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Immigration Nation vs. Nativist Hate…

Back in the late 1940s (Yeah, I‘m that old…), I lived on Bathgate Avenue in the South Bronx, NYC, with my father’s Slovakian immigrant family.  (A ne, jsem byl příliš mladý zapamatovat mnohem Slovaki…)

The area was still a teeming ghetto, a lingual polyglot of ethnic groups and cultures.  From the rooftop of our tenement, I could look across a vast cityscape of pigeon coops and relatively safe play for kids.

As one descended the stairs or fire escape (or even on occasion the dumbwaiter), it was easy to figure out the ethnicity of any particular family from their foreign language screams or the smells of their cooking.

The buildings were older than electricity so there were no elevators, and the electrical wiring and lighting was run thru the existing conduits of the gas lines.  For the poor, TVs were a future commodity (and babysitter), so shouting, radio, and pianos were the ubiquitous sounds.

My world was comprised of Russians, Poles, and Slovakians; Italians, Greeks, and Irish; Jews and Gypsies; and even an Anglo here and there.  Puerto Ricans were coming on strong, but not yet in our neighborhood.  And Blacks.  But I had no idea where they lived.

Every morning the streets came alive with produce and fish carts of every description.  Horses were still used often enough to not excite any particular attention.  Ice trucks were an especial treat for kids clamoring after the open backs for a sliver or two in the summertime.  Refrigerators were a novelty; I still call them ice boxes.  A block or two up toward Crotona Park ran the El…an elevated train that screached its arrival as it snaked thru the tenements, literally inches from apartment windows.

That was my immigrant ghetto.  For us, the promise of freedom and opportunity at Ellis Island and the words of the Statue at Liberty Island (La Liberté éclairant le monde) were a living reality.

Her original name, Mother of Exiles, silently tells the priveleged, “Keep…your storied pomp,” and as the pedestal at her feet proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

From time to time, some children of those immigrants forget who they are…where they came from.  They live in such a vicarious illusion of wealth and individuality that our common history becomes a hateful story of personal profit, privilege and power.

New waves of immigrants are always forced thru the ghetto bottoms and fight their way to a measure of free air.

We should remember our heritage, take pride in our accomplishments, and reach a welcome and helpful hand to those who follow.

Dr. Publico

Category: Immigration
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