As you might imagine, visiting some 50 local communities scattered across all regions of California gave us an encompassing perspective on what California has become. While the essential stories most of us tell are there, that we share our love of family, of place and connection, and concerns about well being, and hopes and opportunities, California remains a special place for stories of arrival, of imagination, of re-invention. While we met many people with deep roots in the State and their own community, at times dating back multiple generations, so many of us as Californians arrived in this generation from somewhere else. They became what California is today. A place that strives for tolerance and acceptance, albeit imperfectly, a place where immigrants and refugees work to achieve something more than what their original communities, or homelands, could provide.
In 2016, at the Santa Monica Library, we met Marco Marin. Marco had the kind of story that many immigrants have, how to survive and build a life in spite of roadblocks to permanent resident status. His “Do I Belong to California” title asks an essential question. Is the place I have decided to sink roots really accepting of what I have to offer? Implicit is the potential the place will turn on them, not just in terms of immigration status, but in terms of racial intolerance, impassible barriers to economic advancement, language and education, housing circumstance, and on and on.
Marco’s ability to turn his journey from a liability to an asset, to use his personal struggle for success into a sense of responsibility to other immigrants as a community leader, is also common. And the stories of many of our participants carried the same narrative of transcending circumstance to gain power and leverage in their new home.
Wings by Palo Alto Librarian Anh Nguyen emphasizes the decisive moments in the journey itself and how those stories shape the immigrants experience in their new country. The post-war exodus from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia was usually traumatizing, but the way some people, and particularly some children, hold and resolve that trauma can be quite extraordinary. The look back on a specific part of the journey, in this case a night of perilous escape, becomes, as we have seen in many of the refugee narratives we have assisted over the years, an emblem of strength, courage and resilience – the basis for immigrant drive and commitment to maximizing their opportunities.
You can also feel in Anh’s story a sense of tenderness toward the child he once was, and the family members that supported that child. For those of us who have not risked all to start our lives over, we come to know the immigrant and refugee as someone that knows exactly the stakes of their presence in this, their new country. Many may have failed to make it out, or perished in the journey, and you sense from Anh’s narrative that profound sense of fortune, and responsibility, that comes with having simply survived.
The Steps to Social Change
What we also found were stories about where the journey had lead the first, second and third generation of immigrant into their sense of inclusion in American life. One is always impressed with how far, and how successfully, many immigrants travel the ladder of social mobility given all the challenges they face. We have had innumerable stories about the kinds of setbacks, and barriers, that immigrants or their family members had to overcome.
But some stories, like Suzie Abajian’s Of Politics and Persistence reminds us that the sense of inclusion takes more than waiting for an invitation. Many times folks considered outsiders have to break down the fear of otherness and traditional protocols of power to get a place at the table. Suzie’s story is told again and again in California as women, and many women from immigrant communities and families, step up to public service and providing a new face for the “establishment” in city after city, town after town.