Monday, August 16, 2010

Loving thy neighbor as thy self

I keep reading shrill tirades over immigration. Anchor babies! Illegals! Birth tourism! Criminals! Them.

I've lived in Brooklyn since 1984. It's a vibrant place. Each neighborhood I've lived in has a different feel, but the one I live in now is full of immigrants. When I moved to New York there was a very small Mexican community. Sunset Park, where I live now, is one of the hubs of Mexican immigrants. The neighborhood was built for Scandinavian immigrants, and the decades have seen an ebb and flow of peoples. The Puerto Ricans of the 1970s are gradually being replaced by Dominicans, Mexicans, Central Americans and Chinese, as well as by random knots of white gentrifiers, which probably includes me.

I feel so lucky to be able to do as I did today and walk around the corner to the truck selling pupusas and sopes and huaraches and quesadillas with your choice of the most delicious salsa verde or salsa roja I have had in ages. You get to wash them down with agua fresca: I always go for the Jamaica (ironically called Sorrel in Jamaica), a slightly astringent tangy beverage a rich staining purple made from hibiscus flowers. Though the tamarindo and the orchata are delicious too; as are the sliced mangoes or cucumbers served up sprinkled with cayenne powder, salt and a squeeze of lime juice. I didn't think to ask to see the immigration papers of the women who made my food or the man who runs the operation.

The restaurant choice within a few block radius of my home is incredible: Ecuadorian, Cuban-Chinese, many Mexican places, Dominican, Salvadoran, even a stray Trinidadian roti house. The food at each place is terrific. One bodega has a Guatemalan lady making antojitos in the back that are wonderful. I don't usually ask for immigration papers at any of them.

While the cheap clothing shops and 99-cent shops on 5th Avenue up the hill from me aren't to my taste, they are always packed. Heck, 5th Avenue is always packed. The people in my neighborhood love to shop. That financial crisis closing boutiques in Park Slope and businesses of all kinds in Manhattan? Not here. I'm sure the jobs in these shops pay like crap, but they're staying open and the crowds of shoppers going up and down the Avenue all day long--mostly Mexicans with a large sprinkling of hijab-clad women, and many of them all with kids in tow or with baby carriages, seem to have income to spend. I don't see anybody at the doors to the shops and markets asking for papers as people enter.

It does help to speak some Spanish to shop in my neighborhood, and a couple Avenues over if you want to visit Brooklyn's Chinatown to shop or eat, you won't find much more than business transaction English. That Chinatown hosts the Hong Kong Supermarket, an actual mall-style supermarket with a truly amazing array of East- and Southeast-Asian groceries. The Chinese-language vans line up out front to carry shoppers in from other neighborhoods. I consider the language bits that help to live in this neighoborhood consciousness-expanding, not threatening.

With Catholic churches closing in cities across the country, the Hispanic Pentacostal churches in my neighborhoood are full. For that matter the giant Catholic Our Lady of Perpetual Help church has many repeated services all Sunday in several different chapels. And there's a Confucian temple over in Chinatown, and mosques nearby. There's a couple botanicas of course. And occasionally some Evangicals set up a loudspeaker on the corner that I could do without. There's a house full of Mormon missionaries and Jehovah's Witnesses at the subway stations. I don't think you have to show papers to worship with any of these folks.

So what I want to know, who is it who hates all these immigrants? The artwork above is from Prince Valiant ca. 1937, and shows, well, illegal Saxon immigrants attacking the poor Britons in the Dark Ages, who are defending themselves with pitch and fire. Well you know what? It's just not like that anymore.

I don't care who lives next to me, long as they're good neighbors. My life in New York is so much richer with all the exposure to people different than I am. It's so obvious we all have so much more in common than not.

I want immigrants to have legal papers so that they are protected from injustice, but I really don't care how anybody got here or how many sets of papers the government gives out. "Oh but they're breaking the law," people shout. And you? Have you never broken a law that was wrong, injust, or just unnecessary?

Anyone who has driven a speeding car, double-parked, smoked a joint, jaywalked, had certain kinds of sex in certain states before the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws, fiddled with their income tax, smuggled fireworks across a state line...all of the opinions of any of these people against so-called illegal immigration should be just completely discounted as nothing but bigotry.

The white America of Norman Rockwell has always been a lie, a myth. America is so much richer than that, and it's time to call out the foes of immigration for what they are. And it's also time to say that immigration reform that does not blast wide open the doors to legal opportunity for all good intentioned people is not reform at all, but something pretending to be.

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