Xenophobia: Not on the Menu!

The story goes like this:

My grandfather asked my grandmother on a date, and treated her to a 2 cent seltzer, and   bought himself the 5 cent size. They had met at a sweatshop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side after arriving in New York harbor as teenagers fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe.  Rose, my grandmother, always audacious, threw pins at my grandfather, Abraham, to catch his attention.  They spoke Yiddish and whatever money they had they earned working long hours.

Their union  produced three children, 11 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and to date, 11 great-great-grandchildren.

Their story- circa 1915-  isn’t unlike many refugees today. Whether legal or illegal, people see the United States as a land of hope. Emma Lazarus’ “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” speaks as strongly today as it did when first written in 1883.    

I went to the Newark Museum last week to watch “Welcome to Shelbyville”  an independent film about the impact of immigration in a small town in Tennessee.  (John, Sharon & me off-bike at Newark Museum)

The independent documentary wastes  no time depicting our nation’s inherent xenophobia and the subsequent prejudice it produces.  Where sixty years ago, blacks and whites couldn’t sit together at a lunch counter, now citizens- white, African-American, and Hispanic, are banding together against the town’s most recent wave of immigrants- Somali Muslims,  who have escaped a war-torn regime. We meet a young woman who is working at the Tyson factory, cleaning chickens on an assembly line. She’s on her feet the entire day, plucking hundreds of birds from dangerous machinery, and makes a minimal hourly wage. Yet she’s hopeful that she’ll be able to save and create a better life.  And despite violent attacks on her house and car and  verbal attacks telling her  to “go home,” she can’t return to Somalia.

The real hero of the film, due to air on local PBS stations this May, is Miss Luci, an ESL teacher of Hispanic descent, who teaches the immigrants English.  She organizes dinners involving residents from all cultures in efforts to dispel the suspicion and fear of the Somalis.   The film features a Mexican family-  a couple that had raised six children in the US. The father works on the assembly line at General Motors, and in 2008, registered to vote for the first time in his life.  The film shows the family watching the inauguration of President Obama on television. When the national anthem is played, they stand, tears running down their faces, and promise their young son a trip to Washington, DC.  

Like my grandparents, this family worked hard, learned English, and gave their children opportunities.

The rampant distrust of immigrants disturbs me. I certainly appreciate the variety of ethnic restaurants and foods available in most supermarkets.  Those against immigration can’t deny that immigrants are doing jobs many don’t want to do:  cleaning homes and offices, mowing lawns,  manicuring nails,washing dishes in restaurants, and making beds in hotels. Whether legal or illegal, they are seeking better lives for themselves and their families.  Let’s not shut the door.


About cyclingrandma

I was a journalist (Danbury News-Times, Ct), before becoming a teacher, and continue to write for professional journals. I have written several study guides for Penguin Books and write for Education Update, a newspaper based in New York City. (www.educationupdate.com). I’ve interviewed many authors, college presidents, and scientists. I wrote “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine's website, www.smithsonian.com. (April, 2009). Two essays have been published in book anthologies; one for Wisdom of Our Mothers, (Familia Books) and the other in “College Search and Parent Rescue: Essay for Parents by Parents of College-Going Students.” (St. Martin’s Press). I was a middle school Language Arts teacher for more than 10 years and have just completed a five year grant position under No Child Left Behind in Newark, NJ public schools. I have three children, two daughters-in law, and six grandchildren. I'm an avid cyclist, knitter, cook, and reader. I love theater, museums, and yoga.
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2 Responses to Xenophobia: Not on the Menu!

  1. While all policy issues are always complex, I remember being inspired and flabbergasted when I read one libertarian proposal to have completely open immigration. I think the line went: “Can you imagine having a billion people immigrating to the USA?”

    One of my daydreams of a nonviolent national response to someone like Hitler was a completely open immigration policy combined with a guaranteed income / basic needs to every US citizen. This would invite all refugees anywhere to come and join us, and hopefully undermine tyranny in the process. What if we really took those lines commemorating the Statue of Liberty seriously?


  2. Nathan says:

    I have no grievances with immigrants at the bottom of the economic ladder. It’s the PHD touting professors who deliver lectures in broken english after more than 40 years in the US that make me wish they’d get back on the boat.


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