Whether through natural cataclysm, pestilence or genocide, the chronicle of history is rife with human dislocation. The Old World offered its uprooted the daunting spectre of the unknown. The new still offers America.
At 18, Dan Nadler of Romania is quietly flourishing in the heady atmosphere of free speech and other discoveries in his government and civics classes at El Rancho High School in Santa Fe Springs, and sensing as well the subtle distance his education is creating between himself and his parents, who still feel the grim constraint of Iron Curtain memories.
Marcelo Filardi, a 25-year-old Brazilian musician, is amazed at how eagerly American pop musicians jump at the chance to make a buck and re-tool their talents to the latest commercial blueprint; he claims that comparable musicians in Brazil are disdainful of get-rich-quick motives--or at least their outward show.
They are two of a number of people interviewed by Calendar who have come to the United States within the past two years and therefore still live in the anxious interregnum between two worlds--the old, with its ancestral universe of landscape, family and friends and the restorative moods of place, and the hard and fast new, whose unfamiliarity is redeemed by the promise of the future.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 625,000 immigrants showed up at our borders in 1986--at least that's the number who registered themselves. Some came to make money or to get an education. Some got out the back door when a new dictator's police force came through the front with guns blazing. Some left dead-ended economies, some sifted out of refugee camps.
What many fail to anticipate in their hoped-for freedom is that America is a culture as well as a polity, and that it can often assault old country values. Few know to expect the deep loneliness of being set apart by language and customs, the confusing voracity of the American tempo, the sheer enervating grind of having to make a living, and the endless traffic of media imagery.
In addition to Dan Nadler and his parents and Marcelo Filardi, we spoke to a Vietnamese refugee family whose American deliverance came through a bottled message that had drifted across the Pacific Ocean for years; an Iranian family twice removed from the pleasurable and orderly customs of the past, first by the Ayatollah Khomeini, then by the struggle to make ends meet in the United States; and a Cuban emigre to whom nothing in American culture is seriously suspect except its (to him) naive complacency toward communism--after 18 years in jail as a political prisoner, he's just happy to be here.
How do they see our culture? Largely as a mirror of a prodigiously exuberant, outgoing, optimistic people, tinged with the portent of moral decay.
A couple of them are leery of the press--what was once a handmaiden of oppression is now impertinently, even dangerously free. All are more or less at sea in the language, whose unfamiliarity and elusiveness seals them off from the full-blown sense of having arrived, of taking part, of being here.
Almost all of them are concerned to one degree or another with the corrosive pressures the American Way puts on family life. They all come from cultures where the support systems of family are virtually sacrosanct. If family was hallowed then, it's all they have now. Shahin Mohajer was raised in Iran's tradition of sexual protectiveness toward women. Just what is she to make of her 6-year-old daughter's report that a strange boy came up to her at school and said "I love you. I want to kiss you."?
Francisco Alvedo lives with his mother and wife in a relatively small, single-story two bedroom, immaculately tended house on Clarkson Street in Bell, across the street from Pat's Market. Ceramic ballerinas and animals are poised in mid-flight on the coffee table and living room shelves, and clear plastic custom-crafted slipcovers seem fitted around every noticeable surface, including not only sofa and chairs but lampshades and even the VCR.
The extreme cleanliness of the place represents not only the normal middle-class abhorrence to dust and dirt--the ceramic virtually gleams--but, in effect, it highlights an enshrinement of domestic orderliness and comfort, for Alvedo at 52 is slowly re-piecing his life after 18 years spent in Cuban prisons.
Alvedo moves slowly and has a thick middle, which together give him the appearance of a man who has retired from a long and demanding career that has taken a toll on his energy. His slightly underslung jaw lends him a pensive air, as though his words are being held back at the last instant.
"Cuban culture?" he said. "Who thinks of movies when people are more worried about where they're going to get a shirt or a pair of pants? In Castro's Cuba, you are allowed one pair of shoes a year, one ounce of coffee a week and four pounds of sugar a month. Batista was a dictator, but at least you could live. When Castro came in, Cuban happiness stopped. He killed all the motivation and energy. If you saw a movie, it was openly to promote the ideology of the government.
"I was a clothing retailer in Havana. Two years after Castro came in, I was accused of conspiracy against the government. But I was never political. My ideology is spiritual. You can get picked up on the basis of gossip, or if they just don't like you. I was sent to Pino Island jail for 18 years, where I spent nights in a cell and days picking fruit and sweet potatoes and clearing the land for crops. While I was there, I saw the guards kill 15 people because they got tired and fell asleep. You were allowed a family visit every three months, a letter once a month, and three hours a month to enjoy the sun."
A tremulous Chihuahua and a silky off-white cocker spaniel watched attentively from behind a wooden gate in the kitchen, and when Alvedo's mother brought in a tray of Cuban coffee, the Chihuahua bounded up Alvedo's legs and belly and sniffed his face. "Ah Boo Boo," Alvedo said, chuckling and slowly lifting the dog down.
"I always had a good impression of America. Business people talk. And the movies, like 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Alamo'--so many movies. They gave me the impression of Americans as noble, hard-working. They don't hold grudges. Historically, the Cubans have always been on the side of America. In World War II, we fought in Germany on behalf of America. As a kid, I read about Roosevelt, Lincoln, the War of Independence. But that's my generation. Now it's different. The generation coming up has been convinced otherwise by Castro.
"After I was released from prison, I went home to Havana for a while, but I knew I needed to get out. They don't leave you in peace. I chose America because it's a free country. I'm impressed by its freedom of speech. You can buy what you want, live in any house you can afford." He looked at his feet. "You can buy shoes."
Alvedo is wary of the amount of violence he sees depicted on television. ("TV is sometimes immoral in what it shows; you don't see about that cocaine-dealing in Cuba. There are sexual movies a family shouldn't watch.") What makes him more uneasy, however, is what he considers an intrusive weight on the part of our free press.
"It worries me that there are many things put public that the government should be able to deal with first before people find out about them. The government should try and solve a problem like the Iran- contra question, and tell the people about it later. Is the Catholic church receiving money in Nicaragua? You don't know if it is or isn't, but once a question is raised, guilt is implied. No one knows when charges are true, or if people are innocent or guilty. In Russia, nobody knows anything about the KGB. Here, everybody knows everything. Americans have no idea how terrible it is to live under communism."
Alvedo's English-speaking skills are shaky enough to keep him close to home (he spoke through a translator), where he watches a great deal of television. "I like 'CHiPs.' To you it's a cop show maybe. To me, it makes me confident that there are good people alive dedicated to saving people. I watch 'General Hospital' and 'The Price Is Right.' I like to try and answer the questions on 'Family Feud.'
"All these things make you forget bad memories."