“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” —Elie Wiesel
At the center of the universe my one-year-old daughter is a target: Russian, Hungarian, Mexican, Jewish, and Catholic, she holds the history of both poverty and escape. She was born with legs that have the will to fly. Who knew she might actually have to use them?
Rebellious, angst-ridden, and cynical, America was at one point in time the Holden Caulfield of the world. Now it has grown up to be unrecognizable. That young America fearlessly expelled from private school abiding by a loathing of all things phony and false has now become an old, crotchety America with daddy issues. This new America has an itchy trigger finger and it’s aimed at my baby girl.
My husband is Mexican. He’s from the other side of that imaginary wall. His face portrays the Aztec Empire, the Spanish conquistadores, and the age-old American dream of immigration that is slowly becoming a new age nightmare. My features link to a rich Jewish history: the escape from slavery in Egypt, the escape from pogroms in Eastern Europe, the escape from Hitler in Nazi Germany. My husband and I ask ourselves how to educate our daughter about the history of her bloodline. Do we teach her to hide should someone come looking for the invisible numbers on her arm?
Now, as entry into this country is threatening to close off to so many of our friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, we wonder that our history is a one of of the quick getaway. Our daughter would not be here, we would not be here, had U.S. borders in another time and place been shut to us, had our opportunities been extinguished. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” As low-income parents, as New Yorkers, as children, and as human beings, my husband and I don’t know anyone who isn’t immediately affected by the choices our government, our leaders, and our policy makers are choosing to stand by.
I met my husband by the swinging door of a restaurant kitchen. We grew up in restaurants serving the wealthy, the middle class, the first dates, and the break ups. At night we would jump on our bikes and ride to our rented room on the border of Borough Park and Sunset Park. This bike ride was symbolic because it straddled our two worlds: Jewish and Mexican. Our relationship seemed to metaphorically jump fences.
New York City restaurants have been a home to my husband in particular since he arrived so many years ago. Before the World Trade Center fell, restaurants were a safe haven for immigrants. Restaurant owners could sponsor their workers and eventually get them green cards and/or citizenship. We were lucky this way. Now it feels as if everyone’s luck has run out.
Our cultural differences were trying at times. We had many arguments, especially in the early years, about whose way was the right way. What we never did was build a wall between those differences. We fought it out, sometimes yelling, sometimes crying, but all the time loving. They say that those who fight hard fuck hard. We were and still are passionate people. Our daughter is no exception.
My husband often hears people say that Mexicans have stolen American’s jobs. I often hear that the Jews are all rich, cheap, and have devil horns. What would we hear if we were Muslim, like the family who lives on the first floor of our building? What words will we urge our daughter to ignore? Will she be able to?
As news clips of children telling other children to “go back home” zoom across the screen I think, where is our home if not Brooklyn? I grew up here, my father grew up here, my brother grew up here, my daughter is growing up here, the Muslim children on in apartment 1A are growing up here. Here, in this town where Jackie Robinson broke color lines and hit baseballs farther than borders could ever reach. Here, where Coney Island’s lights shined so loud that immigrants passing by on their way to Ellis Island thought they were seeing a paradise.
Recently at a local Brooklyn pizza shop my family and I stood at the counter waiting for a cheese pie. There, in the pizzeria listening to the faint buzz of Super Bowl predictions on a tiny plasma screen above the soda fridge, catching a whiff of beef patties and garlic knots, we heard something loud, something refusing to be ignored. It was the irate frustration of a country. While my family waited for the steel oven doors to open and reveal our all-American pizza pie, and while other customers sat at the linoleum tables eating pepperoni slices and drinking cans of Coke, a small rumble was happening among the customers in the pizza shop. A small clamor could be heard. Those Coca Cola cans and the people around us drinking from them revealed a vastly different message than just the “America is beautiful, drink Coke” advertisements that could be seen flashing across the sports channel above our heads. There was a great contrast between the Brooklyn pizza shop customers and those all American images on the sports channel. The disappointed people eating their lonely slices and my impatient family waiting for our abandoned pie all at once and without warning became the center of the universe. There with all of our differences and striking similarities we became topics of race, religion, politics, education, and persecution.
What will we teach our daughter? Self defense? To turn the other cheek? To walk the other way? To fight back? To stay silent? Perhaps we will teach her to stand up and speak, to use her voice, to defend who she is and where she comes from—where we come from. At the center of the universe, where she becomes the target, we must teach her to dodge the bullets, to paint over the bull’s-eye, and to fight the grizzly bears—the real ones.