Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan’

A Labor Day Salute to All Resident Workers

September 1, 2008

This September 1st, it is only fitting to laud the accomplishments of the unnoticed and disenfranchised of America’s workforce – the Immigrant.  In a nation that is still bent on building a wall and has popular public figures campaigning for mass deportation, immigrants still managed to excel in 33 of the spots on the American Olympic team. In a nation where immigrants legal and extralegal quake at the thought of ICE raids like that which detained more than 350 workers this past week in Laurel, Mississippi (New York Times), immigrants of undocumented parents (desparagingly referred to as “anchor babies” by American media) like Henry Cejudo worked tirelessly to upset the heavily favored Japanese free wrestler Tomohiro Matsunaga in the gold-medal match in Beijing (Navarrette, Ruben).  With hard workers like these thankless millions, Labor Day means a day without work for most of us.

This past week, the national spotlight was turned to the perilous job of the window-washers in New York City.  On Tuesday, August 28, two window-washers were narrowly rescued while a third plunged to his death in Manhattan.  49-year-old Robert Domaszowec was a Ukrainian immigrant who had received his dangerous calling from his father (New York Times).  Much of the City’s window-washers are first or second-generation immigrants who quietly risk their lives day in and day out to improve the view of millions.

Like so many immigrants, their lives are largely invisible to mainstream American culture.  Unless we read about a rare crime committed by an extralegal immigrant or watch an incendiary nativistic talk show on television, these workers who earn their Labor Day often work in underpaid jobs with scant hope for advancement.  When they are noticed, it is often with disdain, xenophobia, or worse.  This past week Tennessee changed its state law to allow pregnant inmates to be unchained and uncuffed during childbirth.  This came only after a Mexican immigrant, detained in Davidson County on the charge of “careless driving,” was left handcuffed to the bed for all but a few minutes of her labor.  The Sheriff went on record as saying this recently overturned policy was, “a little more than may have been necessary in every case” (New York Times.

On this Labor Day, it is vital we appreciate our nation’s success over the years and the people to whom we owe a deep thanks.  At the risk of sounding repetitive and Kennedy-esque, our nation truly is a land of immigrants, new and long-established, coming and going.  On Labor Day it is important to remember those who are not even allowed to join labor unions but still work 10-hour days in our factories and fields, houses and skyscrapers.  This Labor Day let us say a prayer for our nation, that it may not forget those things which make it strong (such as immigrants) and that it may cease those things which weaken it daily (such as the wars of the past 40 years).  If our nation would rise to its self-proclaimed status as world power, if we would acknowledge both the push and pull of immigrants coming to this country, if we would work to incorporate and integrate and empower every resident within our borders, then Labor Day could truly be a holiday celebrated by everyone in the United States instead of just those with papers.

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Satyagraha in Manhattan and the Americas

April 11, 2008

The MET is staging Satyagraha in New York City. Philip Glass‘s 1979 opera about Gandhi’s life and philosophy of “holding on to truth” is a spectacle which makes me wish I were in Manhattan for a matinee. Julian Crouch, one of the artistic directors of Improbable Theater Company of London, stated that the giant puppets of this opera were chosen because “…we wanted to use very humble materials in the making of the opera…We wanted similarly to take these materials, maybe associated with poverty, and see if we could do a kind of alchemy with that, turn them into something beautiful” (NYT). This opera shows Mohandis Gandhi meeting with his philosophical mentor Leo Tolstoy and with his inspired follower Martin Luther King, Jr. In the meantime, newspapers are transformed into puppets, wadded pages represent rocks, and other texts are molded to resemble Hindu goddesses in a transformation of the mundane into the sacred, the profane into the divine.

I wish the Improbable Theater Company could travel to Brownsville, Texas, bringing with it the ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience to a border region currently preparing to oppose an unjust border wall through its homes and backyards. If Satyagraha could be staged in Dean Porter Park, perhaps the poorest city in the United States would see that it does not need money or political power in order to stand for the Truth. The Truth is compelling, and when men and women refuse to resort to violence but instead seek reconciliation in the face of injustice, we have to believe that the spark of the divine will be ignited in our fellow Man when he is confronted with the morality of our plea. A border wall, above and beyond beyond environmentally unsound, politically backwards, and environmentally devastating, is morally reprehensible.

On April 1, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used the REAL ID Act to waive 39 laws in an effort to speed up the construction of the border wall. All 100 Senators voted for this act, a piece of legislation predominantly concerned with driver’s licenses but with a rider granting unprecedented powers to waive all laws in constructing border barriers. In traditional Jewish law, a law which was passed unanimously was thrown out – something must have been amiss. In Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha, he writes, ““It is a superstition and ungodly thing to believe that an act of a majority binds a minority…all reforms owe their origin to the initiation of minorities in opposition to majorities” (18). The overwhelming vote for the REAL ID Act must not dissuade us from speaking truth and campaigning for the overturning of these waivers.

Valley residents are not alone, however. The minority in opposition to a wall is growing, and we have the moral power of knowing we are right. Thank you, Rep. Thompson, for your courageous stand along with 14 other Congressman. We pray your Amicus Curiae brief will persuade the Supreme Court to take case with Homeland Security’s ability to waive unlimited legislation to expedite the Secure Fence Act of 2006. It is encouraging to know that the unanimous vote in the Senate is not the entire story.

It is also encouraging to note that the European Union is currently considering the introduction of a decade of nonviolence, a year after dissolving the last of its countries’ borders. It is heartening to know that the E.U. recognizes, “Gandhian non-violence to be the most appropriate means of ensuring that fundamental human rights are enjoyed, upheld, promoted and respected” (http://www.unpo.org/content/view/7980/83/). It is encouraging to know that the spirit of nonviolence was not killed along with Gandhi and King, that it survives even though the United States has already started clearing brush from its levees in South Texas, fully intending to build a border wall between itself and its neighbors to the South. Nonviolence, that soul-force which King preached and which is parading in New York’s MET right now, still walks the streets and marches on, despite the fact that the Secure Fence Act of 2006 still stands as a blight upon our nation, culture, and all immigrants, a symbol of division in a time when we need unity.

We, the people of the Valley, call for the prayers and support of all concerned citizens at this crucial time in American history. The people of the Valley are already fighting the legal battle and will continue to campaign for Justice through the courts. In addition, we are readying for civil disobedience, should it come to that. Groups such as Fellowship of Reconciliation and Christian Peacemakers, as well as individuals like the American Gandhi, have already expressed interest in training a group of concerned citizens in proper, positive civil disobedience.  We welcome any and all support in our efforts of reconciliation as opposed to division. We join with Christian thought in recognizing that we inevitably reap what we sow, and we seek to keep the United States from sowing a seed of dissension and division rather than working on communication and mutually beneficial relations with brothers and sisters of the world.

Central Park to Sabal Palms

April 8, 2008

Nailing down Homeland Security’s plans is like trying to spot the elusive ocelot. When asked whether the agency intends to build the Fence north of the sanctuary, its chief spokesman, Russ Knocke, said: “I can’t rule that out, but I cannot also definitely tell you that that will be the case.”

It is quotes like this which make Dan Barry’s New York Times article about Sabal Palms Audobon Sanctuary important in framing our national conflict over the Secure Fence Act. The wall has millions of detractors with very valid reasons, from my students whose heritage and extended family would be affronted by such a wall to outspoken advocates for the endangered species huddling in these last remaining stands of a lost ecosystem. The federal government and a few outspoken, if misinformed, syndicated talk-show hosts keep lauding the wall as an answer to everything from immigration to terrorism and drug smuggling. They do not let the facts get in the way, nor their own statements about the wall being a $50 billion deterrent rather than a panacea.

New York Central Park, 2006

The indefiniteness of the Secure Fence Act could be attributed to either indecision or misdirection, and since the United States government seems more determined than ever to build a wall, one must assume the latter. Last week, heavy equipment cleared brush from the levee in Brownsville’s Southmost community, presumably in anticipation of wall construction through this tight-knit community. Some residents hadn’t ever caught wind of a wall, perhaps because the proposed plans were 600+ pages in English and only 30 pages in Spanish. Other people we talked to in the Amigoland Mall community this week doubted that the wall would bisect their houses. They had heard that the plans for the wall circumvented their community; what they didn’t know was that this was only Plan B, and the government has still not specified which plan they will follow or how faithfully they will follow these plans. The only clarification they keep reiterating is this: it is coming, and it is coming fast.

Jimmy Paz, the director of Audobon’s Sabal Palms Sanctuary, is equally at home with noisy chachalacas and my students he also refers to as “Chachalacas” because their incessant teenage chit-chat sounds like the birds nesting in his refuge. At 62, he has walked these paths more than 50 years, observed Border Patrol and new immigrants come and go, seen some birds make a comeback and other species fade into shadows. He realizes the importance of the ground he stands upon, the grounds he invites my students to walk and clean sometimes. Paz, whose Spanish surname means “peace,” realizes the tranquility his stand of virgin Sabal Palm forest can offer city dwellers and native Brownsvillers. He understands that wildlife is one of the Rio Grande Valley’s greatest assets, with eco-tourism being the 3rd largest industry in Brownsville. It is with the full weight of this knowledge, then, that he says building a wall to cut of his wildlife sanctuary is akin to “…putting a fence around Central Park.”

Having lived in both Manhattan and Brownsville, I can recognize the collective pride both communities share for their parks. What the Brownsville sanctuary lacks in park benches and ice-skating and dog-walkers it more than makes up for in endangered species, migrating butterflies, and bird-watchers. Central Park is the pride of New York, and to see my students’ eyes light up as birders told them the distances they’d traveled to come for Brownsville’s beauty, it was clear that refuges like Sabal Palms are the pride of la frontera.

Dan Barry’s article in the New York Times is noteworthy most because it connects these two distant communities. If New Yorkers could understand the peaceful coexistence here on the border, they would most assuredly stand in opposition to a wall’s disruption. If the refugees with whom I waitered could see the harmony of new immigrants and old residents, Spanish-speakers and English-only citizens in the Valley, they would be outspoken against this symbol of division. If the NYPD could see the way the Border Patrol lends its watchtowers for hawk-sightings sometimes or the way Sabal Palms has sensors to monitor illegal activity, they would surely campaign for more of this cooperation and less rigid and costly barriers. If Times Square were made aware of Jimmy Paz and his birds in Brownsville, the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would seem the unconscionable, ill-planned, destructive and distracting suggestion that it truly is.

Sabal Palms Spanish Moss, November 2007