An Immigrant Story — But Not Just Our Story

Below is an excerpt from Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future, by Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh, and Manuel Pastor. For more on the book, visit UncommonCommonGround.com.

This excerpt was written by Manuel Pastor

Uncommon Common Ground: Race and Americas FutureLike many sons of immigrants, my story began long before my birth. My dad came to the United States in the 1930s, a young man fleeing economic despair in Cuba.  His documentation was, shall we say, imperfect.  But World War II came and the fervor to fill the ranks of the army eventually presented him with a stark choice: be deported to the island or go fight in Europe.  He couldn’t decide and so asked my cousin Carlitos to flip a coin.  That coin traveled with him to the war; both returned safely.

My mom was born in Tampa, Florida, where her mother, an immigrant cigar-roller in a sweaty factory, had been swept off her feet by my grandfather, Joaquín, a sometime singer and sometime janitor.  They headed north for economic opportunity, and my mother grew up in Spanish Harlem.  The prosperity of the North did not pan out, and she eventually dropped out of her first year of high school to help support a struggling family.  This put her ahead of my father, who had completed only sixth grade in his homeland.  They met, they married, they never quite clawed their way to the middle class.  But they were hard-working, earnest, and curious about the way the world worked—and a generation later, their son is a professor one of the premier private universities in the country.

It is an immigrant story, the sort Americans often celebrate by pointing to individual initiative and drive.  But it is not just our story.  I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Southern California, our home purchase made possible by federally sponsored loans for veterans.  My father—who began his American work life as a busboy, a cook, and a janitor—moved from cleaning buildings to repairing air conditioners by virtue of a community college willing to take all comers, including those lacking strong English or the usual educational credentials.  Our family income soared from poor to working class because my father’s union negotiated well and occasionally struck to back up its demands.  With just two books in our house—one an autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr., entitled Yes I Can that I probably read more times than any other American—my passage to the university relied on strong public schools, affirmative action programs, and financial aid scholarships.  In my success, I stand not alone but in the shadow of my parents’ history and in debt to the social policies that helped all of our hard work pay off—and I have always felt an obligation to keep those opportunities alive.

Recognizing that you don’t just make it on your own has also driven me to multi-ethnic alliances and coalition-building.  This desire to bridge also stems from my own history as both an insider and an outsider.  I am Cuban American, but as low-income immigrants from an earlier era, my family never fit into the conservative, anti-Castro ethos of that community.  I am a survivor of the usual problems of discrimination and educational tracking, but I came of political age in the context of a highly nationalist Chicano movement that was sometimes wary of other Latinos.  I am an oft-published university professor, but my working-class sensibilities have caused me to pursue research and writing that reflects the stories of those who lack voice.

Never quite fitting in can be a source of discomfort, but it can also generate skills of translation and accommodation.  Building one America, after all, requires recognition of our new multicultural stew—a fact I used to remember every Thanksgiving when my family sat down for the traditional meal (at least for us) of roast turkey and arroz con frijoles negros.  It involves more than acceptance of the “other;” it includes the ability to negotiate one’s own contradictions, to truly listen to another person’s stories and values, to respect difference but speak for the common good.  I see this in the colleagues with whom I wrote this book; I strive for it in myself.

Like Angela and Stewart, my professional life has been devoted to social justice, sometimes through research and teaching, sometimes through public advocacy and organizing.  One view of why we do this has us doing good; the reality is that we know little else.  Living a life with purpose has its own rewards, of course, but beyond that is a simple truth: at the end of the day, I need to honor the struggles of my mother and father by working to ensure that some measure of fairness is afforded to all Americans.

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