Immigrant Songs

(Originally published on MOLI 7/9/8)

One day, a few years ago, my husband and I attended an Argentinean rock concert in Miami’s Bayfront Park with a friend of ours from Buenos Aires. We had a bird’s eye view of the pit in front of the stage that separates the band from the audience, an area populated mostly by burly security guards, photographers, and the occasional VIP. When one man walked in front of the stage, he immediately began shaking the many hands stretched out to him from the packed crowd. Everyone seemed to know, or want to know, this guy. Bud and I didn’t recognize him, but then we were new to this world of rock en espanol. “Who is he? Some celebrity?” we asked our friend, let’s call him Alfredo.

Alfredo shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe, immigration?”

The movement of the people around the world may have replaced abortion as the hot-button issue of our time. Immigration combines two of the U.S.’s deepest worries: the economy and “homeland security.” It’s a hornet’s nest of difficult questions that politicians wade into only with great reluctance, knowing no matter what they say they’re going to wind up stung. Meanwhile, xenophobia is symbolic to many people from other nations of everything that’s wrong with Americans: hubris, ignorance, fear. (Not that Americans have a corner on xenophobia: Just ask the Africans in Paris, or the Asian proletarian diaspora doing the globe’s dirty work.)

hattie gossett plugs directly into the slipstreams of this debate in the immigrant suite: hey xenophobe! who you calling a foreigner?, her recent collection of poems from Seven Stories Press. gossett, a New York-based poet of page and stage, writes mostly in the voice of the confused, disappointed, and angry immigrant. There aren’t a lot of refugees from other countries’ war, oppression, or poverty delighting in the American dream in these stanzas. Recent newspaper stories back up gossett’s bodega-level reports: More and more people have not found the embrace of Lady Liberty to be all it’s cooked up to be, and have been returning home to their countries. The Miami Herald even profiled some Cubans who have gone back to their communist homeland – dios mio!

gossett, who often performs her poems with a band and calls herself sister no blues, writes deceptively simple, repetitive lines. But she’s a mistress of rhythm, building patterns and crescendos that load each word with centrifugal force. She has a fine ear for the many accents around her: Puerto Rican, Dominican, black American, African, Indian, etc. She’s all about stirring the melting pot. In the poem “what do you like? how do you cook it?” she lists different ethnic foods over a calypso beat, ending with the observation and question, “we all eat rice & beans/ why can’t we get along?”

Don’t mistake that Rodney King-ish quote for naivete. Sarcasm has long been gossett’s weapon of mass destruction, and she often dons people’s points of view in order to expose their shortsightedness. “have we got a job for you!” proclaims the recruiter in the title of one poem: “doctor at home scrubs the hospital floor here.” She also doesn’t buy some immigrants’ own packed-in isms: In “in my country is no like this,” the narrator brags, “nobody cares what color you are/ each group stays with his own/ we don’t have to live next door to them.”

Here in Miami, I know a lot of first-generation Americans who, after decades, still can’t figure out our health care system (or lack of one); who have found their new land to be as cruel as it can be rich; who have gone back home. I also know those, like Alfredo, who have gone to great lengths to be here and have the kind of life they couldn’t have in their native destroyed economies. Or at least that was the story a couple months ago. Because Alfredo works construction, which means round these parts, he hasn’t worked in weeks.

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