“Immigrants in Our Own Land”

Immigrants in Our Own Land

BY JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA

We are born with dreams in our hearts,

looking for better days ahead.

At the gates we are given new papers,

our old clothes are taken

and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.

We are given shots and doctors ask questions.

Then we gather in another room

where counselors orient us to the new land

we will now live in. We take tests.

Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,

good with our hands and proud of our work.

Others were good with their heads.

They used common sense like scholars

use glasses and books to reach the world.

But most of us didn’t finish high school.

The old men who have lived here stare at us,

from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.

We pass them as they stand around idle,

leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.

Our expectations are high: in the old world,

they talked about rehabilitation,

about being able to finish school,

and learning an extra good trade.

But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,

to work in fields for three cents an hour.

The administration says this is temporary

So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,

poor whites with poor whites,

chicanos and indians by themselves.

The administration says this is right,

no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,

like in the old neighborhoods we came from.

We came here to get away from false promises,

from dictators in our neighborhoods,

who wore blue suits and broke our doors down

when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,

swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.

But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.

The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,

our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.

Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.

My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,

my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.

Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:

from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.

Across the way Joey is sticking his hands

through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,

men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,

saying their sinks don’t work,

or somebody downstairs hollers angrily

about a toilet overflowing,

or that the heaters don’t work.

I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over

a little more soap to finish my laundry.

I look down and see new immigrants coming in,

mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,

new haircuts and brogan boots,

looking around, each with a dream in their heart,

thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.

But in the end, some will just sit around

talking about how good the old world was.

Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.

Some will die and others will go on living

without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.

Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,

but so very few make it out of here as human

as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now

as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,

as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,

so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.

In this poem, Baca relates the “immigrant experience,” one both personal and universal for many migrants. He describes how immigrants come to a new land “with dreams in our hearts/looking for better days ahead,” yet only end up struggling for survival, never even close to fulfilling these hopes. This poem indicates themes of cultural displacement and altered identities, which are constantly shifting as people move across borders. Baca describes how immigrants are forced into cultural groupings when they arrive in the new country: “blacks with blacks/poor whites with poor whites/chicanos and indians by themselves.” Yet, these identities are still not entirely the same as in the nations they left, for although people may transfer their cultures to new places, they never take root as before. Rather, immigrants are prevented from establishing any permanent roots in the new country, pushed to the side of the pre-existing community and labeled as “others.” Remnants of their homelands still persist through memories and traditions, yet these ties are usually not as strong, gradually crushed by new foreign influences. Their work is temporary and menial—“right away we are sent to work as dishwashers/to work in fields for three cents an hour.” Though they left their home countries to flee violence and corruption, they find little comfort in their new place of residence—“the doctors don’t care, our bodies decay/our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.” As Baca suggests, their lives are ultimately stripped of much meaning in this foreign land, for without rootedness in a community, these displaced persons lose identity as well as dignity. This raises questions of how identities are formed and how migration comes to reshape them. As generations of immigrants inhabit a new place, their identity may come to deteriorate in the face of struggle and oppression. As Baca writes, “some will die and others will go on living/without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.” Does cultural or national identity give one more of a sense of purpose in life? Do identities ultimately dissolve in temporary spaces, without roots in a particular community? What is the place of identity in the immigrant experience?

-Audrey

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