Archive for Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Documenting new pilgrims

August 24, 2005


I have before me two haunting books of photography that I believe every American family should own. And these two hint at a third volume that does not exist. It doesn't, but it should. Our history is incomplete without it.

But first, let's look at the two we do have. The first is "Agustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920." If your children ever ask you what this country is made of, or who we Americans are, you should show them this amazing book.

Sherman was an amateur photographer who also happened to be a registry clerk on Ellis Island. He made portraits of American newcomers fresh off the boat. Page after page of this book is populated with the "huddled masses" who came here to be free: Chinese, German Jews, Irish, Finns, Russians, Italians, Turks, Romanians. You will meet your grandmothers and grandfathers here: serenely beautiful girls, stern old men, awestruck children, shepherds, Cossacks, holy men. Pilgrims and refugees, seeking shelter, seeking a future, making a nation. All of them ghosts now, yet their faces could greet you downtown on any morning.

The second book is as priceless as the first, even if it is focused strictly on Los Angeles. It, too, tells a story we all know something about, of the generations after Ellis Island, and more lost worlds and vanished lifestyles. It is Don Normark's deeply affecting (and affectionate) "Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story."

You know the details: A half-century ago, the barrio at Chavez Ravine - a picturesque, picaresque rural outpost in sight of downtown Los Angeles' spires - was bulldozed to make way, ultimately, for Dodger Stadium. The community that flourished there was swept away almost overnight by politics and concrete, its sons and daughters scattered.

Yes, they were mostly poor. And yes, they were mostly Mexicans, immigrants. But they were also Americans - war veterans, washer women, troubadours and curanderas, mothers and fathers, future cops and teachers, baseball-loving (soon to be Dodger-loving) children.

Normark, a stranger with a camera, managed to penetrate their society and took such relaxed, easygoing pictures of them that you can still hear the old Plymouths grinding up the dirt hills; you can hear the kids calling and the dogs barking. Years later, he hunted down those who remembered Chavez Ravine, and they told him the stories behind the photographs. As you read this testimony, you feel as if you're stepping into the pages of a Steinbeck novel.

In both books, history - real, raw, unadorned American history - shows its face and stands before us in all its touching human gravity.

But I haven't found that third book, the one that contains the portraits that tell the next chapter in the story, that archives the families, the faces, the costumes, the treasures of the latest wave, crossing at countless portals.

That book is the missing record of this hemisphere's great exodus - the south-to-north flood of humans seeking the same thing those east-to-west Ellis Island forebears sought.

I know, I know - they are illegal. They deserve what they get, and that doesn't include a history, photographs, documentation. I have heard the reasons so many times.

"They're lawbreakers!" (Well, it is a civil infraction, not a criminal act, more like going over the speed limit than something that requires vigilante action.) "They take away our jobs and cost us money!" (The Center for Immigration Studies says they pay $6.4 billion a year to Social Security; "illegals"' money may constitute more than 10 percent of the Social Security surplus.) "They stay in their barrios and don't speak English!" (Have you been to Chinatown? Have you been to Little Italy? Have you been to Greektown?) "They can't be educated!" (The Rand Corp. has said otherwise.)

We call them illegal aliens. But what if we called them refugees? Pilgrims? Huddled masses?

Whatever we call them, however we feel about them, they have arrived and yet we have so little record of it - mug shots maybe, news photographs. I am certain that, in decades to come, we will rue the fact that this astounding event has passed by, in so many ways, unwitnessed.

My desire for documentation is not about political correctness but historical accuracy. It is not about letting Mexico off the hook or about bleeding hearts throwing open our borders willy-nilly. It is about missing the exodus. Although it seems there is no end in sight, it will end. History will ask us why we kept no record.

Pick up "Ellis Island Portraits" and "Chavez Ravine, 1949." Look into those lives. What you'll see is that we are all pilgrims here.

There is no distance at all between the dreams and hopes captured in these books. There is no difference between the dreams and hopes that are still to be captured.

If you have a camera, head for the border before it's too late. I'll write the text. For free.

Luis Alberto Urrea is a journalist and novelist; his latest novel is "The Hummingbird's Daughter."


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