I was reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson last night after work. I saw the movie many years ago. I’ve seen it many times, in fact. I can now say I’ve finally read the book. I steered clear of the book for a long time because the subject matter is emotional for me. I cry when I watch the movie even though I know exactly what is going to happen. I felt the same would happen with the book. Putting it on the suggestion list for mine and Silly Sissy’s Book Club assured me that we would read it at some point.
I didn’t cry until the last page. Shocker. Melinda’s, the main character, internal dialogue actually kept me laughing.
What really hit me was the subject of the Immigration debate that happened in Social Studies class one day. Not the fact that Melinda was raped at a party before she ever stepped foot in High School. Not the myriad of cliques that continue in schools through the years.
Perhaps it hits home more poignantly for me because I am the daughter of an immigrant, first generation. Perhaps it was the way the debate began in the book and how it continued. Perhaps I am just tired of all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is bandied around in this world.
If you’ve never read Speak I’ll sum up the debate real quick. Mr. Neck, the Social Studies teacher feels his son lost out on a job opportunity to a “foreigner.” He then writes on the board that America should have closed its borders in 1900.
That didn’t sit well with me. At all.
My grandfather, Irenio Vergara, came to Hawai`i in 1946 from Nagbukel in the Ilocos Sur province of The Philippines. He left my grandmother, Vicenta, and my dad, to start a better life for his family. My dad did not know his own father for the first 10 years of his life. That’s how long it took for Grandpa to bring them over. It was a plantation life for them for a while.
My immigrant family worked their way out of poverty because America had not closed its borders. My father would pick up trash after school back in Nagbukel to make just a tiny bit of money so they could eat. My grandfather worked on a plantation for years. He retired as an insurance salesman. Dad went to college and flunked out in order to join AMERICA’S Navy during Vietnam. That’s how strongly he felt about serving the good ol’ U.S. of A. He went back to school and is a software engineer. How they got here didn’t matter. They contributed to their communities and eventually became naturalized citizens.
They wanted better lives for us, my dad’s brothers and sisters that were born in Hawai`i after my dad and grandmother came over, and me, my brother, sisters, and cousins. Dad was always pushing me to do better. No matter how good my grades were, he always said, “Why aren’t they straight A’s?” I didn’t get it back then. I just thought there was no pleasing him. I get it now. He just couldn’t say it in a way a teenager would understand. Grandma and Grandpa were always bragging about me to their friends when I’d go to visit them on Moloka`i for a long weekend here and there throughout college. I didn’t get that either. Mostly because I hate being put on display. It’s one of the reasons why Chaz and I eloped rather than having a wedding. I got it later on. It was like their rite of passage. Their way of saying, “Look where we were and look where we and our family is now.” Grandpa had a relentless drive to lecture me all through college about staying away from boys, finishing my degree and working hard. I didn’t quite stay away from boys, but I did finish my degree. Grandma and Grandpa surprised me and showed up for my graduation. I know I did them proud. I know Grandpa would be proud of me and my work ethic if he were still with us today. I got much of it from him.
If America closed its borders in 1900, where would I be today? Back in Nagbukel scraping together what I could just for nourishment? In California where my maternal grandparents finally settled down after Papa left the Marines? I certainly wouldn’t know most of the people I know today. Most of my friends in college were immigrants. Others were just in Hawai`i for school. Others were children or grandchildren of immigrants.
It’s easy for people with grudges and are not easy to please to think of immigrants as just entities without feelings. Immigrants have hopes and dreams for themselves and their families. That is why they are here. Legally or illegally. I get tired of the people who continue to blame immigrants for not getting a job. Especially since many of the immigrants I have worked with or seen take jobs most people feel are beneath them to take. Ever notice how people don’t get angry at the employer? Just a thought.
To continue to scapegoat immigrants is to continue to refuse to take responsibility for one’s own actions, or lack thereof. That’s my opinion. You can take it or leave it.