mets’ championship season , Lourdes and her father discussed each game like generals plotting a battle, assessing the merits of Tom Seaver, Ed Kranepool, and Jerry Koosman. . . . When Cleon Jones camped under the final fly ball against the Orioles, all hell broke loose. . . . Lourdes and her father laughed and embraced for a long, long time. (“A Grove of Lemons—Lourdes Puente”)
Lourdes represent an unusual, but not atypical, type of immigrant—one who, instead of longing for the native land in many ways (for instance, see Santiago’s memoir, above), rejects the land of origin outright. (Castro is, to a large extent, just an excuse for her stance.) However, in trying to “out-American” Americans, she imbibes some of the most suspect and negative values of American culture—and raises a daughter, Pilar, who forcibly rejects her mother’s hyper-American values (she provocatively paints a punk version of the Statue of Liberty for her mother’s bakery), while being able to develop no viable set of values of her own. Behind this characterization is a simple question with many complex answers: why do some immigrants act this way?
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