Immigrants’ road has grown longer and rougher
Madison Avenue in Los Angeles doesn’t look anything like its New York counterpart.
Ours is a narrow side street in East Hollywood lined with old apartment buildings of stucco and brick. For generations, the poor and the newly arrived to L.A. have come to live there.
On a fall night in 1962 my mother and father landed on Madison Avenue on their first night in the U.S. after a long trip from Guatemala. Five months later, I was born.
Last week, I went back there with both my parents. My mother hadn’t been there since she was a 20-year-old, recently married to my father, a 21-year-old with a sixth-grade education, almost no English and a lot of ambition.
“This fence wasn’t here,” my father said as we stood outside a rusting steel barrier.
And the building was painted green then, my mother said, looking up at the khaki-colored walls. “Parrot green.”
The steel gates to my birthplace had a lock that appeared to have been broken years ago. Anyone can walk in uninvited. My parents, now both at or near 70, haven’t quite lost the boldness of their youth. Soon I found myself following them inside.
L.A.’s immigrant past was about to meet its immigrant present.
We discovered that the two-story building is still home to people of limited means, most of them Spanish-speakers. They live in crowded one-room apartments just like the one my parents brought me to from the hospital 48 years ago.
Nothing has changed. And everything has changed.
“This carpet was red before,” my mother said as we walked down a long and somewhat grim hallway with a brown rug.
“No, it’s the same carpet,” my father quipped. “Just dirtier.”
We had entered a kind of strange time warp. A few notes from a cumbia squeezed through a closed door. At the other end of the hallway, we saw a boy of about 2 pushing a wheeled toy.
“Hey, that’s you,” my mother said.
My mother found the boy’s mother and, being a natural conversationalist, asked the woman where she was from.
“From Guatemala,” the woman said.
“Really,” my mother answered. “So are we.”
The Guatemalan chapters of my family history are a tale with familiar melodramatic overtones: young love, unplanned pregnancy, a decision to embark on a new life far away.
“There was nothing for me in Guatemala,” my father told me. “I couldn’t get educated there .... If you had gotten sick, I’m not sure the hospitals would have helped you.”
My father drove a delivery truck in Guatemala City and had been saving his money. By the fall of 1962 he had just enough, along with references from his employer, to get a tourist visa to the U.S.
At the Guatemala City airport, my parents boarded a nonstop Pan Am flight to Los Angeles. Coach was overbooked, so they were bumped up to first class.
They arrived at a brand-new LAX terminal and took a bus to the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, and then a cab to Madison Avenue. Unannounced and in the middle of the night, they showed up at the apartment of a friend from my father’s hometown.
Just after dawn the next morning, my father took a walk around East Hollywood.
“I had come to paradise,” he said. “And I wanted to see what paradise looked like.”
My father got many good L.A. jobs in the years that followed, from busing tables to managing hotels. He even got a college education.
East Hollywood isn’t quite the same paradise today, as became clear when we finally reached the laundry room, site of a key event in my family’s history.
In 1963, my mother met Booker Wade there — he was the good Samaritan who drove her to the hospital when she went into labor. Wade, then a youthful veteran of the Memphis civil rights movement, was in L.A. seeking opportunities denied to him in the segregated South. He would go on to become a television executive.
Now, in that same laundry room, we met Carlos. Also a guatemalteco, he said he’d been in the U.S. 10 years. He works in an L.A. doughnut factory and has a son in Guatemala. My mother asked him if he’d seen his son since coming to the U.S.
“No,” he said. “Because if I leave here, I can’t come back.”
This is the melodrama of the immigrant present: family separation, the hard choices made by people without a legal right to be here. Back in the 1960s, my parents obtained permanent residency rather easily. I grew up traveling to Guatemala for Christmas.
“What’s your dream, Carlos?” my mother asked.
“To go back and be with my family over there,” he said.
After we said goodbye to Carlos, my father wandered over to a bank of electrical meters in the basement. He found the one for the apartment he and my mother had lived in: No. 27. A tag attached to the meter revealed the surnames of people who’ve lived in that unit over the years: Morales, Mariano, Bautista.
I thought about the waves of newcomers who had followed my parents into that apartment, each finding a little less opportunity.
These days, it’s hard enough for your average U.S. citizen to hold on to the American dream. The newly arrived immigrant is at the end of a long line of people scrambling to get ahead — and some want to pull him out of the line altogether.
After we left the building, my mother and father got into a debate on the street outside: about the Guatemala of today, and the obstacles faced by immigrants, and whether people were really better off leaving for the U.S.
“Now an undocumented immigrant can’t even drive,” my father said. “What would I have done in this country if I couldn’t drive?”
As we left Madison Avenue, I reflected on my family’s story. Like generations of new Americans before us, we arrived in a country hungry for our labor. But it’s clear to me now that when we landed was as critical to our success as all our hard work.
The U.S. isn’t quite the meritocracy we think it is. Now, as in the past, getting the timing right on your birth helps a lot.
Hector Tobar will be on leave beginning today, returning in spring 2012.
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