WHAT HAS BECOME of the American Dream? In his new book, noted author Studs Terkel has recorded the continuing hopes and fears of a variety of Americans in troubled times. The following are excerpts from those interviews. Leonel I. Castillo
My father's father came from Mexico to Victoria, Texas, in 1880. He paid a toston, a half-dollar. That automatically made him a U.S. citizen. In the early years of the century, he was fighting for the right to bury Mexicans in the same grounds as Anglos. There was no place to bury Mexicans. He finally got a piece of land from some German Lutherans. It was deeded to our family and the Mexican community in perpetuity. My grandfather and his friends cleared the land for the first funerals. We've kept the records since 1898. We have many, many people buried there. --Leonel I. Castillo, former director, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
New immigrants are trying all over again to integrate themselves into the system. They have the same hunger. On any given day, there are about 3 million throughout the world who are applying to come to the United States and share the American Dream. Most of the undocumented here without papers, without legal permission, think they're gonna go back home in six months. Really few go back. Some old Italians are going back to pensionares, and some old Eastern Europeans are going back home. But, by and large, immigrants, old and new, stay. They don't feel they know anyone in the old village. Their children don't speak Polish or Italian or Greek. Their children are used to air conditioning, McDonald's. The Vietnamese boat people express it as well as anyone. They don't know if they're gonna land, if the boat's gonna sink. They don't know what's gonna happen to 'em, but they've a hunch they might make it to the United States as the "freedom place." There is the plain hard fact of hunger. In order to eat, a person will endure tremendous hardship. Mexican people who come here usually are not the most destitute. Someone who's too poor can't afford the trip. You've got to buy coyotes. A coyote is a smuggler of people. He's also called a pollero. Pollo is chicken. He's the one who guides chickens over the border.
Sometimes the whole family saves up and gives the bright young man or the bright young woman the family savings. It even goes in hock for a year or two. They pin all their hopes on this one kid, put him on a bus, let him go a thousand miles. He doesn't speak a word of English. He's only 17, 18 years old, but he's gonna save that family. A lot rides on that kid who's a busboy in some hotel.
We've had some as young as 11 who have come a thousand miles. You have this young kid, all his family savings, everything is on him. There are a lot of songs and stories about mother and child, the son leaving who may never return. We end up deporting him. Heart-rending. He's the bright kid in the family. The slow one might not make it, might get killed.
The one who's sickly can't make the trip. He couldn't walk through the desert. He's not gonna be too old, too young, too destitute, or too slow. tHe's the brightest and the best.
He's gonna be the first pioneer coming into an alien society, the United States. He works as a busboy all night long. They pay him minimum or less, and work him hard. He'll never complain. He might even thank his boss. He'll say as little as possible because he doesn't want anyone to know what his status is. He will often live in his apartment, except for the time he goes to work or to church or to a dance. He will stay in and watch TV. If he makes $100 a week, he will manage to send back $25. All over the country, if you go to a Western Union office on the weekend, you'll find a lot of people there sending money orders. In a Southwest office, like Dallas, Western Union will tell you 75 percent of their business is money orders to Mexico.
After the kid learns a bit, because he's healthy and energetic, he'll probably get another job as a busboy. He'll try to work his way up to be a waiter. He'll work incredible hours. He doesn't care about union scale, he doesn't care about conditions, about humiliations.
He's burning underneath with this energy and ambition. He outworks the U.S. busboys and eventually becomes the waiter. Where he can maneuver, he tries to become the owner and gives a lot of competition to the locals. Restaurant owners tell me, if they have a choice, they'll always hire foreign nationals first. They're so eager and grateful. There's a little greed here, too. (Laughs.) The pay 'em so little.
We've got horrible cases of exploitation. In San Diego and in Arizona, we discovered people who live in holes in the ground, live under trees, no sanitation, no housing, nothing. A lot of them live in chicken coops.
They suffer from coyotes, too, who exploit them and sometimes beat 'em. Coyotes advertise. If the immigrant arrives in San Diego, the word is very quick: where to go and who's looking. He'll even be approached. If he's got a lot of money, the coyote will manage to bring him from Tijuana all the way to Chicago and guarantee him a job. He'll get all the papers: Social Security, birth certificate, driver's license. The coyote reads the papers and finds which U.S. citizens have died and gets copies of all their vital statistics. In effect, the immigrant carries the identity of a dead person.
Often the employer says he doesn't know anything about it. He plays hands off. He makes his bucks hiring cheap labor. The coyote makes his off the workers.
Coyotes come from the border with these pickup trucks full of people. They may put 20 in a truck. They bring 'em in all sorts of bad weather, when they're less likely to be stopped. The y might be going 20, 28 hours, with one or two pit stops. They don't let the people out. There's no urinal, no bathroom. They sit or they stand there in this little cramped space for the whole trip.
A truck broke down outside Chicago. It was a snowstorm. The driver left. People were frostbitten, lost their toes. In Laredo, the truck was in an accident. Everybody ran off because the police were coming. The car caught fire. No one remembered the two fellows in the trunk. It was locked and no keys. Of course, they burned to death. The border patrol found 35 people dying in the deserts of Arizona. They were saved at the last minute and deported. I'll bet you a dollar every one of them, as soon as they are well enough, will try again.
At least a quarter of a million apprehensions were made last year. If we apprehend them at the border, we turn 'em around and ask them to depart voluntarily. They turn around and go back to Mexico. A few hours later, they try again. In El Paso, we deported one fellow six times in one day. There's a restaurant in Hollywood run by a fellow we deported 37 times. Weve deported some people more than a hundred times. They always want to come back. There's a job and there's desperation.
In World War Two, we recruited Mexicans to work here. As soon as the war ended and our young men came back, we deported them. In 1954, the deportation problem was so big that the general in charge of immigration ordered Operation Wetback. That one year, we had a million apprehensions. It was similar to what we did during the Depression. We rounded everybody up, put 'em on buses, and set them back to Mexico. Sometimes they were people who merely looked Mexican. The violations of civil liberties were terrible.
The only thing that helps me is remembering the history of this country. We've always managed, despite our worst, unbelievably nativist actions to rejuvenate ourselves, to bring in new people. Every new group comes in believing more firmly in the American Dream than the one that came a few years before. Every new group is scared of being in the welfare line or in the unemployment office. They go to night school, they learn about America. We'd be lost without them.
The old dream is still dreamt. The old neighborhood Ma-Pa stores are still around. They are not Italian or Jewish or Eastern European any more. Ma and Pa are now Korean, Vietnamese, Iraqi, Jordanian, Latin American. They live in the store. They work seven days a week. Their kids are doing well in school. They're making it. Sound familiar?
Near our office in Los Angeles is a little cafe with a sign: KOSHER BURRITOS. (Laughs.) A burrito is a Mexican tortilla with meat inside. Most of the customers are black. The owner is Korean. (Laughs.) The banker, I imagine, is WASP. (Laughs) This is what's happening in the United States today. It is not a melting pot, but in one way or another, there is a melting of cultures.