Jimmy Breslin's boiling melting pot

March 17, 2002|By Michael Olesker | By Michael Olesker,Sun Staff

The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez, by Jimmy Breslin. Crown Publishers. 198 pages. $22.

Jimmy Breslin's new book, The Short Sweet Life of Eduardo Gutierrez, reminds us that the journey to America is more than a Kodak moment at the Statue of Liberty. It begins in desperation and continues with each generation of new arrivals settling for the grubbiest of jobs, the shabbiest of living conditions, and the most precarious daily existence. This is the extended entrance test America gives to all who would reach for her promise.

The test can be a killer. Breslin takes us on two simultaneous journeys: to Queens, New York, from the slums of San Matias, Mexico, where parents realize "that while it was sad to have children go away, it still was not as painful as having them all at the dinner table with truncated futures."

And the journey of memory.

Eduardo Gutierrez's dream is the same as those dreamed by Eastern Europeans at the turn of the last century, who found America's doors open mainly because the country needed cheap labor. We salute them now because they built the country, but we forget the barriers they faced and the contempt they felt.

It never changes. By the second half of the last century, Breslin writes, "Into New York they came, these people of every shade, from African black to Mexican and Indian brown and Chinese yellowish tan, people with dark eyes and straight black hair. They changed the city forever, including strong, proud Queens, the place of cops and firemen, of the late Carroll O'Connor, who came from under the Jamaica Avenue el to become Archie Bunker. Suddenly the sidewalks were crowded with continents of children running through the gates of schools at the end of the day."

In America, we talk admiringly of such things mostly in retrospect, or on those public occasions when we take our idealism out for a little air and congratulate ourselves on the Melting Pot. But many of us wring our hands over these newcomers and mutter how the country will never again be the way it was.

Breslin makes the connection. Eduardo Gutierrez, born into poverty most Americans cannot imagine, came here to create a future but found a system -- economic and political -- designed to stagger the newcomer. Gutierrez's desire was the same as all who come here, differing only by geography and by the dreadfulness of the journey -- and, sometimes, by the law.

He was one of those who "gathered at 4 p.m., at the changing of the shifts of the American border guards, whose schedule they knew as if it were a town prayer. They had only to go over a weak wire fence with barbed wire at the top ... The whole pack would go up and over; it could be a couple of hundred, suddenly sprinting across the border line wherever you looked, and with speedy little strides cover 12 lanes to the center divider, a step over that, and another run for life and riches across 12 more lanes to the other side."

Sometimes, the journey leads to the full America. Not in Gutierrez's case, not for long. On Capitol Hill, in the places of power, the debates over border policies and immigration quotas numb the brain. Breslin's gift, as it has been through decades of newspaper columns and 14 books, is to relate the story as it is lived among the desperate. It tells of today's journey -- and reminds us of yesterday's.

Michael Olesker has been a Sun metro columnist for 26 years. His newest book, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, published by Hopkins Press, tells the story of the immigrant journey and assimilation across 20th century Baltimore.

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