Wisdom of the Ages

Patsy, our travel agent, says we have a black cloud over us when it comes to DFW and American Airlines, but it only happens when S. is with me.  This time the mechanical bug bit our aircraft, and we had to wait for another.  It was only a two hour delay which didn’t actually matter much to us as we planned to overnight in Miami, but the one hundred or so other fellow travelers who were making connections in Miami got the shaft.

We finally landed and after the world’s longest runway taxi we disembarked only to be confronted with the world’s longest terminal walk.  It was a least six miles I promise you.  Unfortunately, it took half the walk schlepping one hundred fifty pounds of luggage to overcome my stinginess and spend the five dollars for a luggage cart.  And yes, I was getting plenty of advice from the distaff side.

We arrived in a sweat at the Miami International Airport Hotel.  Here’s where the wisdom comes in:  Never, and I mean never, stay at a hotel with airport in its name.  This maxim is on a par with:

1. Never drink good whiskey in a bar with ferns hanging in it.

2. Never eat in a diner with “mom” or “mother” in the name.

3. Never expect good food in a restaurant with a salad bar.

I almost added, “avoid all restaurants that have a name starting with “The top of…”.  Except I did have some pretty good chow at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco many years ago.  Last night we ate at The Port at the Top of the Miami Airport International Hotel” which constitutes at least a double, if not, triple whammy in my Wisdom of the Ages list.

Killing time, I stopped by several airport book stores looking for a book on learning Spanish.  I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for at least sixty years to little effect, but I thought a little brush up before Havana might be useful.  After having no luck at four bookshops spread out over two terminals, I gave up and bought a book designed to teach English to Spanish speakers.  Don’t ask me why.  In a fit of frustration and pique I asked a clerk in the last story why they didn’t have what I was looking for.  She replied, “well, I guess everyone here already speaks Spanish”.  And they do.  Nine hundred thousand of the one point eight million Cubans in America live in Miami and environs.  Of the remaining nine hundred thousand, a goodly number hail from other Hispanic countries and even the gringos who live here probably have absorbed some Spanish by osmosis.  And, of course, they all speak Spanish in Cuba.

This morning the Miami Herald had a story on the front page about a young girl who was the valedictorian of her high school class, wanted to be a neurosurgeon, had been accepted by two ivy league schools and was rewarded with a deportation notice from our government.  Evidently her parents had brought her to the US on a tourist visa at age four and never went back to Columbia.  Rather than duck the problem, she applied for an exception to the immigration court and was turned down, then because she had come to the notice of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) they gave her a deportation notice for her troubles.  Now all of Miami, (at least the thinking ones) are up in arms and signing petitions to support her.  Of the twelve million or so so called illegals in this country, it is credibly estimated that about six million came here legally on tourist or work visas and when their legal period ended, just blended in with society.  It’s not right but it happens.  If you built a fence forty feet high with razor wire on top guarded by remote controlled machine gun nests every forty yards, we still would not stop the flow of illegals.  Food for thought…all nineteen of the 9-11 perpetrators came into the country with visas, legally.  Six of them overstayed their visas, but the rest were still here legally.  So much for a border fence securing our borders.

It may be that we are long overdue for real immigration reform, and, in the mean time, for chriss sakes, lets demand that congress pass a version of the Dream Act that will not punish children who should be, and could be assets to our society.

BTW, I’m writing this while waiting out yet another delay of two to three hours on our never ending journey to Havana.

In Diversity There is Strength

I’ve been uncomfortable ever since rhetoric started flying over the current immigration issue.  My discomfort is caused in part because, for the most part, it is a discussion about exclusion.  Who gets in and who doesn’t, and what do you do with the ones that are in, but shouldn’t be.  It’s intellectually trite to admit that we’re immigrants all, but it’s a fact.  The only differences are when did we or our ancestors come and what was our cultural flavor when we got here.

A history of immigration is a bifurcated story.  On the one hand, we have the story of the rejects, downtrodden and oppressed of other countries prospering under the mantle of democratic processes and “equality for all” in America. On the other, we have the racially exclusionary laws of the 19th century enacted to stem the tide of the “yellow peril” and other “immigrant threats”.  Today’s debate is as much a reflection of our fears as it is of our aspirations.  We need a flow of immigrants, and some of us even want it, but much of the fight is about where  it comes from and what if “they’re not like us”.  Part of my problem is that it’s hard for me to believe that radio commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh who are leading the anti-immigrant charge have much real insight into the needs of our own economy, never mind our moral standing in the world, or of how their anti-immigrant rhetoric affects the tone of the discourse.  I always imagine them sitting in their studio easy chairs with a microphone in their mouth and a white sheet draped over their head.

I’ve heard all the economic stats, pro and con, and I must say that the American people are not likely to be persuaded either way by a scrum of factoids.  I think the pro immigration forces have the historical and moral high ground, but that’s not likely to carry the day either.  One way to think about it that should appeal to the masses is to consider what’s in our greatest self interest.  It goes like this.  It’s been generally agreed that we have about twelve million undocumented persons on our shores, and let’s assume for the moment that half of them are working in some capacity.  Most wire and are paid “off the books” of course.  My analysis would work even if you halve the number again.  We also know that unemployment in the US has been hovering around 4.5%.  This 4.5% constitutes what is most likely the “hard core unemployed” or maybe even unemployable.  In other words, pretty much every American citizen that wants a job, has a job.  It might not be the job they aspire to in their dreams, but they are at work.  So the question is, if we follow the Tom Tancredo recipe and round them all up and ship them south,  wha’ happens.  Well, think about it.  Six million jobs that need doing, that contribute to the growth of our economy, and no one to do them.  Yes, the sound you hear would be the proverbial “giant sucking sound” of the air going out of our economy.  Yet, Sean, Rush and the boys keep thumping the tub of locking down our borders and shipping all illegals home now…..this very minute.  And of course when confronted with the facts they throw up “gorilla dust” in the form of invoking “homeland security”.

As I’ve said previously, our immigration law is very complex and very, very outmoded.  The overriding principle is to give preference to family members of US citizens and to certain scarce skills.  This of course, flies in the face of the economic reality that unskilled workers, who are in the highest demand and where our own labor pool is is shortest, have the lowest immigration priority.  There is also a preference for religious workers, but I don’t know if muslim imams qualify here.  I suspect that one of the reasons that some in America cry foul and make a case that our current system embodies substantial racial, ethnic and religious prejudice is the history of US immigration law and policy.  Let me give you just one example.  In the period of 1870 to 1900 we had about 12,000,000 immigrants arrive on our shores.  Comparatively with a population of almost 300,000,000 we permit about 1,000, 000 immigrants annually.  Percentage wise a much smaller number than in the 19th century.  Then a substantial majority of immigrants were from Germany, Ireland, and England, but we also welcomed, in fact, sought immigrants from China.  They were needed of course to populate our burgeoning manufacturing base, fill service and low skilled agricultural  jobs not to mention building the transcontinental railway.  Even though the Chinese constituted only about 150,000 immigrants between 1850 and 1882 out of a much larger number from western Europe, an irrational fear of the “Yellow Peril” caused our congress in their wisdom to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which ended any Chinese immigration for a period of time.  It’s starting to sound a little familiar, isn’t it.  We needed low paid workers with minimal skills to populate our service economy, we let them in legally and illegally.  We needed low cost reliable labor to pick apples, and pick spinach, we let them in.  We need unskilled labor for less than desirable jobs in the kitchens of our restaurants, let ‘em in.

But from the dark side we hear, whoa……wait a minute.  They’re going to our schools, using our public hospitals, speaking a foreign language……not so fast there.  There’s way too many of them all ready.  Send them home.  Mount up the vigilantes.  Build a wall.  Send them to jail.  Let’s stop the “New Yellow Peril” whatever the real cost to our economy.  Hit the delete button on “send my your poor……”.  America for Americans.

Where will it all end? I dunno.  As Holden Caufield said, “if you spent your whole life, you could never erase all the f*** you’s off the walls”.  Similarly, I don’t think we’ll ever vote all the Tom Tancredos out of office, and some people will always tune in on Bill O’Reilly.  My hope is that enough of us will realize that the those guys standing around “day labor” corner waiting for a chance to earn forty or fifty bucks for a days hard work aren’t the problem and certainly aren’t our enemy.  America would not be quite so economically or culturally healthy without them.

Puerto Rico: In New York City

About once every three or four years I stumble in to The City (as in New York City) on a Sunday in advance of Monday meetings only to be greeted by an ominous warning from my driver, “I don’t know how we’re going to get to your hotel, the Puerto Ricans have taken over the city”.  Translated, that means the city will be packed with revelers of all stripes enjoying the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade…. up 5th Avenue from 46th to 86th.  This may not seem like such a big deal to you uninitiated, but let me assure you that several hundred thousand parade marchers and watchers, not to mention thousands of the city’s finest trying to control the crowds make for quite a melange of joyous traffic jams of epic proportion.  Just think, block off forty or so blocks of 5th Avenue for seven or eight hours with at least half of everyone on the west side wanting to cross to the east and vice versa and being able to do so only via police controlled corridors every ten or so blocks

This was not my first time at this particular party, but I’d not previously thought much about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans except how difficult it was to change planes in San Juan when flying to one of the rude beach crusted islands in the Carribean.  I knew that a lot of Puerto Ricans lived in New York and that the island had some kind of unusual official status with the US of A, the nature of which eluded me as well as most other well meaning Americans.

OK, be patient for the Cliff Notes version of Puerto Rican history.  I assure you this won’t take long. Puerto Rico is composed of one major island populated by some 4000 souls adjoined by four smaller satellite islands laying some 200 km south east of the US mainland.  The precursors to Puerto Rican civilization date to some time between 3000 and 2000 BC when the Otoroid culture along with the tribes of Arawak Indians arrived, presumably from South American.  These peoples got along quite happily for about 2500 years surviving on domesticated fruits and veggies and pretty much leaving every one else alone.  This seemed to work pretty well to the advantage of all until ol’ Chris Columbus stumbled across the island sometime in 1510 on his famous (or infamous) 2nd voyage.  Fortunately, he was accompanied by Ponce de Leon from whom we would later hear much on the mainland.  Poncho, as we call him, knew an opportunity when he saw one and declared for himself and the Crown of Spain, domain over all he could see and named the Island San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist for you Philistines) and named the port city Puerto Rico.  Yes, you may have noticed that they got it backwards. Even we  know that San Juan is the town and Puerto is the country, but no one seems to know how they got it backwards.

The Spaniards, as was their wont, pretty much pillaged the country, while probably engaging in a fair share of rape for the next 388 years until they ran afoul of Uncle Sam in the Spanish American War of 1898 wherein we pretty much whipped ass and made Teddy Roosevelt a big cheese for all time.  BTW, along with the other things that the Spanish brought with them were European diseases (including small pox and syphilis) against which the indigenous peoples had no defenses.  Good bye Orotoid culture.  All this resulted in us getting PR as a part of the Big Deal struck in Paris between our very macho diplomat negotiators and some pretty down at the mouth representatives of the King of Spain who wasn’t having a very good year.  As a footnote, we also got Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines for boot.  The Spanish had little to show for their 400 year rule of the Island, and Puerto Rico had even less, unless you give credit for a few rusty balustrades en fer and Catholicism which the Conquistadores happily left behind.

The US, not really being very experienced at colonialism, didn’t really know what to do with the country although we pretty quickly developed a fondness for the pretty women, rum toddies, and white sand beaches.  We muddled along for almost twenty years until some politico in Congress got the Wilson Jones Act passed in 1917 which made PR a territory of the US and granted a sort of quasi citizenship to it’s inhabitants.  Never happy to leave well enough alone,  in 1950 Congress designated PR as a commonwealth.  I’m sure the political scientists among you can tell us the difference between a territory and a commonwealth, but I can’t.  I do know that about then, the Ricenos started to immigrate to the US (mostly NYC it seems) in serious numbers.  And that pretty much brings us up to date except for the occasional plebiscite which tests PR’s appetite for statehood .

Now back to the parade.  I got to the St. Regis just before 4:00 pm by which time the parade had already been going on for 5 hours.  I deposited my luggage and repaired to a vantage point at the corner of 55th and 5th to watch the world go by.  In the next sixty minutes I saw a kaleidoscope of cultures on display in the parade marchers, hangers on and watchers.  Legions of semi-organized marching groups of young people with PR flags flying, painted faces, accompanied by ghetto blaster music that verged on painful to the ear.  Puerto Rican icons abounded and were cheered lustily as they passed.  Ricky Martin was the official King of the Parade and JayLo was it’s unofficial queen.  Beer companies, vacuum cleaner repair stores, patriotic organizations, youth groups, religious organizations, politicians, radio stations, bars and nightclubs were all represented by happy Ricenos riding their floats, cars, beer wagons, fire trucks and motorcycles.

The watchers were as diverse.  The young cop stationed next to me seemed to be enjoying himself as much as anyone, and while doing his bit of crowd control, he did so with a light touch, ignoring the minor infractions of the milling masses.  Several tuxedoed gents with bejeweled ladies passed through the 55th street corridor on their way to a function and seemed not to notice the incongruity of their dress.  The matrons all inserted fingers in ears to avoid the heavy decibels of latin hip hop.  A young pair of Japanese female tourists, held their hands over their mouths to hold in the happy cries of surprise at the unusual sights.  A middle eastern man held his small son on his shoulders for the view, and a small gaggle of eastern european men leered happily at the short skirts and revealing tops of the female paraders.

I spent several minutes observing a minuet of maneuver by two young blacks (here’s where cultural labeling gets dicey) who may have been african-american or more likely african-puerto rico-american.  I didn’t ask.  In any case, they were attired in the outfits of their cultural grouping.  NY Yankee baseball caps askew, non-discript loose fitting sleeveless shirts, shiney, very baggy jeans barely held in place by odd pieces of belting,  When I say baggy, I mean crotch dragging the ground baggy, but contrasted by multi-hued boxers pulled high to reveal their taste in foundation garments.  Their footwear was enormous sneakers with known trademarks, mostly unlaced.  All of this decorated with “bling” of suspicious value.  I watched the mating dance until the young ladies lost interest or saw a better deal coming up the street.  All the while being amazed by the ability of the young men to maintain their dignity while their pants were literally around their knees.

As the joyous parade of cultures passed by I thought of the increasingly acrimonious debate on immigration reform that’s now raging.   Not that there’s a direct correlation to New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade and immigration reform, because there isn’t,  But what it made me think of was the crazy quilt of cultures and colors of which America is composed.   Not always, but certainly today, that seems  a very good thing.  A very good thing that makes us not only different, but gives us the potential for greatness.  We ought not lose that part of our character.

On the way to the airport in casual conversation with my driver he mentioned that Sunday’s in Manhattan in the summer were always busy.  When I asked why, he said, “all the groups got their day and their parade, that’s what makes it America”.