By Lila Quintero Weaver
I have long been riveted by immigration stories. These days, my focus has turned to immigration’s impact on Latino children. I was an immigrant child. With my family, I bade farewell to our relatives, native culture and language, and set off into the unknown. Nearly all immigration stories hold these elements in common, but I have a growing preference for reading about journeys that only faintly resemble mine. They expand my understanding of current immigration issues and make me feel more connected to the wider Latino community.
My family emigrated from Argentina in 1961. We landed in Alabama. Latinos were rare in the American South back then, and in our new home the prejudice we encountered was subtle—especially taking into account the intense racial bigotry that vented its full force on African Americans, and which I, for one, was horrified to witness.
Things have changed in the South lately—indeed, across America, as the immigration picture grows ever more complicated. New stories are bound to emerge from these troubled times. My eyes are peeled for them, mostly because of what I’ve seen in my backyard.
The shift in Alabama’s tolerance for outsiders came home to me one summer night in 2005, during a five-hour stretch in the emergency room. Earlier that evening, floaters sprang up in my field of vision. These are sometimes an early warning of retinal separation. The ER physician couldn’t tell me much. He instructed me to see a specialist the next day. Good news: no retinal tear.
Now for the bad news. During those long hours in the waiting room, I caught wind of heightened anti-Latino sentiment. Out of approximately 60 people seated in the waiting room, fifteen or so were Mexicans or Central Americans. Some spoke no English, and the ER was not prepared. When I overheard halting communication between one Spanish speaker and a flustered triage coordinator, I volunteered to interpret. Soon after that, other Latinos sought my help, including a young couple with a feverish baby. They had returned to the ER a second day in a row and after a long wait, still had not been attended. They feared they were being discriminated against. I checked with the receptionist and managed to resolve their concerns. So it went. My long wait turned into a flash education on the lives of recent immigrants.
As the evening wore on, I overheard white people sitting nearby making snide comments about the Latinos. Some even put on faces of disgust. My heart sank. Alabama had reached a tipping point, I realized. It was no longer the Alabama that my family encountered in 1961, curious about foreigners, but not threatened by us. And by us, I don’t mean that I perceive myself to be a target of revived bigotry. My complexion is too light to draw notice. And my English, correct and unaccented, slips past the radar of most bigots.
But never mind all that. Injustice against anyone offends me, and racial injustice boils my blood.
Alabama’s overall tolerance of brown-skinned people began to crumble in the years that followed my visit to the ER. A recent influx of Hispanic immigrants to the state—the Latino population almost doubled between 2000 and 2010—has stirred the ancient fires of bigotry. I started hearing misinformed grumblings about “illegals” milking public assistance. In the local newspaper, letters to the editor railed against Spanish signage. Recently, a candidate for governor ran on the promise to revert driver’s-license tests to English-only. Meanwhile, farmers, foresters, landscapers, roofers, and other business owners countered that Latino employees demonstrated superior work ethic. We want them here, they said.
Somehow bigotry won out, culminating in the 2011 passage of HB 56, the harshest anti-immigration law in the United States, modeled after legislation in Arizona. Immigrant communities, civil rights activists, and religious and economic sectors around the state raised an outcry before the bill was voted into law, but the legislative body had its mind made up. As a result, thousands of recent immigrants fled the state. Ultimately, federal courts diluted the law and Latinos with strong community ties and business connections returned.
My alarm over the plight of new immigrants took me on a circuitous route to Latino children’s literature, where I’ve discovered a strong body of immigration stories. As an immigrant, I’m finding familiar ground and fresh exposures. I’m most riveted by the contrasts, and few stories present sharper contrast to my family’s safe passage than the books I’ve been reading lately.
This January, I read La Línea, by Ann Jaramillo, and Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, an allegorical picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh. Both deal with the fictional experiences of undocumented immigrants. (Check back soon for corresponding book talks.) The power of these narratives has led me to Enrique’s Journey, a highly acclaimed 2006 nonfiction work by Sonia Nazario that follows the arduous journey of a Honduran teenager through similar territory. In 2013, an adaptation for young readers was released, and that’s the version I’ll discuss in an upcoming book talk.
Recently, The New York Times reported on the scientific connection between reading literary fiction and the development of “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” How does this transformative effect take place? Good literature narrows the gaps that exist between us and the “other.” When a character is well crafted, we don’t have to share everything in common with her to enter her point of view.
Empathy, or at least clearer understanding of the human issues involved, could make a night-to-day difference in our society’s attitude toward new immigrants. Last year, I was pleased to spot a bestselling immigration story, Esperanza Rising, on the official school-designated summer reading shelf of my local Barnes & Noble. I would love to see more immigration titles added to reading lists and classroom settings, especially those that humanize current-day migrants. In fact, if I had one additional wish regarding these books, it’s that parents would read them alongside their children. Call me a dreamer, but I believe a steady consumption of strong immigration stories could help us stem the tide of xenophobia and fortify America’s claim on the proud distinction, “a nation of immigrants.”
And now for some related immigrant stories, told through the power of music. A music video directed by Alex Rivera for Aloe Blacc’s hit song “Wake Me Up,” features actual Latino immigrants reenacting the heartbreak of separation and the joy of reunion. The singer is of Panamanian descent.
Read more in Colorlines, where you’ll find a link to a second Alex Rivera music video on immigrant life, “El Hielo,” sung by La Santa Cecilia.