LOOKING AT AMERICA / través los ojos de jóvenes immigrantes


Originally published in Latina Lista at latinalista.com / text and photos by Claire O’Brien

Two very small girls waited for a 4th of July parade in a small Midwestern city a few years ago. The city’s economy is based upon a large, fluid workforce from throughout Central America – a majority of them Mexican – and an industry which has for decades been specifically recruiting workers who lack documentation. I can’t claim direct knowledge of current conditions, but I can report that in 2010, when I took these photos,  an unusally thuggish, even singular,  brand of racism permeated the culture of the city and surrounding region.

The two little girls stood like sentries, about halfway down the block from their family group, The expressions on those small faces immediately stunned me,  stopping  me in my tracks. Whatever they were focused on was most certainly not a parade. In fact, they were intently watching a couple of white families who were spread out on the wide sidewalk in front of them. The Anglos had essentially displaced the extended family of Latinos, a sure sign that the latter were recent arrivals: within six months or so, they would stand their ground.


The displacement had happened almost organically, without a word exchanged – and something very like it had probably already occured at least twice that day.

The  two girls hadn’t followed their family, although they had moved well back on the sidewalk, behind a large sign and were now standing about as close together as two people can stand. The adults glanced over at their children frequently, but did not summon them. Three or four passing children swooped around the  girls, bending to sweep up the wrapped candies that littered the ground.

The little girls maintained a gaze truly remarkable in both intensity and longevity…It seemed to me at that moment, as it does now,  that theirs were the eyes of generations of Latino people, US citizens or not, who have been watching America for two centuries. Their gaze reflected a dawning recognition of what they were not yet old enough to understand. It might very well have been an ancient memory, passed down to them from ancestors whose ghosts were likely to have been hanging about,  attracted by the prospect of a parade.




These people don’t behave themselves  like other people do

They haven’t learned their manners, and they let their kids be rude

They left their old Abuelo way back there in the street:

I hold my Abuelo’s hand,  and help him rest his feet.

Now look at el gigante boy – he’s yelling at his mother!

Hector gasps in shock at this ( He’s my middle brother.)

La Policia eat Papers here: they’re always wanting ours.
When my Papa has no more, they put him behind bars.
Maybe we could show them there are Papers at the store –
That way, when they’re hungry, they can go and get some more.
I used to pray we could go home; but now we need to stay.
Without us here, they’ll never learn the right way to behave!

9 thoughts on “LOOKING AT AMERICA / través los ojos de jóvenes immigrantes

  1. Jeff, thanks so much! Your perceptions are a gift to America, and I don’t say that lightly, or in the service of hyperbole. Your blog: it’s really something else, mi hermano!
    I want to thank you for your continued support, although my own circumstances seem to prevent me from supporting the bloggers such as yourself, Valerie, Angela Grant, Bert, Scott, and others who support me. Please know that you inspire me to keep going when the going seems too hard.
    See you soon, Jeff!


  2. I concur, your poem is beautiful. I liked what you shared about the girls…”Their gaze reflected a dawning recognition of what they were not yet old enough to understand.” In my own way, I can relate to growing up Vietnamese-American and it dawning on me that I was not like the other boys and girls, including in my own adoptive family. Your pictures truly are worth more than a thousands words, Claire!


  3. Oh, my goodness. I’m so unaccustomed to this kind of response (both you and Val, above) that I don’t know what to say. Just thank-you, thank-you, and bless you. I’m honored by your words, and shall not forget them.


    1. Thank you again, thank you so much!
      I feel the exact same way while I am reading your posts and replies, and all the comments here: I am so unaccustomed to this kindness, depth of humanity and compassion.
      It is a true blessing that I found your blog, and very much look forward to reading more.


  4. This post is breathtaking. Your poem and these pictures brought me to tears. You are an exceptional poet, writer and a wonderful person. It’s a great honour that you visited my blog. Thank you.


    1. Dear Valerie! My first inclination is to assure you that my entire extended family is sure to have responded to your last two sentences by rolling on the floor in fits of helpless laughter. (Well, the younger generation more likely just rolled its eyes).

      But upon reflection, what I really want to tell you about is the gift you give me from the other side of the world: in the midst of your long, well-examined, hard-earned and often surprising, brave, humorous journey – you speak out from a life that is nothing if not complete – and you unapologetically say the words that my own political, professional, and family culture don’t allow. They are words I stopped using, because they were met with silence.
      Yet, to put a name to pain and be connected by it is the way in which human
      beings hold one another up, endure, and triumph. You didn’t have to be a trampled newspaper reporter to know that…you’re not an activist, you don’t define yourself as a Leftist, I don’t think you’re a Socialist – my god, you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a revolutionary work! (:
      But you have more heart and spirit than half the American progressives on our
      northeastern seaboard, and you showed these liberal Yanks their A B C’s.

      Leave it to an old soldier!I

      I’m going to put this on your blog, too. It sort of belongs there more than here.


      1. Dear Claire. I marvel at the profundity and beauty and intelligence of the bloggers world when I read a reply like yours… Of course I understand the pain… I was the person who in Hong Kong discovered that there were only sixty places in a centre for handicapped children for half days. I calculated from the average of handicapped people of two and a half per cent in a population, this mean nearly 200,000 thousand such people in the HK population and wrote a full page story to shame the government into providing care for them … which sank like a stone!
        Yes, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin as revolutionary tract when I was eight years old, but since then I’ve campaigned for the rights of single mothers and their children, for whales, against Apartheid, against 245T… you name it… For this we were drummed out of our village after two years ostracism. We’ve had our phones tapped by the police when my husband was campaigning for eight years to get a man out of jail wrongly convicted of a double murder ( he was finally pardoned), and woken in the night to find a plain clothes policeman in our bedroom looking for something.
        I had all the wheels of my car tampered with so there was only one nut left on each wheel so I would have an accident – by a world-wide drug ring, who had put a price on my husband’s head because he was exposing and trying to smash them… I could go on… so no, I’m not a political anything,though I think I’ve been pretty pink in my time – but I care about all pain and injustice and suffering in the world… and you would know what a burden that can be when one isn’t feeling strong and peaceful…
        I do feel I know what you are going through Claire, and I think of you often. The only faint comfort I can give you, is that your stand and your goodness matter; that the dark is rising just because so much goodness and light is growing in the world,. And I do believe that we shall overcome. But we can never give up or stop hoping… and must never loving each other… even those who are still in darkness. Otherwise, we simply add to the negativity. With much love from the other side of the world, Valerie


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