Books documenting the immigrant experience


Books documenting the immigrant experience
By Luis Torres, Correspondent
Posted: 06/19/2010 08:04:57 PM PDT
Updated: 06/20/2010 02:19:14 AM PDT

Today’s headlines are filled with back and forth arguments over Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, SB 1070. The law allows local law enforcement to question suspected illegal immigrants about their status and demand proof that they are either U.S. citizens or legal resident aliens. They risk being deported if they can’t provide such proof.

Civil rights groups have called the law pernicious and have launched a boycott of all things Arizonan. They claim the law invites unfair racial profiling.

Supporters insist the Arizona law does not encourage racial profiling and claim the state is taking necessary steps that the federal government has neglected to take to stem the tide of illegal immigration. It’s against this backdrop that two new books about the immigrant experience have just been published.

One deals with Mexican Americans and the other with the Salvadoran immigrant experience, and by extension, the experiences of recent arrivals from other Central American countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua.

“Hero Street USA” by Marc Wilson spotlights the remarkable story of a small town in Illinois that has the dubious distinction of being the home of a disproportionate number of its residents who died for their country in World War II and the Korean conflict – all of them Mexican Americans.

“Hope in Times of Darkness: A Salvadoran American Experience” by Randy Jurado Ertll is a slim and pithy
memoir by a Pasadena

resident who overcame the kinds of obstacles that are common to recent immigrants from Central America.

Both books chronicle the challenges facing new immigrants and both subtly document the contributions immigrants have made to this country, in spirit and in practice.

Marc Wilson writes, “In a nutshell, the story is this: In a 15-month period ending in April 1945, six men from this once unpaved street in Western Illinois were killed in action in World War II. Two more men from the same block were killed in action in the Korean War. That may be the most killed in war from any one block in the United States. But the story runs even deeper.”

The small town, within the shadow of the broad shoulders of Chicago, is Silvis. Wilson traces the historical, economic and political circumstances that contributed to the migration of Mexicans to Silvis and the Midwest during the early part of the 20th century. His admirable research, as personified by these heroic families, reveals the “push/pull” factors that were the catalyst for migration from Mexico.

The Mexican Revolution – which began in 1910 and continued for nearly 20 years – created chaos and dislocation in Mexico. The revolution was a major factor in pushing immigrants across the border.
Simultaneously, there was a desperate need for cheap labor in the United States, because many young American men were in Europe fighting in World War I. That created a magnet for immigrants. Many of the families that eventually settled in the Midwest responded to fliers distributed by U.S. companies, urging Mexicans to come to the United States for jobs on the railroads and in the meat packing houses in and around Chicago.

Free train tickets were distributed to young men eager to work. Tens of thousands of Mexicans came to the United States. Their labor was welcome. Their presence was not.

It was the sons of these early migrants who, born in the United States and thus U.S. citizens, signed up to fight for their country: the USA. They fought valiantly for their country. Many were awarded the Medal of

Honor winners than any other ethnic group. Many were awarded the precious medal posthumously.

Eventually the little street in Silvis (originally Second Street) was re-named “Hero Street USA” in honor of the Mexican Americans who died for their country.

The experiences of Salvadoran immigrants reveal how United States immigration policy and foreign policy are joined at the hip. Randy Jurado Ertll’s personal experiences exemplify that.

The United States government’s unbridled support for the despotic Salvadoran government during the civil war of the 1980s created exiles of thousands of innocent Salvadorans caught in the cross fire of violence. Yet, the U.S. government’s policy of support for that regime made it contradictory for the U.S. to readily grant political asylum to Salvadorans. A pernicious “Catch 22″ for many Salvadoran immigrants.

The author of “Hope in Times of Darkness” followed an arc typical of tens of thousands of Salvadoran Americans. There is a twist to his personal story, however. He was actually born in the United States. His mother had come here without documentation. When Randy was an infant, his mother was deported back to El Salvador. And that’s where he grew up. Eventually, his mother was able to return to the United States with Randy. He was 8 years old. Monumental personal challenges lay ahead.

In his gritty little memoir, Ertll chronicles the trajectory of his life in Los Angeles and Pasadena. Living first in South Los Angeles, he struggled to survive elementary school because he didn’t speak English. Eventually, a love of learning and a few caring teachers helped him turn away from the lure of drugs and gang violence that permeated his neighborhood.

Many of his friends weren’t so fortunate, ending up dead or in prison. Ertll writes: “Poor minorities went on being innocent victims of drive-bys, armed robberies, beatings and murder. Those who suffered the most were beaten by both the police and gang members. They were scared to report crimes because they feared they would be deported or accused of the crimes. Unable to speak English, they had no way to defend themselves.”

Ertll found ways to defend himself – first, on the streets and eventually, through education. He graduated from Occidental College and worked for Congresswoman (now U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. Then he worked for Pasadena (now LAUSD) Superintendent Ray Cortines and eventually became executive director of Pasadena’s nonprofit El Centro de Accion Social. He is now devoted to helping other immigrants overcome the obstacles in their way to becoming productive, contributing Americans.

Both the tales of the Mexican-American veterans documented by Marc Wilson and the trajectory of Randy Jurado Ertll’s life story are reminders of the complexities and subtleties of the immigrant experience in today’s America. It has become a cliche, but it remains true: this is genuinely a nation of immigrants.
Luis Torres is a veteran journalist living in Pasadena who is a contributor to these pages.
By Marc Wilson
University of Oklahoma Press, $20
By Randy Jurado Ertll
Hamilton Books (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group), $19

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