Patricia M. Bissell
As early as I can remember, my grandmother said to me “Don’t talk with foreigners.” I said, “Grandmother, aren’t we all foreigners in this country?” There was no reply. As I grew up in a small town in western New York, I learned that people were identified as “others,”—Italian, German, or catholic, and people of other races were not even to be seen until I want to a music school in Buffalo as a young teenager. Because of my father’s job in a factory, my family moved to West Virginia when I was 16, and I experienced “alienation” and “separation.”
I had the experience of the immigrant—I was constantly thought of as different in my physical appearance and speech; I was an oddity. Later on, as a music student and professional, I met people from other countries and cultures, both as a student in Baltimore, New Haven, and a student in Paris for one year. I traveled around many countries in Europe, and I learned first hand about cultures and ways of life different from my own.
My experience in Paris as well as in the ’68 Olympics in Mexico taught me the anger that other peoples felt for my country’s participation in the Vietnam war; I had been too sheltered in a narrow musical world to become involved politically. My perspective on the world grew by leaps and bounds from these experiences, particularly from living in the Olympic village. From another perspective, I knew a little of how Richard Rodriguez felt after he achieved his degrees—his family was proud; yet such education caused a difference in the relation to his family as he described in “Hunger of Memory.” (1)
My special interest in participating in the immigration course was to have my students experience some of the music from the Caribbean region, as part of their awareness of black history, and the musical elements that have “immigrated” to us from Africa through this region. As I studied about the problems of immigration, my perspective changed from just teaching some music, to one of incorporating the problems of immigrants, which we all have faced in some degree in our lives, with that music.
I was very surprised at what I learned from taking this immigration course. I was shocked at the “talking from both sides of the mouth” which goes on. In the book “Shadowed Lives,”(2) one reads about the horrible conditions under which Mexican workers crossed the border, and lived, and the negative image portrayed by the media as people that are diseased, criminal, lazy, etc. The truth is that they just want to make income to survive and send home money to family members, since economic conditions are so difficult in their hometown. The employers consider them dependable and hard working, and depend upon their labor to maintain their agricultural businesses.
Another example of “two sides of the mouth” would be the requiring of documentation of Mexican workers, yet looking the other way if these documents are not honestly filled out, or saying that they are going to patrol the borders, but fail to come up with the funds necessary to do this. The legislators want to please the restrictionists, and at the same time the employers who need these workers. Thus, the Bracero program was initiated earlier this century, and some years ago, the guest worker provision, to allow temporary migrant workers into this country. Proposition 187 now in California is anti-family with no health or prenatal care, or aid for the elderly. Just what the employers have wanted all along; no benefits or insurances to pay out, just a low salary for these people!
It is important to see that immigrants are used as scapegoats in times of economic downturns. For example, California employed people related to the military, and when these jobs were gone, and a peace time economy was in place, immigrants were immediately the scapegoat, and people demanded measures such as Proposition 187.
The attitude of the government towards immigrants in the last century was also very surprising to me. For example, the reference to European immigrants in the nineteenth century as “cows” and valued only in terms of money, was what our economy needed! The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and Immigration Naturalization Act of 1924 resulted in biased admissions favoring northern and western Europeans. It is hard to believe that it wasn’t until 1965 the amendments were made to repeal the national origins quotas. The more recent immigration laws have made a standard for all countries, as well as reuniting family members first.(3)
I was shocked to discover how the media is misleading. There was an article in a newspaper about Green Valley, California, where some of the Mexicans had lived; it caused great dissension among the community and verbal attacks on the Mexican workers, and finally the health department closed it down. The media also exaggerated the problems of Cuban immigrants in recent times; they emphasized the criminal element in these people, which was not true. Only about 2% had committed what we consider crimes.
Clearly there seems to be a dual policy; one to give to citizens to quell their fears, and another to employers to satisfy their needs. The media seizes on minute, negative images, and without care uses immigrants to exploit their needs.
The misconceptions about immigrants need to be addressed. Restrictionists say immigration is bad for our country, in that we are being inundated, they take away jobs, use welfare, and will not learn English.
ÐThere is a ratio of 1 foreign born to 14 native born; 15% were foreign born from 1870-1920, and in 1990, 8.5%.(4)
Ð4 of 10 Mexican immigrants are undocumented, and only the higher classes get visas easily in Latin America.(5)
ÐProblems exist because of racism in this country; 70% of immigrants and refugees in recent years are from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Philippines, China, India, and Taiwan, in contrast to earlier immigrants predominantly from Europe.(6)
ÐMany Koreans in Los Angeles are self-employed, and create jobs for others; Mexicans pride themselves on their hard work and reliability, and do not desire we1fare.(7)
ÐFrom 1980 to 1990 people who said that they did not speak English well rose from only 5 to 6%, with a higher percentage in Los Angeles and New York; thousands of people are waiting to take English as a second language in California.(8) The pluralistic attitude favors retaining certain traits, and views them as a resource; knowing a second language has been shown to increase academic ability, and provide a sense of pride, and keep a connection with the country of origin. The bilingual program, mandated by the Supreme Court in 1974, helps disadvantaged children to prepare for English, and at the same time keeps their sense of identity and self-esteem, so needed in their adjustment to a new country. They can retain one foot in each country, so to speak.
By studying immigrants-what pushed them, was it voluntary or involuntary, what were the pains and risks, what were their experiences in the host country, both good and bad, and how did they feel or not feel incorporated in the new society, we are impelled to ask ourselves to question the motives behind laws dealing with immigration, to communicate more effectively with our immigrant neighbors, and to read articles with more critical evaluation.
By taking a pluralistic view of our society, we can respect the value of ethnicity for immigrants. We have to also realize that multiculturalism alone is not going to correct the problems of discrimination in our country; it is a beginning, but the more important goal is to educate our peers and students to correct the stereotypes of different peoples as portrayed in the media, as well as to inform them of the baseless fears surrounding the new immigrants.