Book Review : Freshening Up the Immigrant Saga


New Americans: An Oral History by Al Santoli (Viking: $19.95, 392 pages)

One of the great elements of the American myth--and, at the same time, one of the great truths--is that we are a nation of immigrants: every family, with the exception of American Indians, came here from somewhere else. Al Santoli freshens up the immigrant saga in “New Americans,” a series of self-narrated profiles of 18 recent immigrants and refugees from around the world who are now struggling to make a new life in America.

“We are now experiencing the most awesome surge of immigrants and refugees in modern times,” explains Santoli, who estimates that about 600,000 legal immigrants (“and at least that number of illegal entrants”) arrive in America every year. “The newcomers, mostly Asians, Latins, Creoles, Africans, Muslems and Slavs, are not only changing the ethnic makeup of America, but also creating a dramatic impact in many communities.”


Masters Manhattan Vernacular

Santoli, a journalist of Italian descent who is married to a Vietnamese immigrant, set himself the task of measuring that impact by finding and interviewing these “new Americans.” The families profiled in his book are drawn from the remarkably diverse roster of recent immigrants from Afghanistan, the Philippines, Poland, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Ireland, Guatemala, South Korea, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Mexico, Italy, Laos, England, Haiti and Cuba. His choices include some fairly successful and well-assimilated people, but he does not leave out the immigrants who are still struggling and still suffering.

We meet Maniya (Honey) Barredo, for example, a Filipino immigrant who is today the prima ballerina of the Atlanta Ballet. Barredo is one immigrant who quickly mastered the distinctly American vernacular of Manhattan, where she studied at the American Ballet Center: “I let go of my insecurities and worked my tush off to earn a full scholarship at the school,” she says. “I’ve grown here as a whole person and have developed as an artist without anyone pushing me--except myself.”

We also meet the family of Trong Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who has helped to turn the blighted Uptown neighborhood of Chicago into a vibrant Little Saigon. Says Nguyen, who has mastered another aspect of the American idiom: “Uptown is called the Ellis Island of Chicago.” (His wife, Thanh, speaks in a more somber voice: “When we first came to Chicago, I cried a lot,” she explains. “In the factory where I worked . . . most were Mexicans, some legal, but also many illegal aliens. They acted like, as Vietnamese say, ‘Old ghosts bully new ghosts.’ ”)

Not everyone, of course, is quite so well-adjusted. Josef Patyna, a former Solidarity activist from Poland who now works in a non-union factory in Rhode Island, has discovered that America is not necessarily a kind or gentle place. When the Polish-Americans in the neighborhood did not offer to help his newly arrived family, he quickly learned the hard lessons of self-reliance in America: “At the time, our feelings were hurt,” he remarks. “But, looking back, my wife and I are very happy, because we helped ourselves. Everything we now have came from our own work.”

And, like many immigrants, he despairs of the isolation that afflicts American life: “We aren’t afraid about the next day or what will happen with the police,” he says. “But we have no close friends here.”

Indeed, these are men and women who live in the real world, and they are wholly unsentimental about the hard life of a new immigrant. A young mother from Haiti, for example, is caught in the familiar trap of welfare bureaucracy: “Here I don’t have anyone to watch my kids so I can look for a job. Even if I was working, most of the money I could earn would go to pay a baby sitter, and any small income would disqualify me for state help. And now, with the new immigration law, it is illegal for someone to hire me.”

Still, she prefers Miami’s Little Haiti to the grimmer life in Port-au-Prince: “Even though my life is uncertain,” she says, “I have food. I can say anything I want to say. There are no Macoutes or police who bother me.”

Many of these immigrants talk at length about the hardship and turmoil in their native lands. Mohammad Daud Nassery, a pediatrician who escaped from war-ravaged Afghanistan, describes the hothouse politics of his homeland--and the horrors of his escape across a blasted wartime landscape--in a kind of grim poetry. “Houses in ruins, mosques in ruins,” Nassery remembers. “Skeletons littered fields and the sides of trails. Bones of animals . . . bones of humans.”

Bittersweet Memories

Significantly, these immigrants are eager to unburden themselves of their bittersweet memories, but they have learned that their American neighbors are not very interested in recollections of the places left behind, or the agonies of oppressed people in faraway lands. “I think it makes my husband very happy to have the opportunity to talk with you,” Krystyna Patyna, wife of Solidarity activist Josef Patyna, tells Santoli. “For the first time in a long while, he has somebody who is interested in the subject of Solidarity.”

Santoli has allowed these “new Americans” to tell their own tales, and they offer an unvarnished glimpse of immigrant life in the ‘80s. (Among the rights that every American enjoys, of course, is the right to complain.) In that sense, too, the new immigrants are re-enacting the struggles of the generations who came before. The gritty truth-telling of “New Americans” only enhances its impact as a celebration of the enduring American dream.