Daddy Was a Wetback, but He Got It Right

Ronald Blum

December 24, 1990|By Ronald Blum

RECENTLY, the Congress passed a liberalization of our immigration policy. Last June, 48 percent of Americans polled by the Roper Organization thought we were accepting too many immigrants. Time posed on its cover the question: ''What will the U.S. be like when whites are no longer a majority?''

The answer: maybe not so good; we may become educationally underprivileged, economically backward, and no longer a superpower. But I don't think Daddy would have agreed, because Daddy was a wetback.

On Christmas Eve last year Daddy died in Baltimore at 85. On another Christmas Eve, 65 years earlier, in 1924, Daddy was getting shaved in a barber shop in Havana, Cuba, when he heard the man in the other chair speaking German. Daddy had spent World War I in his home town of Biala-Podlaska, Poland, where he worked as a child laborer for the German occupation, earning a loaf of bread a day (''which I ate by the time I got home''). Still, the Germans had treated him correctly, so he spoke up and found that his neighbor was a cook on a German ship in the harbor.

Daddy told him that his brother was living in Chicago. Daddy was trying to go there himself, but could not get in, due to new restrictions on immigration. The sailor told him to come down to the ship that night with $25, and he would smuggle him into America.

So Daddy came to Chicago in the middle of winter, shivering in his tropical whites, and speaking only Yiddish, Polish, German and a little Spanish. In short, able to communicate with nearly half the population. Somehow, he managed to find my uncle Asher, and went into the millinery business with him, working hard, saving money and learning English. Later he went into trucking.

Daddy had always dreamed of coming to America. He read books about America, and thought about it, and longed for it. Once, when I expressed my admiration for his single-minded pursuit of his dream of freedom, Daddy's modest reply was that he left Poland for three reasons: ''Breakfast, lunch and dinner.'' Growing up in Poland he was hungry all the time. That hunger translated into a drive for material success coupled with a commitment to his children's education, not an unusual combination of the practical and the spiritual for many immigrants.

One summer day, in pursuit of spiritual enrichment, Daddy was at Riverview, Chicago's great old amusement park on the Northwest Side. Leaving the park, he raced to catch the streetcar and jumped onto the rear platform just as the car was pulling away. Daddy's momentum carried him right into the arms of a cute, petite, dark-haired young lady from the Ukraine named Mother, and he was so inspired by the encounter that he proposed to her soon after. Mother liked to say that ''he chased me, and I caught him.''

After World War II, the Immigration and Naturalization Service caught him, too. By then, Daddy already had begotten three Americans, whom he later sent to college, and had led a blameless life, so the INS told him he could stay. Sounds easy, but I remember being very anxious about it, fearing that Daddy might be deported, or worse.

Despite the INS' compassion and his great love for America, Daddy had an abiding distrust of authority. His mother died young, shoved under a train by a policeman, just pushing around a Jew, and to the very end he thought of himself as an orphan. His political philosophy was expressed very well in ''Fiddler On the Roof,'' when the rabbi said: ''May God bless and keep the tsar -- far from us.'' In his final decade Daddy became very skeptical of all authority and many social institutions, so he sort of surprised me one day.

One day, Daddy and I were walking down Devon Avenue on Chicago's North Side, a middle-class shopping street lined with small shops, small banks and small stores. It was always a treat to walk down Devon: There were signs and displays in Russian, Yiddish, Farsi, Urdu, Greek, Arab, Polish, Spanish, Korean and other tongues. There were even some in English. I was commenting that walking down Devon was like taking a world tour. That's when Daddy astonished me by saying: ''When we stop taking in immigrants, that's when we stop being great.''

Daddy did not believe that the ''browning'' of America invalidated the universality of the American Experience, or that non-Europeans were only good for cheap labor. Within living memory the same was said about Jews and Italians; in the 19th century they said it about the Irish, and in the 18th about practically everybody. If history teaches us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a sure thing.

The dead hand of oppression, bad governments and stifling institutions can keep even the most talented people poor and underdeveloped. But in a democracy, there is always hope of redemption. That's the American answer to the age-old debate whether man should be good in order to be happy, or happy in order to be good. Americans believe that people are basically good to begin with, and will do good, as long as they're not in fear or in pain. Let them achieve their material goals in their own way, within the law, and they will find their own spiritual meaning to enrich themselves an society. The browning of America is an opportunity, as well as a challenge.

Daddy was a wetback, but Daddy got it right: ''When we stop taking in immigrants, that's when we stop being great.'' And when we stop caring about each other, that's when we stop being America.

Mr. Blum is director of information services at Towson State University.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.